“Gentrification is Modern Colonialism,” read the illuminated stencil above the corner of Chrystie and Grand Streets. That was but one message that traveled through the neighborhood last Saturday night.
These rather straightforward projections come courtesy of the Chinatown Art Brigade, which roams the namesake area armed with a light projector and a mantra of anti-gentrification.
We caught up with the Brigade’s founders – Betty Yu, Tomie Arai, and ManSee Kong – to learn more about the goals and inspirations.
Bowery Boogie: Describe your organization, its founding, and goals with the nighttime projections.
Betty Yu: In 2015, Tomie Arai, ManSee Kong and I formed Chinatown Art Brigade, a cultural collective committed to advancing social justice. It was in direct response to the rapid gentrification that we’ve been seeing in Chinatown. The 3 of us are artists, media makers and activists who have history and deep connections to Chinatown. We are working in close partnership with CAAAV and the Chinatown Tenants Union, a Chinatown-based community organization that organizes for tenant rights, against evictions and displacement of working class immigrant Chinese tenants. One of the major goals of our collective has been to help advance the community-led organizing efforts against gentrification. CAAAV is doing the on-the-ground organizing work and we feel that as a collective of artists, our role is to help amplify the stories and voices of those in the frontlines, most directly affected by displacement. More specifically one of our messages in our projections have been appealing to NY City Councilmember Margaret Chin to pass a community-created Chinatown Working Group rezoning plan that has provisions to protect affordable housing and curb future displacement. Currently this plan is being ignored by the DeBlasio administration despite the community’s outrcry for it to be passed.
We launched “Here to Stay,” a project that includes a series of large-scale outdoor mobile projections that addresses the themes of gentrification, displacement, community resistance and resilience in NYC’s Chinatown. Over the summer we held cultural production workshops with community members, artists and tenants. Through oral histories, storytelling circles, photography, placekeeping walking tours and mapping activities we co-created the images and content that would be projected onto buildings and public landmarks in Chinatown and the Lower East Side.
Tomie Arai: Forming alliances and collaborations with other progressive groups is also one of the goals for our project. The Illuminator, a political collective that has stage hundreds of projections in communities across the country, has been an important partner. Their technical assistance and their experience has been instrumental to the success of our Here to Stay project.
BB: What do you hope the response will be?
BY: We had our first projection last Saturday, September 24, and the response from local community members has been really positive. The content for the projections was produced in close collaboration with Chinatown tenants and community members. It was important that the content was bilingual and cultural accessible. Our intended audience for the projections was the local community and Chinatown residents. Gentrification and displacement is on the top of everyone’s mind across communities in New York City. As more than 100 galleries move into Chinatown, condos, hotels, bars and fancy restaurants open up all around Chinatown, and hundreds of long time low-income residents are rapidly getting pushed out – it can feel overwhelming and impossible to stop. But what we are hoping to do (even on a smaller scale) is project the stories of other Chinatown tenants who are fighting back and organizing with others – and we hope to reach others who are sick and tired of what’s happening and want to get involved. We want them to know there is an organization like CAAAV that can join and unite with others to fight back.
ManSee Kong: We’re also hoping that the elected officials and city agencies will take notice and hear the community’s demands and concerns around rezoning and displacement.
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