By Ilana Novick
For Liz Moy, a Chinatown native, artist, and member of Chinatown Art Brigade, 2012’s Black Foliage group show in the Chinatown Arcade was a small but uneasy signal that the art world had its eyes, and real estate dollars, on Chinatown. The press release described the exhibition space as a former “cell phone dispensary within the alley at 48 Bowery … a truly unique space recently uncovered by some of New York’s most adventurous curators,” as if the alley, which connects the Bowery and Elizabeth Street was waiting to be discovered, and not already home to longstanding businesses.
“I rationalized to myself that it was just a pop-up,” just like any number of group shows she’d been to or participated in, Moy told the 200 people who crammed into Artists Space Saturday night for Decolonize This Place, Artists Space, and the Chinatown Art Brigade’sevent, “Chinatown Is Not For Sale.” At the panel discussion and town hall event, artists, gallery owners, and community members discussed the role of galleries in Chinatown’s gentrification, and whether they can be a part of preventing it.
Peter Kwong, Hunter College Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Policy, began the night with a brief but illuminating presentation that placed economic changes in Chinatown in the context of larger market forces in New York City that have fueled large-scale neighborhood change everywhere from the East Village to Harlem. He explained that Chinatown, is “under attack … guided by aggressive corporate strategy with real estate development whenever possible,” particularly since September 11 and with the gradual disappearance of the garment industry, a key economic engine for the neighborhood. Landlords, are “trying to sell an exotic brand,” but in doing so are pushing longtime tenants out of their homes. He also noted that the presence of art galleries is often the first sign that large-scale development will follow. The audience for the panel — a mix of residents, activists, artists, and gallery owners — was surprisingly in agreement over many of Kwong’s and other speakers’ points, differing mainly on the question of whether City Council Member Margaret Chin is a friend of the cause or an activist who had sold out to developers.
Given that galleries are often a harbinger of gentrification, the million-dollar question of the night was: can artists and galleries play a role in preventing the displacement of longtime residents and the businesses and organizations that serve them while also preserving their own artistic practices and businesses? Going by the responses of the enthusiastic, engaged audience and the panelists, the answer is a resounding yes.
Or more specifically, yes, but as long as gallery owners and artists take responsibility for their roles in displacement. This includes learning about any tenants and businesses they may have displaced in order to live in the neighborhood and open galleries, and becoming active members in big and small ways, in both local organizing efforts to protect existing tenants (like the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence’s Organizing Asian Communities initiative) and in citywide efforts to fight for zoning laws and housing policy that support Chinatown’s existing economy and tenants, and preserve buildings and businesses for the future.
Betty Yu, a co-founder of the Chinatown Art Brigade, is both an artist and a native New Yorker, and drew on both experiences to present the Brigade’s eight-point pledge of resistance for artists and gallery owners. The document includes a map, designed by Moy, showing the new galleries that have arrived in Chinatown and highlighting sites of displacement. The pledge begins with what Yu calls “the lowest hanging fruit” of simply getting to know a gallery’s neighbors and finding which tenants and businesses the gallery might have displaced, all the way to assisting in organizing efforts started by existing advocacy groups, and pressuring elected officials to support the Chinatown Working Group’s Rezoning Plan and other policies that support affordable housing.