Architecture of Exclusion in Manhattan Chinatown

 

 

 

Canal & Mott Streets

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act restricted Chinese immigration to the US, prohibited Chinese females from immigrating on grounds of prostitution, and revoked the citizenship of any US citizen who married a Chinese male. The consequences of this xenophobic legislation led Chinese immigrants to flee racial violence in the American West and to settle in Manhattan’s Chinatown. With a population now of around 50 thousand (2010 US Census), this remains the largest ethnically Chinese enclave in the Western Hemisphere.

Doyers Street – Barbershop Row

Thanks to New York’s geographic location as a port city with high industrial employment easy connections to the American interior, this city became the primary point of entry for waves of immigrant groups in the 1800s: Irish, Germans, Italians, and Eastern Europeans. What makes the Chinese different, though, is the survival and resilience of the immigrant community they created. Other immigrant groups – namely the Germans and Irish – converged around large neighborhoods and surrounded themselves with familiar language and businesses. Of these 1800s enclaves, all have since disappeared as the children of these first-generation immigrants successfully assimilated into American society, earned higher incomes than their parents, and therefore chose to disperse to non-immigrant neighborhoods with better housing stock and schools. Yet, the Chinese remained.

The resilience of this community results from a confluence of factors: cultural, geographic, and (most of all) racial. Of innumerable immigrant groups to the US, the Chinese were among the only to have the most restrictive laws placed on their immigration. This stigma drove them toward three types of low-skilled manual labor – with which white Americans still deeply associate with the Chinese – laundries, restaurants, and garment manufacturing. Like the Chinese, other groups – particularly Irish-immigrant females – began working in these professions, but they soon climbed the social ladder.

Mosco & Mulberry All

As an architectural historian, I am fascinated about how this political and racial agenda of exclusion is imprinted in the built environment of Chinatown. To present this neighborhood’s geography: For most of its history, Chinatown was bordered to the north by Canal Street, to the east by Bowery, and to the South and West by the city’s federal courthouse and jail. The center of this community lies on the low wetland above a filled-in and polluted lake, called the Collect Pond. Historically, this area contained the city’s worst housing stock, was home to the city’s first tenement building (65 Mott Street), and was the epicenter for waterborne cholera during the epidemics of 1832 (~3,000 deaths) and again in 1866 (1,137 deaths). The city’s first slum clearance project was also in Chinatown, at the present-day Columbus Park.

Race-based policies of exclusion can take different forms in the built-environment. The quality of street cleaning and the frequency of street closures are a place to start. Some of the city’s dirtiest sidewalks and streets are consistently located within Chinatown – as well as some of the most crowded with street vendors (particularly Mulberry and Mott Street). Yet, as these streets continue northward above Canal Street, their character markedly changes. The sections of Mulberry Street in Chinatown are unkempt and always open to traffic and truck deliveries.

The street sections immediately north (in the enclave of Little Italy) are frequently cleaned and closed for traffic most of the year to create a car -free pedestrian mall bordered by Italian restaurants. These policies continue when examining the proximity of Chinatown to centers of political power and criminal justice. Since 1838, the city’s central prison (named the Tombs because of its foreboding appearance) is located just adjacent to Chinatown. The Fifth Police Precinct is also located at the center of this community at 19 Elizabeth Street.

Bayard & Mulberry Grocery

Yet, although this neighborhood was ranked 58th safest out of the city’s 69 patrol areas and has a below-average crime rate, the incarceration rate of 449 per 100,000 people is higher than the city average. NYC Open Data also reveals this neighborhood to be targeted for certain – perhaps race-specific and generally non-violent crimes – like gambling and forgery. Or, the only financial institution to face criminal charges after the 2008 financial crisis was the family-owned Abacus Federal Savings Bank – on allegations of mortgage fraud later found false in court by a 12-0 jury decision in favor of Abacus.

When it comes to tourism, Americans seem to have a paradoxical relationship with Chinatown’s “oriental” culture and cuisine. On the hand, there is a proclaimed love of Chinese cuisine and art, as evidenced by the profusion of Chinese-themed restaurants for tourists in Chinatown, or as evidenced by the phenomenon in art history for western artists (and particularly French Impressionists) to incorporate decorative motifs from East Asian woodcuts and ceramics into their work. There is simultaneously exclusion of the people – from the society who created this food and art – from political power and social mobility. Still today, Americans seem to want competitively priced Chinese products without suffering the presence of the foreigners who produced these products.

Forsyth & Delancey Grocery

Let us clarify one thing: the division in Chinatown is by no means “apartheid.” It is perhaps a division more subtle and difficult to notice. It expresses the kind of unequal treatment – antiquated housing, crowded conditions, and municipal apathy – that face many immigrant groups in the US. What we see in Chinatown is something altogether more complicated – as this neighborhood is also active in the process of gentrification with rising rents pushing out older Chinese businesses. If and when Chinese immigrants become fully integrated into American society, to what extent should the architectural fabric of this Chinese enclave be preserved, considering that its very existence is possibly a marker of race-based exclusion and the century-long challenge of the Chinese in America?

This essay originally appeared in the spring 2019 edition of the Asia Pacific Affairs Council journal at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute. Click here to read this essay in its original format.

Walking in Manhattan

Strolling in New York City is a world tour. The street fairs of Spanish Harlem mesh into college town Columbia. Columbia gives way to the shabby chic of Harlem. A few blocks farther and I am drowned by the tourists of Times Square. Further still and I reach the bustle of Wall Street brokers. There could be no more fitting a place for the United Nations.

I stroll and try to identify  the passing languages. Spanish in the outer boroughs. Polish in Greenpoint. Russian in Brighton Beach. Cantonese in Chinatown. French and German in SoHo.

Reading Here is New York by E.B. White, I realize how little New York has changed in the past sixty odd years. Sure, the streets, cars, and tenements are different. But the essential spirit of dynamic and diverse urbanism remains. Here is New York.

Click here to learn more about my New York walks. Or, browse the image collages below of photos and drawings. They are organized into ten urban “walks,” each day in a different Manhattan neighborhood.

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Day One: Chinatown and Lower Manhattan

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Lower Manhattan

City Hall Park and the Financial District

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Chinatown

View of Chinatown towards Lower Manhattan

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Day Two: SoHo

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Mercer Street

Mercer Street in SoHo

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Day Three: The East & West Villages

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Day Four: The High Line

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Day Five: Madison Square

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Day Six: Midtown

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Elderly man approaches and extracts a crumpled and blurry image of a dollar sign from his bag.

Hey, can you draw me some money bags.

Me: Sure.

You know, it’s for my product. I’ll pay you well. What’s your name?

Me: Myles Zhang

You Chinese? You parents from China?

Me: No, America.

No, China…!

He walks off.

 

An Latin American immigrant drives up  in Midtown in his pickup truck.

Him: How far is the statue of Liberty from here?

Me: Oh… About seven miles.

 

Jurgen from Germany

Jurgen from Germany

A homeless musician approaches and observes my painting of Grand Central.

Jurgen: You are an artist.

Me: No, that is a title I have yet to earn. Are you from Germany? You sound like the director Werner Herzog.

Jurgen: Herzog? Him? His films put me to sleep. [Jurgen shows me his noteboook.] If I lived in Nazi Germany, the Nazis would burn my work, maybe even me. My grandfather, he used to go to rallies to give the Nazi salute. I still don’t know why he did that. I don’t think he even knew.

 

Jihadist proclaims that "America will soon be destroyed by fire!"

Convert proclaims that “America will soon be destroyed by fire!”

Convert preaches the impending doom of America on Sixth Ave and 34th: “The US government, they invented this virus that will kill off all the black people.”

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Day Seven: Central Park

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Day Eight: Riverside Drive

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Waterfront

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Day Nine: Morningside Heights

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Cathedrals of Industry

Cathedrals of Industry: Saint John the Divine and the 125th Street Viaduct

For more about Saint John the Divine, click here.

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Day Ten: Harlem

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Golden Rectangles Superimposed

The composition of the watercolor below is based on the spiraling arc of the Golden Rectangle.

The Viaduct

The 125th Street Viaduct

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New York City..

“The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.”

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Here is New York by E.B. White

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Golden Rectangles Superimposed

New York Walks

The following video lecture contains paintings and photos I compiled while walking in New York

(Dedicated to Professor Brendan O’Flaherty)

Strolling in New York City is a world tour. The street fairs of Spanish Harlem mesh into college town Columbia. Columbia gives way to the shabby chic of the Upper West Side. A few blocks farther and I am drowned by the tourists of Times Square. Even further, and I reach the mindless bustle of Wall Street brokers. There could be no more fitting a place for the United Nations

I stroll and try to identify  the passing languages. Spanish in the outer boroughs. Polish in Greenpoint. Russian in Brighton Beach. Cantonese in Chinatown. French and German in SoHo.

Reading “Here is New York” by E.B. White, I realize how little New York has changed in the past 60 odd years. Sure, the streets, cars, and tenements are different. But the essential spirit of dynamic and diverse urbanism remains. Here is New York.

To read more about my walks in New York, click here.