Architecture of Endurance in Manhattan Chinatown

As featured by City as Living Laboratory
And the Municipal Art Society of NY

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Eldridge Street Synagogue and Manhattan Bridge

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Welcome to Chinatown. With a population of ~150,000, this neighborhood is the largest ethnic Chinese community in the Western Hemisphere. Join us on a mile-long walk through space and time.
A few questions to keep in mind during our walk:
+ How has Chinatown changed over two centuries of urban growth? What has not changed?
+ What other cultures and ethnicities lived here before or simultaneously with the Chinese?
+ How are the challenges the Chinese faced imprinted on the built environment of Chinatown?
+ How does Chinatown street life blur the boundary between public and private space?

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Interactive Tour Map

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Thank you to Liza Cucco, Olivia Georgia, and Stephen Fan for co-creating this virtual tour. City as Living Laboratory has been exploring this neighborhood through walks for many years. A recent initiative explored issues of climate, equity, and health in Chinatown’s unique food system.

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Tour Stops

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Route of walking tour superimposed over 1782 map of Manhattan

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1. Bowery & Canal Street

Start at the southwest corner of Canal Street and Bowery, opposite the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge. The Bowery was a former Lenape trail turned dirt road linking Lower Manhattan to farms just north of where you are standing. Bowery comes from the word bouwerij in Dutch, or bower in English, meaning “a pleasant shady place under trees or climbing plants in a garden or wood.” Ironically, Lower Manhattan now has less green space per resident than most other parts of New York City.
Walk south on Bowery to our next stop at Pell Street.

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2. Edward Mooney House

Edward Mooney House (top) and Church of the Transfiguration (bottom)

The four-story home built in 1785-89 has a sloped roof and ornamental details in the Federalist style that was popular around the time of the American Revolution. Edward Mooney, a wealthy butcher, built his house at the northern edge of Manhattan’s urban growth and within site of farms and rolling hills. It is the only surviving town house in Manhattan from the period of the American Revolution, and it is a reminder of past generations and land uses in Chinatown.
In 1790, New York City was capital of the United States and consisted only of Manhattan. The town had a population of 33,000, in contrast to 2.3 million in 1910. Chinatown and the Lower East Side ranked in 1910 as one of the densest places on earth with over 300,000 people per square mile. Manhattan’s population has fallen to 1.6 million, but imagine the streets three times as crowded.
With nineteenth-century revolutions in Germany, famines in Ireland, poverty in Italy, and organized massacres of Jews in Eastern Europe (called pogroms in Yiddish), immigrants arrived by the millions; Manhattan’s population swelled. The Chinese began arriving by ship in the 1820s and 1830s. By the 1850s, there were about 150 Chinese sailors in Lower Manhattan – most migrants hoping to make their fortune in America and then return home. Most Chinese immigrants to America spoke Cantonese due to the relative poverty of this region of China. Fleeing from the poverty of China to the promise of California, they found work on the Transcontinental Railroad. Fleeing the white nationalists and death threats of California, they sought refuge in New York. Wealthy merchants in houses like Edward Mooney’s moved north, away from the pestilence and crowded conditions of Lower Manhattan. In a few decades, the area transformed from a neighborhood of English-style townhouses for the middle classes and wealthy into the mass of tenements you now see.

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3. Heading to Doyers Street

Walk down Pell Street to the intersection with Doyers Street. Notice the multi-story vertical signs that hang from the tenements. They are similar to the neon signs that clutter the streets of Hong Kong. Also notice the profusion of almost a dozen barbershops. As each generation of immigrants arrived in Manhattan, they brought with them the aesthetics and traditions of their homeland that were then integrated into the island’s streetscapes.
As you walk down Doyers Street, notice the eccentric curve of the road. Before the 1811 Manhattan grid standardized urban growth, individual landowners decided how best to divide and resell farmland for development. With no standard plan, Lower Manhattan grew organically as a crazy quilt of intersecting streets.

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Pell Street and Doyers Street

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4. Abacus Federal Savings Bank

As you approach Bowery again, notice the Chinese jewelry store to your right, one of many in the area. As immigrants in America, the Chinese were locked out of the financial system, denied home mortgages, and often relied on jewelry to symbolize and preserve wealth. Turn left and walk forty feet back up Bowery. You will see the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, founded by Chinese immigrants. In a gesture to the preferences of its immigrant customers, Abacus offers thousands of safe deposit boxes in its basement for the storage of jewelry and other valuables. Abacus was the only bank prosecuted after the 2008 financial crisis, and was later cleared of all charges by the jury’s unanimous decision. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who is investigating Donald Trump’s taxes, charged Abacus with falsifying loan applications so that borrowers would qualify for home mortgages.

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Chinatown businesses

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5. Kimlau memorial gate

Across the street, you will see the Kimlau memorial gate commemorating Chinese-Americans who served and died in the US military. Behind the gate is a statue of Lin Zexu, a nineteenth-century Chinese scholar and official who fought and failed to stop British and colonial powers from smuggling drugs into China in the name of “free trade” and getting millions of Chinese addicted to opium. Before 1965 reforms to US immigration policy, generations of Asians served in the US military while their friends and family were prohibited from immigrating, marrying, or owning their own homes in the suburbs. Historian Mae Ngai characterizes America’s relationship with the Chinese as simultaneously wanting cheap products and foreign labor without suffering the presence of the people who sacrificed and labored for them.

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6. Church of the Transfiguration / Wing on Wo & Co.

Walk down Bowery until you reach the intersection with Mott Street. Turn right and walk one block up Mott Street to the Church of the Transfiguration. At this site since 1801, it was first an English Lutheran church, and for a brief period in the nineteenth century a largely Irish church with a Cuban pastor. Later still, it became an Italian congregation. As Chinese replaced Italians as the neighborhood’s dominant ethnic group, the congregation became Chinese. Catholic masses are held in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese.
Across the street, you will find Wing on Wo & Co., the oldest continually-run family business in Chinatown. Its fifth-generation owner, Mei Lum, also runs the W.O.W. project, a community-based initiative that reinvents, preserves, and encourages Chinatown’s creative culture and history through arts, culture, and activism. W.O.W. hosted one of CALL’s 2018 workshops with artist Jean Shin.
Continue downhill along Mosco Street.

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Photos of Mulberry Bend by Jacob Riis

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7. Mulberry Street

Notice the several funeral homes along this stretch of Mulberry. As indicated by the century-old Baroque entrance of the Wah Wing Sang Funeral Corp., many funeral homes in Chinatown used to belong to the Italians. Italian brass bands still accompany traditional Chinese funeral rites. Opposite Wah Wing Sang, notice the corner store selling “Hell Bank Notes,” paper dollhouses, and paper versions of luxury products that will be burned at funerals in the hope that the deceased will be wealthier in the next life than he or she was in this life.
The poorest and least-favored immigrants were concentrated in this area known as Five Points. Tenements here were among the most crowded in the city, water was delivered in wooden pipes, and sanitation was difficult due to the marshy soil, causing immigrants to suffer or die here in the thousands. The ~12,200 deaths in the cholera outbreaks of 1832, 1849, 1854, and 1866 were concentrated where you are standing. One Virginia doctor treating cholera victims in Five Points concluded that their living conditions were worse than those of the worst-treated slaves in the American South. The immigrants were, he wrote, like “a flock of sheep swept off suddenly by some distemper.” Charles Dickens, lifelong chronicler of the miseries of the English working class, compared Five Points and the future site of Chinatown as worse than the slums of his native England. In language that parallels the income inequalities that plague present-day New York, Dickens described the experience of seeing wealthy ladies in fancy dresses shopping on Broadway, while thousands were gripped by poverty around the corner. He described in 1842, with surprise and horror, the site of feral pigs roaming the streets, rag pickers, and the constant scent of fever and death.
“This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors, have counterparts at home, and all the wide world over.”

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8. Columbus Park & Collect Pond

This neighborhood was once part of a wetland the city filled in, and the spot you are standing on was part of a small marshy body of water known as the Collect Pond.
Eric Sanderson tells us how this place came to be what in his seminal 2013 book Mannahatta:
“In the early days of the nineteenth century, city leaders allowed a tannery to set up shop on the edge of the Collect. Tanneries preserve the skins of animals by soaking their hides in plant chemicals (tannins – the same compounds that give a young red wine its bite) extracted from local trees, especially hemlock and oak, which, when disposed of as waste in the convenient nearby pond, rapidly poisoned the water, spoiling what had been the city’s best and most accessible drinking water. Remember that New York City was built on an island in a tidal (i.e., salty) estuary, with no possibility of drinking from the Hudson and East rivers. The spoilage of the Collect led to plans to bring in water from uptown, orders to dig wells to extract the groundwater downtown, and eventually construction of the Croton water system, which would bring water from Westchester, thirty miles away. (It also led to a bank – Aaron Burr formed the “Manhattan Water Company” in 1808 to bring water from streams uptown, but then used the assets to form a bank, later known as the Chase Manhattan Bank, and now a part of JPMorgan Chase.) In the meantime, city leaders voted to fill in the verdant Collect, by leveling the adjacent hills into the stagnant waters and declining marshes.
“The city advanced rapidly over the site with the construction of tenements, churches, and businesses around the short-lived and quickly forgotten “Paradise Square.” Within a decade the land began to subside, having been incompletely filled; the formerly luxuriant vegetation of the shrub-swamp and coastal-plain-pond shore, now trapped in the soil, began to decompose and release unpleasant vapors. In other words, the landscape, disturbed by the pond being filled, began to adjust, by stinking and collapsing. Those people who could left for more salubrious uptown addresses, while those who couldn’t, mainly immigrant Irish and freed blacks, stayed on in increasingly dangerous and crowded tenements that sank slowly into the mire. The neighborhood became known as Five Points, for the five streets that once met over the northern edge of the Collect Pond; some of its particular charms are recalled in Martin Scorsese’s movie Gangs of New York (2002). Charles Dickens visited, and in his American Notes (1842) deplored the slum neighborhood, with its unpaved alleys filled with knee-deep mud, free-roaming pigs, rotting and sinking houses, and children sleeping on the steps. Gangs established their own competitive balance; the Plug Uglies, Dead Rabbits, and Roach Guards marked out territory as the woodcock and osprey had once done. It wasn’t until Jacob Riis, the journal and reformer, began documenting the conditions in the 1880s with a new invention, the camera, that things began to change. The city bought up and condemned most of the tenements and replaced them with large civic buildings, including the reconstructed Tombs, the city prison, and the New York Courthouse. Now, when accused criminals are arraigned in the gray stone buildings of Foley Square, they face the judge on the shores of the old Collect Pond.”
Eric W. Sanderson and Markley Boyer. “The Old Collect.” In Mannahatta: a Natural History of New York City. Abrams Books, 2013, pp. 167-69.

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9. New York County Criminal Court

The Art Deco limestone ziggurat of the New York County Criminal Court towers above the park. On a good day, the courthouse windows are left open. The smells of Chinese food and the sounds of Chinese opera drift inside, while everyone from the likes of Harvey Weinstein, to Occupy Wall Street protestors, to South Bronx teenagers charged with petty shoplifting are on trial. It is a strange coincidence that a Chinese community that has suffered from generations of state-sanctioned racism should itself be so physically close to the center of power, and yet so politically distant from making the decisions that effect their fate. Current proposals for a 50-story skyscraper of the new city jail will tower over Columbus Park and the neighborhood.
Walk to the intersection of Mulberry and Bayard Street at the end of the park, and head get back onto Mott Street.

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10. Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association

Walk to the intersection of Mulberry and Bayard Street at the end of the park. Head one block down Bayard Street to Mott Street, and make a left. The city’s first tenement at 65 Mott Street is a seven-story affair in brick; it was built 1824 when surrounding structures were mostly two-story wooden houses. Count the number of floors of surrounding buildings; the average tenement has no more than six floors on account of being built before the widespread use of elevators. At right, you will notice the white brick home of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association founded 1883. Chinatown has proved particularly resistant to gentrification due to the large share of tenements owned by benevolent associations and the Chinese themselves.

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11. Chinese Merchants’ Association Building

At the intersection with Canal Street, notice the Chinese Merchants’ Association Building built 1950 that blends the geometric aesthetic of Art Deco with elements of traditional Chinese architecture. For a community that has lived here for close to 200 years, there are comparatively few buildings in Chinatown that look traditionally Chinese.
Pay attention when crossing Canal Street. The street is continually busy from the sounds and soot of the thousands of cars and trucks that pass through Chinatown to Brooklyn and Long Island suburbs. Claiming that “cities are created by, and for traffic,” Robert Moses proposed in the 1960s to demolish hundreds of buildings in Chinatown, Little Italy, and SoHo for his Lower Manhattan Expressway. The project would slice through the urban tissue and speed the travel of suburban commuters to their jobs in the city. The project never started, and Canal Street remains as busy as ever with traffic congestion. Chinatown was almost lost.
Canal Street was historically the dividing line between Chinatown to the south and Little Italy to the north. But as second- and third-generation Italians left for better housing in the suburbs, new waves of Chinese immigrants pushed the borders of their community north above Canal Street. Continue one block up Mott to the intersection with Hester Street. Look left, and you will see some of the Italian restaurants and tricolor green, white, and red of the Italian flag.

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Chinese Merchants’ Association Building

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12. Mott Street Markets

As you continue up Mott Street, notice the variety of produce stands, and fish and meat markets that spill out onto the sidewalk. Also notice the variety of food delivery trucks, handcarts, and boxed food waiting on the sidewalk to be unpacked. At some points, the sidewalk becomes so narrow from the food stands that the boundary between public and private dissolves.
Exploring the food systems that make up Chinatown’s markets is a major focus of CALL’s work in this neighborhood. After finishing the walk, you can check out another walk Dr. Valerie Imbruce and Stephen Fan put together exploring the food system.

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13. A Mixed Use Neighborhood

Chinatown preserves a slice of urban life that has long since vanished from all other American cities. Before the modern laws of zoning and land use divided cities into zones of residential, commercial, and industrial, urban neighborhoods had diverse and mixed land uses. Food trucks unload onto the sidewalk while residents watch from tenements above. Bulk manufacturing noodle factories and lumber warehouses co-exist alongside the same restaurants that buy and use their products. The crowded tenements of urban laborers existed alongside the garment and industrial shops where they worked, such as the massive yellow-brick Mietz & Weiss Oil Engine Building on Mott Street that is now a supermarket. In immigrant New York, garment workers brought unfinished goods home with them to complete from crowded tenements like those that now surround you. As Jacob Riis wrote in 1890: “Nowhere in the world are so many people crowded together on a square mile as here.”
As you look up at the tenements on the left side of Mott Street, notice the floor of each tenement has four windows, and a tiny little window in the middle of each floor. These tenements from the mid to late nineteenth century originally contained about twenty apartments per building, often with sixteen people in a two-room apartment, with no running water and with shared latrines in the backyards. Showers and bathing required visits to the nearest public bathhouse or sponge baths from buckets. When later changes required indoor plumbing, bathrooms were carved out of the old tenements and the little rectangular windows were created on the middle of each floor you see today. Living conditions are less crowded and more sanitary than they were a century ago, but Chinese immigrants live in the same rooms that generations of Italians, Irish, Germans, Jews, Czechs, and Polish immigrants lived in before them.

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Mott Street tenements

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14. Leaving Mott Street

When you arrive at the intersection of Mott with Grand Street, turn right and walk two blocks to Bowery. After one block, you will spot the imposing limestone façade of the Bowery Savings Bank by the architectural firm McKim, Mead, & White.

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Old Bowery Savings Bank

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15. Old Bowery Savings Bank

When opened in 1894, it was the largest and most imposing building in the Lower East Side. The marble interior with gilded and paneled high ceilings was a statement of power, and an advertisement to the immigrant masses that the bank was a safe and permanent place to park their money. In late-nineteenth-century New York, immigrants could expect to earn around two dollars a day in sweatshops, construction, and food supply. Think of how many nickels and dimes in immigrant savings it must have taken to build the Bowery Savings Bank, or the dozens of churches and synagogues that line the streets of Chinatown

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Chinatown street scenes

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16. Back at the Bowery

At the intersection with Bowery, turn right. While only two blocks from the commerce of Mott Street, the character of Bowery is visibly different. Notice the range of furniture, lighting, and restaurant supply stores that line Bowery. Lack of storage space is a constant challenge for light industrial and supply businesses in Chinatown. Notice how some the kitchen supplies, stoves, or cookware for sale in some businesses spill out onto the sidewalk. Not only is Chinatown the center of New York City’s Chinese community, it is also the center of food supply and distribution for Chinese restaurants across the New York region. After two blocks, you will be back where you began.
As you watch the traffic edge through the triumphal arch of the Manhattan Bridge and into Chinatown, reflect on how the constant flow of immigrants have shaped and reshaped the city. Surviving in Lower Manhattan for almost 200 years, the Chinese have outlived and outgrown all other immigrant communities in Manhattan that have long since dispersed. Specific cultures and peoples have passed away, but the crowds of vibrant immigrant culture endure. Walt Whitman’s poetry is as alive today as when he wrote Crossing Brooklyn Ferry in 1856.
What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me.

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Architecture of Exclusion in Manhattan Chinatown

Originally published in the 2018-19 edition of the Asia Pacific Affairs Council journal with help from Seeun Yim at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, pages 18-20

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Canal and Mott Street

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 motivated Chinese immigrants to flee racial violence in the American West and to settle in Manhattan’s Chinatown. With a population now of around fifty thousand (2010 census), this remains the largest ethnically Chinese enclave in the Western Hemisphere.

Barbershop Row on Doyers Street

Thanks to New York’s geographic location as a port city with high industrial employment and easy connections to the American interior, this city became the primary point of entry for waves of immigrant groups in the nineteenth century: 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 languages and businesses. Of these enclaves, all have since disappeared. 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 political. 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-paid 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 Street and Mulberry Bend

As an architectural historian, I see that the 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 to create what is now 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 changes. 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 upscale Italian restaurants for tourists. The sections of Mulberry Street in Chinatown are always open to traffic and truck deliveries.

Grocery Store at Bayard and Mulberry Streets

Unequal treatment continues 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 and damp interior) was located just adjacent to Chinatown. The Fifth Police Precinct is also located at the center of this community at 19 Elizabeth Street. Although Chinatown was ranked 58th safest out of the city’s 69 patrol areas and has a crime rate well below the city average, the incarceration rate of 449 inmates per 100,000 people is slightly higher than the city average of 443 per 100,000. This incarceration rate is also significantly higher than adjacent neighborhoods like SoHo that have a rate well below 100 per 100,000. NYC Open Data reveals this neighborhood to be targeted for certain – perhaps race-specific and generally non-violent crimes – like gambling and forgery. Over half of all NYPD arrests related to gambling are in Manhattan Chinatown. Similarly, the only financial institution to face criminal charges after the 2008 financial crisis was Chinatown’s 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. Abacus provided mortgages and unconventional financial services to the kinds of immigrants traditionally locked out of the banking system, and therefore denied the means to climb the social ladder. The mistreatment of the Chinese in America both past and present is part of a larger anti-China agenda.
When it comes to tourism, Americans seem to have a paradoxical relationship with Chinatown’s “oriental” culture and cuisine. On the one hand, there is a proclaimed love of East Asian cuisine and art, as evidenced by the profusion of Asian-themed restaurants for tourists, 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. On the other hand, there is simultaneously exclusion of the people who created this Chinese 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 and Delancey Street

Let us clarify one thing: The division in Chinatown is not “apartheid” in the strict sense. 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 America. The built environment of Chinatown is something altogether more complicated and layered with other ethnic groups, too. For instance, the Church of the Transfiguration in the center of Chinatown now has a majority Asian congregation, even though it was founded in 1815 as a German and Lutheran church. Similarly, some of the funeral parlors on Mulberry Bend have Italian origins and old Italian men in the funeral bands.  This neighborhood is also in the active process of gentrification with rising rents pushing out older Asian businesses.
If and when the Chinese become fully integrated into American society, how should the architectural fabric of this immigrant enclave be preserved, considering that its very existence is a marker of race-based exclusion and the century-long challenge of the Chinese in America?

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This time-lapse of Manhattan Chinatown took sixty hours to complete and measures 26 by 40 inches. Chinatown’s tenements are in the foreground, while the skyscraper canyons of Lower Manhattan rise on top. This shows the area of Chinatown bordered by Bowery, Canal Street, and Columbus Park.

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Chinese music: Feng Yang (The Flower Drum)

A Brief History of Mulberry Bend

At the intersection of history and the immigrant experience

Written for Kenneth Jackson’s Columbia University undergraduate course “History of the City of New York”

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Mulberry Bend c.1896. Buildings on left side of street are now demolished.[1]

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Mulberry Bend, nestled between the New York County Criminal Court and the tenements of Chinatown, is at the geographic crossroads of New York City history. At 500 feet long and 50 feet wide, Mulberry Bend is between Bayard Street to the north and Worth Street to the south. Named after the slight turn the street makes midblock, the Bend has a rich, over 350 year history: marsh, city slum, site of urban renewal, and now heart of the Western Hemisphere’s largest Chinese enclave.[2] Through its rich history, the Bend’s brick and wood-frame tenements hosted waves of immigrant groups: Irish, Italians, freed blacks, and now the Chinese, one of New York’s most resilient immigrant groups whose presence in Chinatown reaches as far back as the 1830s. Consistent to these immigrant groups is their struggle to survive and prosper in America. Many of these immigrants, such as the Irish and Italians, have long left the Five Points neighborhood where the Bend is located, leaving few traces of their presence. But the neighborhood was vital as their first point of contact in the New World, a way station between their country of origin and future prosperity in the Promised Land. As such, the Bend exemplifies some of the trademarks of the immigrant experience: a working-class community populated by an immigrant diaspora that emulates the language and tradition of their country of birth. Though their homeland may be distant, in Italy, Spain, Germany, Ireland, or China, they recreated a familiar world beneath the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. Neither fully American nor fully foreign, neither a quiet residential street nor busy commercial thoroughfare, the Bend existed and exists as a community of transient identity.
When the Dutch first settled New York, the area of Mulberry Bend and Chinatown was wooded and marshy land. The Bowery, one block east of what would become Mulberry Bend, was a Lenape Indian trail traveling from the tip of Manhattan to the heights of Harlem, about ten miles distant. The New York County Criminal Courts, one block west of the Bend, was the site of colonial New York’s main source of drinking water, the Collect Pond.[3] Change came when the city’s tanning industry developed at the adjoining Collect Pond because it could carry away their industrial waste. The Ratzer Map of Manhattan, dated 1776, even plots the Bend, which bends to avoid the marshy topography of the Collect Pond. Despite this moderate industrial development and gradual filling in of the pond with soil, the area remained marshy and unfit for living.[4]

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Excerpt from the 1776 Ratzer Map of Lower Manhattan. The area labeled as “Common” is now City Hall Park, the “Fresh Water” body was known as Collect Pond, and the “Tanners Yards” was the center of the future Five Points Slum. Mulberry Bend is the line in bright red. The dotted land pattern indicated low-lying marshes and woods that have yet to be developed. The grid of streets had been laid out, but had yet to be populated with tenements and businesses.[5]

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After the Revolutionary War, New York prospered, first as the new nation’s capital and later as the nation’s largest city. With growth came new challenges in the Mulberry Bend. City leaders faced the difficult task of developing the marshy area. Some enterprising officials even proposed turning the area of Collect Pond into the city’s first park, designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, chief planner of Washington D.C.’s city plan. After all, the natural lake and rolling hills of the area could have lent themselves to scenic purposes. But in the end, economic and pragmatic concerns won out as the industrial development of the area continued and the Collect was filled in 1808. Maps from the time attest that wood frame tenements, industries, sweatshops, and breweries were built on the Bend.[6]
Draining Mulberry Bend solved neither the area’s pollution nor development problems. The low-lying land remained damp and muddy, a problem compounded in summer by the city’s mostly dirt and wood-plank roads. The area soon attracted some of the city’s marginalized residents, such as Blacks, prostitutes, and later the Irish after the 1840s Potato Famine. By the 1850s, the area had become the city’s disreputable slum named Five Points after the intersection of five city streets at the southern end of the Bend.[7] In his 1843 visit to Five Points, Charles Dickens described the neighborhood as worse than anything he had seen in Britain; it was “reeking everywhere with dirt and filth,” concluding that “all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here.”[8]
Evidence is rich of Mulberry Bend’s historic ties to poverty and injustice. One block east of the Bend was the city’s first tenement at 65 Mott Street, a squat eight-story affair with small brick windows and no light wells. One block west of the Bend was the city’s notorious prison, nicknamed The Tombs. Though no longer surviving, The Tombs were designed by architect John Haviland in 1838 in the Egyptian Revival style.[9] Due to the area’s marshy topography and the poorly covered Collect Pond, the Tombs and neighboring tenements were damp and fetid most of the year. In fact, the settling of the lowlands was so pervasive a problem that The Tombs, built of heavy granite, started sinking into the wet ground just five months post-construction. Before the advent of efficient sewer systems and indoor plumbing, the area would have been difficult to live in most of the year. Hence, independent of government intervention, the neighborhood surrounding the Bend continued to attract new waves of the poor and newly arrived who had little choice but to reside in tenements on marginal land.[10]
A new group arrived at Mulberry Bend beginning in the 1830s: Cantonese speaking Chinese, now some 40,000 strong. According to Mae Ngai, a childhood resident of Chinatown and now Columbia University historian of the Chinese in America, “The first Chinese came over in the early to mid 19th century as sailors or crew members in the China trade because, at the time, there was no transpacific trade through San Francisco. All cargo from China went to New York on a six-month journey around the tip of Latin America. Many were sailors and actors who chose to live in Five Points and Mulberry Bend. Many were forced to live there due to exclusionary rental policies in other parts of Manhattan.”[11]
Early Chinese immigrants settled on streets adjacent to Mulberry Bend, such as Mott, Bayard, Pell, and Doyers. According to Mae Ngai: “Due to the absence of Chinese women, many of these predominantly male immigrants married Irish women, who were already an established immigrant group. The Irish owned many of the Bend’s boardinghouses and flophouses frequented by Chinese sailors.” These immigrants also found niche employment in the city’s laundry business, which was an unskilled job in the era before laundry machines. The city’s laundry industry was at one time a majority-Chinese industry spread across the five boroughs and associated with New York’s Chinatown. Numbering less than a thousand at first, the Chinese population would grow in the following century, turning Chinatown into the largest Chinese enclave in the Americas.[12]
The neighborhood remained impoverished and a target of housing reform groups after the Civil War. From its earliest days, Five Points was the subject of significant attention from social reformers and city leaders. On the one hand, Nativists and Know-Nothings would have pointed to the neighborhood as evidence of the perils of immigrants, Catholics, the rowdy Irish, and the “filthy” Chinese. Many Protestant Americans feared the growing numbers of Catholics and Eastern European immigrants, many of whom settled near or on the Bend. On the other hand, enlightened social reformers, like abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher Stowe, would have pointed to the neighborhood as evidence of social inequity and the need for the slum reform efforts of groups like the Five Points Mission. Even Abraham Lincoln toured the Five Points Slum during his 1860 campaign for President.[13]
The most famous campaigner against the Bend and New York slums in general was Danish immigrant turned documentary photographer in the 1880s, Jacob Riis. Many of his most famous photographs were actually taken in the Bend, at that time occupied by the some of the worst slums in Five Points. From rag pickers to sweatshop workers and inebriated immigrants in Chinese-run Opium dens, Riis documented the deprivations and difficulties of immigrant life in bustling New York. In his now famous report How the Other Half Lives, Riis devoted an entire chapter with accompanying images just to Mulberry Bend.[14]
Nonetheless, Riis’ photos and method of documenting the Bend reveal prejudice against the area’s Catholic, Chinese, and other immigrant groups. As examined in later scholarship, Riis saw the poor he photographed as social menace and tried to frame their community as a criminal infested underworld. His subjects in the Bend avert eye contact with the camera lens, and his subtitles such as Bandit’s Roost and Rag Pickers’ Row sensationalize images of poverty. In his eyewitness account of photographing in an opium den near the Bend, Riis twists the account to depict the Chinese as ignorant and proud of their crimes. Chinese poverty becomes not evidence of society’s injustices against them but instead of the Chinese people’s own moral decay. How the Other Half Lives presents a biased view of Chinatown as violent, dangerous, and crime-infested.[15]
In reality, Five Points and Mulberry Bend were not statistically more dangerous than wealthier neighborhoods in the city. As contemporary analysis of Coroners’ Reports at the city morgue reveal, the murder rate in the Sixth Ward that included the Bend was not higher than the city average.[16] Despite the higher than average numbers of foreign immigrants in this neighborhood than the rest of the city, as the 1850 Census reveals, the Sixth Ward was no more dangerous.[17] But the neighborhood was largely Irish, Catholic, Italian, and Chinese, all ostracized immigrant groups that were depicted in the era’s yellow journalism as dangerous for public health and safety. Kenneth Jackson writes in Empire City: “Chinatown’s reputation had suffered in the late 1870s and early 1880s when sensationalist tabloids depicted the Chinese as opium addicts who were stealing American jobs and corrupting American women.” Considering Riis’ background as a journalist and crime photographer, his conclusions are part of this same tradition of media sensationalism.[18]
This does not serve to discredit Riis’ photos of Mulberry Bend or Charles Dickens’ description of Five Points; Riis’ photographs remain some of the most iconic images of the American immigrant experience. Rather viewers should be cautious when approaching these primary source documents that are not as objective as may first seem. After all, the majority of primary source documents about Mulberry Bend were created by the city’s wealthier class of White Protestant males writing about illiterate and non-native foreigners. Nonetheless, exceptions to the largely Anglo-Saxon and Protestant account of Five Points do exist such as Wong Chin Foo’s article for Puck Magazine, in which he recounts the racial prejudice faced by Chinese immigrants. In his account, he is not the aggressor or criminal on American soil so much as the victim of intolerance. As he writes: “I have been systematically styled a ‘pig-tailed renegade,’ a ‘moon-eyed leper,’ a ‘demon of the Orient,’ a ‘gangrened laundryman,’ a ‘rat-eating Mongol,’ etc.”[19]

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Bandit’s Roost [20]                    59 ½ Mulberry. See below for map.[21]

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Despite their problems, Riis’ damning report and poignant images of Mulberry Bend led to the creation of the Tenement Commission whose aim was the elimination of poverty and the reform of tenement building codes, both of which led to the city’s first slum clearance project at Mulberry Bend Park. After almost a century of relatively unregulated development, the area of Five Points had no public parks for school children and families. City streets, which were growing congested with traffic and hundreds of tons of horse manure per day, were not ideal places for child recreation either. City planners singled out the Bend as one of worst slums, and in a pilot project that would play out in other places across the city, they demolished the neighborhood to build Mulberry Bend Park. The park opened in summer 1897 with public fanfare and the approval of one its main proponents, Jacob Riis. Mulberry Bend Park, now known as Columbus Park, was originally nicknamed “Paradise Park,” a fitting name for what this park must have meant and felt like for people living in such a dense neighborhood deprived of any other outdoor public spaces.[22]

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Mulberry Bend Park in 1906. Mulberry Street is at right. Original caption reads: “Mulberry Bend Park contains two and three-quarters acres of well-kept lawn. Innumerable seats, a rest house and fountains are provided for the comfort and pleasure of the people.” [23]

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Comparative Sanborn fire insurance maps of Columbus Park in 1857 (left) and c.1905 (right). Mulberry Bend is the curved street at right between Bayard and Park. Note the replacement of hundreds of tenements and small sheds with the unified design of Calvert Vaux, one of the fathers of the City Beautiful Movement. The location of Riis’ earlier photo of Bandit’s Roost was at 59 ½ Mulberry Bend, shown in red on the 1857 map (left). A few decades later (right), few walking along Mulberry Street could have known that one of the most iconic photos in New York history was taken at this very spot. [24] Note: Surviving buildings on the other side of Mulberry Street are not shown in the c.1905 map and were not demolished.

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The construction of a park at Mulberry Bend was the beginning of larger scale social change as New York’s government reassessed and expanded its role in civic life. In following decades, much of Five Points was demolished to construct the city’s civic center. Around 1904, the tenements southwest of Mulberry Bend were cleared to build the imposing hexagonal New York County Courthouse, built of granite to emulate a Roman temple. Similar civic and institutional structures were added in subsequent decades, such as the present New York City Hall of Records, the imposing 1930s Criminal Courts with ziggurat-like roofs, and the 1980s Metropolitan Correction Center on the site of the demolished Tombs.[25]
The era of Robert Moses in the 1940s and 50s brought more change to the neighborhood when tenements south of Mulberry Bend were demolished and replaced with Brutalist style government-subsidized housing. Despite the dawn of the automobile and the gradual suburbanization of American cities, Mulberry Bend remained a high-density and low-income neighborhood, occupied by growing numbers of Chinese, peaking in the year 2000 at 60,000 people. Today, the Bend remains Chinese with sounds of Chinese opera emanating from musicians in the park and the sight of the elderly playing Mahjong, a game similar to Dominoes.[26] The Chinese feel of the Bend is as visible as ever.
Mulberry Bend is also notable for its several Italian funeral homes now affiliated with the Chinese. The dwindling presence of funeral bands in the area is evidence of demographic change. As of 2000, the funeral bands of the Bend were composed of Chinese and elderly Italians, a vestige of when Italians were the majority of residents in Mafia days. Of equal note is the Church of the Transfiguration around the corner, which was built for European immigrants but now serves the Chinese Christian community. The name Chinatown is a misnomer for a neighborhood that is not fully Chinese and is in many regards influenced by western culture and the footprints of past immigrant groups.[27]
A walk north up Mulberry Bend reveals a contrast between two visions of New York from across time. At left are Columbus Park and the imposing towers of New York’s courthouses and bureaucracies. At left is the somber wall of civic power and authority that replaced Five Points. Meanwhile, at right is the edge of Chinatown and the small five- and six-story tenements, representative of Five Points and the structures demolished to construct Columbus Park. At right is the opposite of the civic power seen at left: the living and breathing wall of an immigrant community. The Bend thus represents the physical and cultural division between two distinct New York neighborhoods, each of which embodies a different era in New York history. On one side of the park, the rundown buildings of old New York. On the other side, the oppressive and sterile towers of Lower Manhattan and a modern vision of the American city.
Chinatown illustrates the tension inherent to the immigrant experience. The immigrant to America is tied between the familiarity of their culture and language vs. the remoteness of an unfamiliar city. The immigrant finds and remains in her enclave, surrounded by fellow immigrants who speak her language, eat her food, and share her values. In the unfamiliarity of a foreign city, she finds her own community in which she attempts, however imperfectly, to replicate the values and lifestyle of the old world. Yet the foreign city of Americans and Uncle Sam is never far away. At Mulberry Bend, the towers of foreign New York City both physically and symbolically loom over immigrant Chinatown. The nearby Metropolitan Correctional Facility, city jails, and courthouses are a symbol and implicit threat that the government is gatekeeper to the opportunities of life in America. The immigrant community of Chinatown and Mulberry Street struggles onward encircled by a gentrifying city and beneath the watchful stare of the New York’s courthouses and bureaucracies.
Mulberry Bend has passed through many forms in its storied history from marshy forest on Lenape territory, to site of the city’s first drinking water and tanneries, to New York’s first and arguably worst slum, to the birth of the city’s slum clearance movement under Jacob Riis’ mixed intentions, and finally to the vibrant Chinese community visible today. For a street so small, it has witnessed so much. As gentrification displaces some residents and as younger generation Chinese choose to move away in search of better housing in the suburbs, Chinatown will continue to change. Change has been a constant in this neighborhood for three centuries. As Mae Ngai confirms: “Chinatown has never been a static place. It has always had different characteristics depending on the nature of the community.”[28]
Will the Bend evolve for the better or for the worse? Thousands of tourists frequent the neighborhood in search of Dim Sum and “Chinese” culture. Future changes to the demographic landscape of Chinatown should preserve the complexity of culture and the richness of history that hides just below the surface of this unassuming street and just behind the colorful facades of the walk-up tenements. Only time will tell what changes will be next.

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Ink and watercolor drawing of Chinatown by Myles Zhang.
The band of green trees is Mulberry Bend Park.

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Endnotes

[1] Jacob A. Riis, “Mulberry Bend in 1896,” digital image, Wikimedia Commons, April 17, 2011, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mulberry_Bend-Jacob_Riis.jpg#filehistory.

[2] “Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps: 1857 and c.1905,” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

[3] Hilary Ballon, “The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811–Now,” in The Greatest Grid, Museum of the City of New York, April 15, 2012, http://thegreatestgrid.mcny.org/greatest-grid/.

[4] Hillary Ballon, The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811–2011 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

[5] Bernard Ratzer, “The Ratzer Map of 1776,” digital image, Wikimedia Commons, April 1, 2011, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1c/NYC1776.jpg.

[6] Kenneth Jackson and David Dunbar, “Collect Pond,” in The Encyclopedia of New York City, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002) 250.

[7] Ibid., 414-15, “Five Points.”

[8] Ibid., 186-94, “American Notes for General Circulation by Charles Dickens.”

[9] Historical marker in vicinity of the Church of the Transfiguration at 29 Mott Street, “A Century of Chinese in Five Points,” October 23, 2016. In the 1830s and 1840s, many cities chose to build American civic structures in the style of Egyptian tombs and temples. The colonization of Egypt and East Asia provoked intense interest in all things “foreign” and “oriental” in both Western Europe and America.

[10] Kenneth Jackson and David Dunbar, “The Tombs,” in The Encyclopedia of New York City, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002) 1190.

[11] Mae Ngai, interview by Myles Zhang, Office Hours Visit at Columbia University, November 1, 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Tyler Anbinder, “The Most Appalling Scenes of Destitution,” in Five Points: The nineteenth century New York neighborhood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001) 235.

[14] Jacob Riis, “Chapter VI: The Bend,” in How the Other Half Lives (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922) 59.

[15] Sally Stein, “Making Connections with the Camera: Photography and Social Mobility in the Career of Jacob Riis.” Afterimage 10, no. 10 (May 1983): 9-16.

[16] Sarah Paxton, “The Bloody Ould [sic] Sixth Ward: Crime and Society in Five Points, New York,” research thesis, Ohio State, 2012, https://kb.osu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/1811/52011/3/Bloody-Ould_Sixth-Ward.pdf.

[17] U.S. Census Bureau, “1850 Census,” Table II Population by Subdivisions of Counties [and City Wards], https://www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html.

[18] Kenneth Jackson, “Experience of a Chinese Journalist, from Puck Magazine by Wong Chin Foo,” in Empire City: New York through the Centuries,” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) 329.

[19] Ibid 230-31. The greater intolerance Chinese immigrants faced vs. the comparatively lesser intolerance faced by Irish and Italians can explain why the Chinese chose to remain in Chinatown for so long. The existence of immigrant enclaves is evidence for difficulties with social cohesion.

[20] Jacob A. Riis, “59 1/2 Baxter Street,” digital image, Museum of Modern Art, http://www.moma.org/collection/works/50859?locale=en.

[21] Jacob A. Riss, “59 1/2 Baxter Street.” digital image, Museum Syndicate, http://www.museumsyndicate.com/item.php?item=42895.

[22] “Columbus Park,” NYC Parks Department, https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/columbus-park-m015/history.

[23] Jacob A. Riis, “Scenes of Modern New York,” Digital image, Wikimedia Commons, April 17, 2011, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scenes_of_modern_New_York._(1906)_(14589480310).jpg.

[24] “Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps: 1857 and c.1905,” New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1857: http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-8021-d471-e040-e00a180654d7. 1905: http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/96e7ad32-1e9e-5c64-e040-e00a18064991. This map was incorrectly dated as 1884 in the NYPL’s database. Mulberry Bend Park was completed in 1897 and renamed Columbus Park in 1911. The actual date of this map is therefore between 1897 and 1911.

[25] Kenneth Jackson and David Dunbar, “Chinese and Chinatown,” in Empire City: New York through the Centuries, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002) 215-18.

[26] Jimy M. Sanders, “Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave,” review of Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave. American Journal of Sociology, July 18, 1993, 215-1, April 10, 2010, http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=socy_facpub.

[27] Min Zhou, “Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave” (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).

[28] Mae Ngai, interview by Myles Zhang.

New York Chinatown: time-lapse drawing

Chinese music: Feng Yang (The Flower Drum)

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This time-lapse of Manhattan Chinatown took sixty hours to complete and measures 26 by 40 inches. Chinatown’s tenements are in the foreground, while the skyscraper canyons of Lower Manhattan rise on top. This shows the area of Chinatown bordered by Bowery, Canal Street, and Columbus Park.

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Walking in Manhattan

Featured in this March 2019 interview from Ratrock
And in this July 2016 article from The Edublogger

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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. 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 shoppers in SoHo. There could be no more fitting a place for the United Nations.
Reading Here is New York by E.B. White, I realize some aspects of New York have changed little in the past seventy years. The streets, cars, and tenements are different, but the essential spirit of dynamic and diverse urbanism remains. Here is New York.
Learn more about my New York walks in this mini lecture. Or browse the collections below of photos and drawings. They are organized into ten urban walks, with each day in a different Manhattan neighborhood.

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Day One: Chinatown and Lower Manhattan

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City Hall Park and the Financial District

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The image above is one of a series of six, each measuring 26 by 40 inches. Each drawing is of a single neighborhood in New York City, based on Google Earth satellite imagery. The drawing took between 60 and 100 hours of work.

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This ink and watercolor drawing of NYC Chinatown expresses my lifelong connection with this neighborhood. The Chinese moved here by necessity in the nineteenth century and were condemned by poverty to these narrow alleys and cramped rooms. Over time, they made the space their own through interventions in the cityscape. The large corporate skyscrapers and government offices in the distance tower over the immigrant tenement blocks.

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View more of my artwork about Chinatown.

Or read this essay reflecting on the everyday lives and architectures of Chinatown residents.

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Day Two: SoHo

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Mercer Street in SoHo

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Day Three: The East and West Village

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Day Four: The High Line

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Day Five: Madison Square

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Domino Sugar Factory (view from Williamsburg Bridge)

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Day Six: Midtown

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Jurgen from Germany

Jurgen from Germany

A musician named Jurgen approaches and observes my painting of Grand Central Terminal.
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.

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A Latin American man driving a pickup truck rolls down his window and asks:
Him: How far is the Statue of Liberty from here?
Me: Oh… About seven miles.

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

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

Elderly African-American man approaches and extracts a crumpled and blurry image of a dollar sign from his bag.
Him: Hey, can you draw me some money bags.
Me: Sure.
Him: You know, it’s for my product. I’ll pay you well. What’s your name?
Me: Myles Zhang
Him: You Chinese? You parents from China?
Me: No, America.
Him: No, China…!
He walks off.

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

View more of my work about Grand Central Terminal.

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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

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View more of my artwork about Saint John the Divine.

View more of artwork about Columbia University’s campus.

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Day Ten: Harlem and Washington Heights

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125th Street Viaduct in Harlem

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Golden Rectangles Superimposed

This composition visualizes movement through circling spirals that align to the Golden Rectangle.

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View more of my artwork about Harlem and the Bronx.

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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.”
– E.B. White, Here is New York

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Chinatown: a living neighborhood

View more artwork like this about my experiences walking in New York City.

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Chinatown is both static and dynamic: Static in its resilience against gentrification, dynamic in its cultural interplay between past and present, immigrant and American.
Everywhere in Chinatown, past and present intermingle. Dusty and decrepit Jewish textile stores struggle onward; their elderly owners wait to close up shop and sell out for millions to developers. By Division Street rests a former synagogue with an AT&T outlet on one side and a Chinese-language job agency on the other. Bustling bakeries and bodegas abut reminders of past immigration. Lyricist Ira Gershwin’s birthplace is still inhabited up the street, red paint flaking off its brick walls. Weathered brick tenements, serving successive waves of Germans, Italians, and Irish, still serve elderly Asians and urban “hipsters.” Chinatown is still a living, breathing being in constant flux.
On select corners sprout feeble tendrils of gentrification: a pricey café, a garish painted crêperie, a chic souvenir shop advertising “I love Chinatown” tote bags. This neighborhood is devoid of its youth; little children and wizened elderly remain. The rest have left to work in the America beyond the dense city. Beneath the Manhattan Bridge a sign reads in Mandarin: “Chinese-American special carrier to return infants to China.” The shabby A Train rumbles in the sky.
On the neighborhood’s fringes is the touristed Tenement Museum. The museum’s cycling documentary chronicles life on the Lower East Side. Black and white imagery flickers across the screen: Italians and Irish, Germans, and Jews, the immigrant experience, dreams of coming to America. It is all too convenient to reflect on the past and to conclude: That what was New York no longer is.  That its immigrant travails have now vanished. That overcrowding and grime is no more.
Much has changed. Much has not. The city awaits the next tide of tired, poor, and huddled masses.

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IMG_6173

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This high-density tenement on Eldridge Street is home to a myriad of businesses including:
– Third Brother’s Fuzhou Snack Bar
– Green Forest Internet Bar
– United Express and Lottery Tickets
– Universal Phone Cards
– Everything OK Job Agency
– International Job Agency
– Twinkling Star Job Agency

.Field Chicken

These frogs, marketed as seafood and known as “Field Chicken,” are sold for $5.19 each.

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All Purpose Flower Shop and Funeral Services

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This all purpose establishment advertises the following services:
– Weddings
– Conferences
– Concerts
– Gatherings
– Ceremonies
– Western Chinese Music
– Performing Arts
– Potted Plants
– Floral Arrangements
– Funerary Flowers
– Funerals and Birthdays

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