Chinatown: A Living Neighborhood

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 many millions. By Division Street rests a former synagogue with an AT&T outlet on one side and an immigrant job agency on the other. Bustling bakeries and bodegas abut reminders of past immigration. Lyricist Ira Gershwin’s birthplace is still inhabited, 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.” Streets are still chronically dirty, as they were a century ago. Chinatown is still a living, breathing being in constant flux.

On select corners sprout feeble tendrils of gentrification: a pricey café, a garishly 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. Beneath the Manhattan Bridge a sign reads, “Chinese-American special carrier to return infants to China.” The shabby A Train rumbles on above.

On the neighborhood’s fringes is the touristed Tenement Museum. The 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 falsely conclude: That what was New York no longer is.  That its immigrant travails have now vanished. That overcrowding and grime is no more. Problem solved. Case closed.

Much has changed. Much has not. The city awaits the next tide of tired, poor, and huddled masses.

 

 

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IMG_6173This 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 ServicesThis 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

Space House

Space House is an exploration of 1950’s futurism and sustainable building practices. This model measures about 15 inches diameter and is made entirely from paper. The house is round and domed to better maintain heat. Circles are the most cost effective forms because they contain the greatest volume with the least amount of surface area. The house features large, porthole windows to better profit from the view and passive solar heating. In the heat of summer, blinds roll down over the windows to protect from the sun’s glare. The domed cupola and high elevation permit air to better circulate, reducing the need for energy-consumptive air conditioning. The open floor plan permits occupants to design a home to suit their specific needs. Overall, Space House attempts to reconcile the modernism of Buckminster Fuller with current sustainability and environmental challenges.

 

 

 

space house 3

space house 2

fuller 6

 

Growing up in Newark

Arrested Motion(selected from college application essay to Columbia College)

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One of my first intelligible words was, oddly enough, “demolition.” My Newark childhood was immersed in countless scenes of urban destruction. Only years later have I come to appreciate this irony. Newark is the undoing of two things I love: urbanism and construction. Yet, my own city intellectually inspires me to appreciate my urban environment.

Growing up in Newark has not been easy. My city is generally ten degrees hotter than its neighboring environment. The airport. The port. The downtown. All are blanketed in asphalt that turns my city into a hot desert. Tens of thousands of cars spew their fumes into my city. As a child, I had asthma. The streets of my city are not made for walking. They are made for driving. I walk. I stop. I wait. Speeding traffic and interminable stoplights hinder my progress.

At age eight, I discovered a powerful photo book, The New American Ghetto, by Camilo José Vergara. More than thirty percent of the photos are of my city. Sturdy structures one day become piles of rubble the next. In turn, the rubble becomes gravel for another ubiquitous parking lot. Time passes and my recollection of the former structure slithers away. Over time, swaths of my neighborhood gradually dissipate into an urban desert.

At age ten, I innocently presented a City Plan to Mayor Cory Booker. I removed all surface parking and buried I-280 beneath a bucolic park, which healed my neighborhood’s brutal highway-born split. The mayor smiled and murmured, “Oh yeah, that’ll only cost $35!”

At age thirteen, I joined Columbia University economist Dan O’Flaherty to oppose my city’s water privatization scheme. We spoke before the Local Public Finance Board in Trenton. I also helped organize over 700 pages of city legal documents scanned into my laptop. Based on these files, a local advocacy group produced a damning report on the corrupt scheme, leading to State and Federal investigations. During that roasting summer, in front of my city’s supermarket, we collected hundreds of signatures for a public referendum to derail water privatization.

In retrospect, my transient city inspired my quest for permanence and stability. The mundane features of normal communities, such as street and sewer repairs, could not be taken for granted here. If permanence were not a reality, art would have to suffice for my childhood imagination. My earliest whimsical creations – miniature buildings, factories, and bridges – mixed my perception of Newark’s bleak past and hopeful future. I hid slips of paper in my creations that read, “This will last forever.” I feverishly preserved my environment through drawing and painting. In a transient and decayed city, I needed something eternal and malleable.

From my back window, I see Mies van der Rohe’s sleek 1960s high-rise. From my front window, I see the Newark Museum designed by Michael Graves. Motivated to improve my imperfect urban environment, I spoke at many public hearings on the museum’s expansion. Later, Mr. Graves generously invited me to his Princeton studio, where we discussed Italian architecture and the importance of hand drawing. His tranquil home, a former warehouse, inspired me to dream of retooling my city’s “ruins.”

Desiring to see cities beyond my own, I was fortunate enough to voyage with my family to Istanbul, Barcelona, Prague, Paris, Mexico City, Toronto, Montréal, Chicago, Detroit, Shanghai, and Beijing. I learned that most people cultivated their cities with pride, love, and gentle creativity. However, every time, I could not wait to rush back to my city, despite its defects and scars. This fertile place is the source of my intellectual strength and the cornerstone of my sense of justice and hope. My father often quotes Schopenhauer: “One can do what he wants to do, but not think what he wants to think.” My city, however, frees me “to think what I want to think.”

Popup Park

Situated in front of New York City’s Flatiron Building is a triangular spit of land bordered by three major streets, Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 23rd. The currently underutilized space could become a vibrant public square. Such a park should reflect the vitality and dynamism of its neighborhood. Thousands of pedestrians pass through this highly visible intersection daily.

Popup Park creates a mixed use public space that adapts to its many users. Narrow metal panels measuring three by five meters roll out of a wedge-shaped storage container. Each panel serves a different function: bleachers, benches, bookshelf, public mural, basketball hoop, etc. When in use, the panels are alternated to adapt to multiple uses. When not in use, the panels slide back into their container, leaving an open communal space. Each panel is arranged according to the Fibonacci series or the golden rectangle. This permits a functional and aesthetically pleasing composition to be incorporated into each panel. The square’s periphery is arrayed with trees to shade the communal area and to offer a respite from the hectic concrete jungle.

 

urban park 1

urban park 2

South Bronx

Strolling in the Bronx, one aspect arrests me every time: Homogeneity. Block after block, street after street, a never ending treadmill of bodegas, tenements, hair salons, C-TOWN supermarkets, strip malls, and laundries. I ask myself, “Wasn’t I just here before?” I become an explorer lost wandering the Sahara; I retrace my footsteps.

And then . . .  There is the ceaseless cacophony of Spanish speakers, buses, and autos. The chaotic maze of streets leads me to fantasize walking thru a painting by de Chirico. The copious signage for SHOES, SHIRTS, PIZZA, etc. hints at shabby decadence. The never too distant fast food joint hints at obesity in a quality food desert. The din of distant cars on the Cross Bronx or Major Deegan hint at childhood asthma. I momentarily immerse myself in the urban grid.

After many hours, I spy an elevated subway stop in the far distance. I take the next southbound train back to Manhattan. I must return to the Bronx soon. The outer boroughs beckon.

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