New York: Subway City of Immigrants

Golden Rectangles SuperimposedAs northbound Broadway dips down to the valley of 125th Street, the subway soars above. The subway viaduct is a jumble of steel slicing through the orthogonal city grid. The 125th Street viaduct is a massive arch, 250 feet from end to end, two hundred tons of mass channeled into four concrete pylons, resting on the solid bedrock of Manhattan schist. The subway is the intersection, where the underground and above ground worlds of New York City converge.
New York City is now home to a peculiar race of people. Every day, New Yorkers step to the tune of the stoplight. Every day, they ride in sardine can subways. Like smoked ham on the butcher’s hook, they hang from subway straps. At their respective stops, they scramble on to work, home, and family. All New York is a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their entrances as subway doors slide open, and they time their exits to the familiar recording of “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors Please.” 1
The subway’s alphabet lines snake their way beneath the city and above the boulevards. Take the to Brighton Beach, the to Jamaica, or the to Forest Hills. From the towers of Midtown, to the factories of Flatbush, to the shouts of Shea Stadium, the subway is a panoply of color, motion, and people. For the price of $2.75, the world is within reach. Chinatown, Poland, Russia, Greece, India, and Italy are all neighborhoods joined by the subway’s umbilical cord. New York is a world unto herself, knit together by bands of black asphalt and steel arteries subway track.
Voice of the City - Joseph Stella, 1922

Voice of the City by Joseph Stella, 1922.

Once wooded island of the Lenape Indians, Mannahatta,2 is now a city of immigrants and refugees: the Irish fleeing famine in 1845, the Germans fleeing Revolution in 1848, the Italians in 1871, and now waves of Czech and Chinese, Dominicans and Mexicans. As the metropolis pulsates in motion, the spirit of the city evolves with each wave of newcomers, who ride her subways, inhabit her humid tenements, and dream of home, family, and future.
In 1856, Walt Whitman published Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. He writes of immigrants and bourgeois businessmen alike, all part of “the simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme.” Immigrants are the scheme of the city, the cogs of capitalism, and the human machinery of the metropolis. To each immigrant belongs her place, to each worker his seat, and to each vagabond a place in the breadline. Together they form the metropolis. Whitman also writes:
Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide. 3
Rome is nicknamed the “Eternal City” for its ancient architecture and generations of development. New York, too, is an “Eternal City” of sorts. Its skyscrapers may rise and fall with changing tastes and a growing economy. Yet, in the face of all change to the built environment, immigrants remain the eternal constant that marks time and life in this city: a city with over three million foreign born from all corners of the world; a city whose functioning depends on the legions of immigrant window washers, janitors, and taxi drivers without whom this urban machine would screech to a halt. In 1856, Whitman wrote of a fluid and dynamic city of people in many ways like the New York of today.

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New York, you, too, are home to the injustices and inequalities urban life nurtures. Hart Island, New York’s pauper’s cemetery since 1869, is the final resting place of over a million mostly unknown corpses over 150 years, the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses of immigrant New York. Over a quarter million infants are buried here, each one in an unmarked coffin made of pine, the size of a shoe box. Mass graves are three coffins deep and are buried twenty-five in a row. Nearby Riker’s Island, America’s largest jail, imprisons 10,000 a night awaiting trial in the city’s many courthouses. The South Bronx, with a per capita income $12,500, is a mere mile away from the Upper East Side, with a per capita income over $85,000. The glassy condos of Manhattan are priced at a million plus per piece, but these homes are only made possible by the immigrant workers and janitors paid $10 an hour to sweep the hallways of dust and wipe the windows of grit. Every night, these laborers, too, return to their homes in the gritty outer boroughs. They, too, ride the subway that burrows underground, as generations have before them.
In the 1880s, social reformer Jacob Riis was working on How the Other Half Lives. Through photography, he captured the squalor, darkness, and misery of New York’s impoverished immigrant community. He showed children at work in sweatshops, vagabonds at work collecting the refuse of those more fortunate. He exposed the darkness of another world a few steps from Wall Street and a few miles from the opulent mansions and department stores of Fifth Avenue and Ladies’ Mile. 4 That very same year, on March 26th 1883, the Vanderbilt Family of railroad fortune hosted the largest and most expensive costume ball in New York history, costing six million adjusted for inflation. While the idle rich came dressed as the “Count of Monte Cristo” and “Otho the Barbarian,” the poor slept in squalor a carriage ride away in the Lower East Side. As the New York Sun reported three days later, “[This] festivity represents nothing but the accumulation of immense masses of money by the few out of the labor of the many.” 5

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Though a century has passed since Riis, New York still is a city of social contrasts and economic disparities. Ironically, Jacob Riis’ Lower East Side is now a fashionable community for the upper middle class. All the same, the eternal New York City of immigrants endures in the outer boroughs of Flushing, Queens, Jackson Heights, South Bronx, and Bedfort Stuyvesant. In many regards, their social condition is not too different from Riis’ era. His images of New York testify both to how much and to how little New York has changed. America’s Eternal City still is a place of great injustices, but it is also the place where many of these injustices were first confronted and solved by the city’s activists and artists.
George Tooker depicts the alienation of urban life in his 1950 painting "Subway."

Subway by George Tooker, 1950.

As E.B. White wrote in 1949: “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. 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 illusive.” 6 Over 400 years since New York’s founding in 1609 by the Dutch, these words remain true as each generation of Men and Women creates the City in their own image. 7
New York, you have not the tree-lined boulevards of Paris, the tradition and pomp of London, or the antiquity of Rome. But in your diversity of people, cuisine, and culture, you are something far greater. You are home to a city of strangers, a city of neighborhoods, a city of sound, a city of subways, taxis, and buses flowing from the canyons of Midtown to the quiet bedrooms of Westchester and Park Slope, like rivulets of water. Flow on city, flow with the tide, and glide through the eras. Flow on Isle of Mannahatta for “a hundred years hence,” like a ship anchored on bedrock between two proud rivers.

https://mcnyblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/sun-mar-29-1883-critical.pdf

Endnotes

  1. Adapted from “All the World’s a Stage” by William Shakespeare
  2. Before Manhattan was settled by Dutch explorers in 1609, it was known by the local Lenape Indians as Mannahatta.
  3. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, 1856.
  4. How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, 1890.
  5. The New York Sun, March 29, 1883.
  6. Quoted from Here is New York by E.B. White in 1949.
  7. “So God created mankind in his own image.” Genesis 1:27.

Architecture of Exclusion in Manhattan Chinatown

All gratitude for bringing this to publication goes to Seeun Yim.
Originally published in the 2018-19 edition of the Asia Pacific Affairs Council journal
at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, read in original format, 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 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.

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 language and businesses. Of these 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 Street and Mulberry Bend

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, 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 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 and damp interior) is located just adjacent to Chinatown. The Fifth Police Precinct is also located at the center of this community at 19 Elizabeth Street.

Grocery Store at Bayard and Mulberry Streets

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 slightly higher than the city average of 443 per 100,000 and significantly higher than neighborhoods immediately adjacent – like SoHo – that have a rate well below 100 per 100,000. 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 NYC 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.
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 and Delancey Street

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?

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Oxford University in a Box

 

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Music: Minuet in G Minor by Bach

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This paper model of Oxford folds out of a leather suitcase. This is a souvenir of my Oxford experience.
Half the model features university’s main buildings: The Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre, University Church, and the Clarendon Building. The other half is the campus of Saint Catherine’s College in Oxford.
Attaining precision in a small model is difficult and took about two weeks to build. It is made from paper cutouts, which were folded into various shapes. Below are two of the cutouts before assembly. Dimensions: 7 by 14 inches and 1.5 inches deep.

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Columbia University Artwork

Featured in:
The Columbia Daily Spectator in September 2016
The Columbia student newspaper in October 2016
The 2018-19 edition of the Asia Pacific Affairs Council journal
– And the Columbia College alumni magazine in spring 2020

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A map of campus

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This ink and watercolor drawing shows every building, window, and architectural detail on campus. The number of windows on each façade are faithful to reality. There are at least 2,000 windows. The perspective was formed from Google Earth satellite and street view images. The image measures 26 by 40 inches and is framed in my dorm room. I wanted to create a souvenir of my four years at Columbia. Years from now, I will look at this image and remember.
The scan below is suitable for viewing but not for large-format printing. Please request access to the full-size scan at ~600dpi
View more artwork like this about my experiences walking in New York City.

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Columbia Campus

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Ink sketches of campus

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Columbia in a Box

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Before my first year at Columbia University, I assembled this tiny model of the campus out of painted and folded paper. Each building was measured out on a flat sheet of paper, decorated, painted, cut out, and then folded. Each building is made with no more than one sheet of paper. This creation folds out of a vintage cigar-box. Dimensions: 5 inches wide, 9 inches long, and 3 inches deep.

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Music: Columbia University Fight Song

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Timelapses of Morningside

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This project features six time-lapse sequences of Columbia University’s campus. I mounted a camera above my desk as I drew and painted each watercolor.

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Music: Columbia University Fight Song performed by Justin Zhao

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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 above. This shows the area of Chinatown bordered by Bowery, Canal Street, and Columbus Park.

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Model of Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn

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A wind-up music box featuring Jane’s Carousel along the Brooklyn Waterfront. When closed, the antique cigar box measures a mere 7 by 7 by 3 inches. When opened, the Brooklyn Bridge and historic Jane’s Carousel fold out. The carousel spins to the tune of the music while the moon gently slides across the night sky.
Materials: $4 cigar box, $5 wind-up music box, electrical wire (for trees), plastic lids for wheels, string, tape measure, tin foil, and thick paper

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Carousel with my hand and a pen for scale.

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 how little New York has changed in the past seventy odd 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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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

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125th Street Viaduct in Harlem

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Golden Rectangles Superimposed

The composition of this watercolor is based on the spiraling arc of 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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Murphy Varnish Lofts in Newark

Murphy Varnish, built in 1886, is one of Newark’s oldest factories still standing. Its elegant brick walls, terracotta ornament, and detailed brickwork reflect a time when industrial structures were more than just functional. Murphy Varnish reflects a time when industry was central to Newark’s wealth and key to its future success. It is a monument to industry and beauty, built to last (and landmarked since 1979 by the National Park Service). Recent renovation efforts promise to turn this derelict structure into a community of apartments.
The summer after my first year at Columbia University, I had the privilege of working with the Studio for Urban Architecture & Design (SUAD), the architects hired to redevelop this derelict factory into about forty residential units. During my time at SUAD, I observed firsthand the workings of a small architecture firm and the inspiring conversion of an old factory into something viable and living. As my internship neared its end, I photographed the historic factory and created a detailed watercolor drawing of the finished renovation.Murphy Varnish B&W
During these three months, I learned that architecture is more than the creation of art and beauty for their own sake, but it is a tool to build a stronger city through improving the built environment. For decades, Newark has seen architecture that does not value aesthetics or connect with the city’s rich history. Prefab, cookie-cutter homes are often built here, but they are out of place and context. These kinds of projects are set back from the street with little more than driveways and vinyl siding for decoration. Large corporate monoliths rise in the downtown; through catwalks and perimeter fences, their occupants need not engage with the city. Every morning and every evening, they can ride to and from Newark without setting foot outdoors or on city soil. Even for historic preservation, much of the city’s old architecture was lost to parking lots, urban renewal, and urban blight.
In this context, Murphy Varnish is an exceptional outlier. In a city once home to thousands of small factories, Murphy Varnish is one of the few that remain. Old Newark maps show dozens of large factories surrounding Murphy Varnish. In the past few decades, almost all of these industrial structures were demolished and replaced with empty lots and low-quality prefab homes. Now, Murphy Varnish stands alone in a largely residential neighborhood; it is a unique reminder of history. Renovation is certainly more difficult, but it is far more respectful of the city’s history.
As I begin my second year of college, I return to campus with renewed appreciation for historic preservation. I return with deeper admiration for the tireless efforts of Newark activists and architects to preserve the city’s rich architectural heritage for future generations.
This project was made possible by a generous grant from Columbia’s Center for Career Education.

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Murphy Varnish before Work Began

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A Work in Progress

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The Finished Conversion

 

Watercolor rendering of completed project

Pictures of Newark

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As a lifelong citizen of Newark, I spent much of the past few years painting and photographing my changing city. Pictures features a selection of my work, complemented by classical music. Five of Modest Mussorgsky’s pieces from his composition Pictures at an Exhibition are selected, each of which represents the feel of a certain part of Newark. The following five locations are featured:
1. THE PASSAIC RIVER – music: Mussorgsky’s Promenade
2. OLD ESSEX COUNTY JAIL – music: With the Dead in the Language of Death
3. MOUNT PLEASANT CEMETERY – music: Promenade
4. DOWNTOWN NEWARK – music: Mozart’s Death March (k 453a)
5. PORT NEWARK – music: Promenade
Growing up in Newark, I am inspired and saddened by the inner city. I am inspired by Newark’s hope of renewal after decades of white flight, under-investment, and urban neglect. I am saddened by the loss of my city’s historic architecture and urban fabric to the wrecking ball of what is called progress.
Curious about the history of the old Essex County Jail? Explore this interactive exhibit.

 

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 Featured work from this film

Rome: The Eternal City

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Roma, te amo, labeled.

Rome, the Eternal City, the city of a thousand jeweled churches. Each church a treasure trove of glistening gold and baroque drapery cascading over its roof and walls. Each street a channel to and from some unexpected street side treasure: A Roman coffin turned public fountain, a marble column turned city wall, or a dark alley where the sound of water drips eternally. Rome is the city of reinvention with each subsequent structure built on the physical and symbolic history of Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the modern era.
Physicist Isaac Newton once proclaimed that: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Rome, too, can remind herself that: If I stand more powerful and majestic, it is not thanks to current accomplishment but to the bedrock of history that accumulates treasures through time and value through age. Rome, too, stands “on the shoulders of giants:” The Roman Empire gave Rome her aqueducts and temples, the Renaissance gave Rome her churches, and the hand of Mussolini gave Rome her fascist monuments and boulevards sliced through the urban core.
Despite being grounded in history, Rome is very much a city of the present. The human fabric of this city may have left the urban core with waves of gentrification and tourism, but the spirit of a living and breathing city endures. North African immigrants peddle their umbrellas and selfie-sticks in the shadows of the Coliseum. Mass with the Pope continues in Saint Peter’s beneath Michelangelo’s majestic dome. Tourists may come and go. Time may pass. The Eternal City will endure and evolve.
When I returned home, I painted a map of Rome from memory (seen above). When I gaze at this map, framed in my room, I am reminded of the generations of historians who passed before me. I wonder in what way will I contribute to understanding the built environment. Rome still appears in my dreams, where I walk through Rome on the cobblestone paths that guide me forward. When I awake, I have a mental image of where I traveled.

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Pantheon Facade