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.
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
These frogs, marketed as seafood and known as “Field Chicken,” are sold for $5.19 each.
This all purpose establishment advertises the following services:
Western Chinese Music
Funerals and Birthdays
(selected from college application essay to Columbia College)
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.”
Strolling through the forest alone is a magical experience. The world of nature embraces me from all sides, making me feel at one with it. I momentarily transcend time and the ephemeral nature of my existence. I am at one with the eternal.
The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine soars above the low-slung tenements and boxy towers that edge up against it on all sides.
Unfinished it survives; funds have long since dried up in our era of secularism and consumerism. Yet powerful it stands; solid stone will outlive concrete and glass any day.
Five hundred years from now, the urban environment may change. Glass behemoths may rise and fall and condo homes may come and go, but this monument to past ages will stand, solid as ever.
Its soaring jagged silhouette seems to proclaim against the soot that darkens its façade and the urban din that drowns out the sanctity of silence: Come weather, wind, or rain, I will remain.