For Open City, Jerome Chou has written about the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, Deli Gentrification and the proliferation of art galleries in the Lower East Side, among other topics. Find out more about his approach to this process in the interview below. For an overview of the project, click here.
How do you define urban change?
Some basic questions that I’m trying to answer: What are the Lower East Side and Chinatown like now? How is that influenced by what has happened in the past? How are people trying to shape the future of these neighborhoods? Where these questions intersect is a definition of urban (or at least neighborhood) change. I hope all of the posts we’re writing contribute to an ongoing, working definition.
What have you been looking at specifically? And where? How are you going about investigating urban change in this project?
I wanted to be in the area as much as possible, so last November I subletted my Brooklyn apartment and took a short-term room (at double the rent) at 11 Monore St, in the heart of Fujianese Chinatown. In January I moved again to the former Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, a 100-year building converted to apartments on Henry Street, near the E. Broadway F train station.
Living in the neighborhood makes it easier to talk to people. I’ve met tai-chi students, Chinese opera singers, and soccer players in Columbus Park. Restaurant workers and owners. Heads of Business Improvement Districts and community design centers. A teacher with a Chinese American youth drum, fife, and bugle corps. A young woman who sketched on a napkin for me how her family fit 8 people in 2 bunkbeds when she was growing up. The Chinatown Progressive Association is working with a group of local high-school and college students in a program called Shared Stories; I’m working with them to develop their own narratives about being a recent immigrant in Chinatown.
Whenever possible, I tie these personal stories to all of the forces that shape neighborhoods that are not immediately visible or accessible to most people: zoning, subsidies for new residential development, rent control laws and affordable housing guidelines, demographic shifts and real estate values. I think people often feel overwhelmed by neighborhood change because it happens quickly and seems outside of anyone’s control. But in fact there are many specific decisions and policies and campaigns that have an enormous influence on neighborhood change. That means there are tools people can use to guide change. And there’s a huge opportunity for urbanists from many disciplines (architects, landscape architects, planners, graduate students, graphic designers, photographers, etc.) to research and synthesize all of this complex and often controversial material, to create visually engaging materials that make these issues more accessible to people who are most affected by neighborhood change, and to shape ongoing debates.
For instance, Community Board 3 just approved development guidelines for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, including several large parcels along Delancey Street that have been empty for 43 years. The guidelines propose a range of market-rate, moderate-income, and low-income units. Manuel Miranda and I produced an infographic juxtaposing this proposed mix against the incomes of Chinatown and Lower East Side residents. On a separate topic, Yeju Choi and I created a map of all of the bank branches in Chinatown, and I wrote about what the concentration of banks in the neighborhood means and where all of that money is going.
So this is an open call disguised as an answer to your question! I would love to hear from Urban Omnibus readers who want to get involved (email@example.com).
As someone who’s worked on diverse issues in contemporary urbanism (housing, organizing, landscape, public space, etc.), in what ways do you find blogging a useful medium of investigation of and / or communication about urban change?
Blogging has a taint of obsessiveness, and of being on the margins. Those are very good things when it comes to covering neighborhood change. It’s relatively easy and cheap to set up a blog. People in any neighborhood can do it. They can cover something that might seem unconventional or not “newsworthy,” but actually contains a great story that would’ve otherwise gone unnoticed. And neighborhood blogs are rooted in that place. Sometimes mainstream journalists cover something, then it’s off to another story somewhere else. Neighborhood blogs develop deep local knowledge, and that’s all they focus on.
What have you noticed in particular? From your observations so far, what jumps out at you? What have you particularly enjoyed writing about? What has most surprised you?
One of the best things about Open City is you have an excuse to talk to people and ask around about things that you’ve always been curious about, but never acted on. My Brooklyn neighborhood is also gentrifying, and my apartment is upstairs from one of those outpost bodegas that sell organic kombucha long before the demographic that buys those things makes a more permanent mark on the built environment. I’ve always wondered how bodegas gentrify, and how you can map neighborhood change on their shelves. So when I found the one bodega in all of Chinatown that sells $8 pints of ice cream, I had an excuse to interview the owner. (Turns out, she went to Whole Foods every day for months, watching what people bought, to figure out what upscale items to stock in her store.)
Or, to take another pet topic: Why are there so many new galleries in the area? It’s startling to walk down Orchard Street and see them all—18 in a 3-block stretch. If you look at the years these Orchard St galleries opened, almost all of then are less than two years old, which corresponds to the opening of the New Museum in 2007. But there are other factors as well. The increasing number of art school programs and graduates. The financialization of the art market, so that it’s an investment opportunity very much like real estate (and is in fact bundled like mortgages). And then there’s something less quantifiable: many gallery workers and owners talk about the neighborhood just like new residents do—they like the feel of being in a neighborhood interspersed with undergarment shops and printers, not a gallery district like Chelsea.
One last surprise: I’d always believed the cliché that New York changes so fast, it leaves no trace of history behind. Completely untrue. Evidence of the city’s history is everywhere, in the built environment and in the stories of people who live here. Once you start paying attention, it practically hits you over the head.