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Political Artistic Expression: An Alternative Approach to Activism

Dec 19 2014
By: Miranda Canilang
Categories: Blog
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On a rainy Friday night, my friends and I took a break from the student life and went to see Camille A. Brown & Dancers perform excerpts from Mr. TOL E. RAncE, Black Girl, and New Second Line at Bryn Mawr. Through beautiful choreography and music, the dances deconstructed Black mainstream media representation and confronted particularly timely issues of race, identity, and celebration of culture. Unique to other dance concerts, at then end of the show the dance company opened up a conversation for audience members to express their immediate thoughts and reactions to the pieces as well as inform the audience on the inspiration and intent behind each of them.

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While peaceful marches and public demonstrations that have been going on for the past couple months are important outlets to voice support and opinions, Camille A. Brown & Dancers shows us that there are alternative, yet equally important, approaches to activism. 

I feel like it’s my job to show… what are the things you think of when you hear the word ‘black girl’. —Camille A. Brown

Black women are trapped in the roles of angry black woman or strong black woman. —Camille A. Brown

I want people to see beyond race. I know it’s called Black Girl, but I’m also a girl, also a human being.  —Camille A. Brown

It’s also about challenging how we view the work as well. —Camille A. Brown

It’s me trying to reconcile myself with my idea of “Black girl-ness” outside of what the media is doing. It challenges you to confront your own complicity in identity.  —Dancer

When people treat Black Girls badly it feeds off onto all girls of color. —Audience member

The media doesn’t show our culture for being open and collaborative, only the arguing housewives. —Camille A. Brown

The last piece, New Second Line (2006), was inspired by the events of Hurricane Katrina and drew from New Orleans spirit and culture. This was my favorite piece artistically. The dancers came onto the stage dressed in black with umbrellas, representing the grief after Hurricane Katrina. As the piece moved on, dancers confronted the more positive strengths of persevering. What made the most powerful impact on me as a viewer was when the dancers ended the dance piece with their hands up in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pose. The lighting of the piece was also red, and as they lights went down on the stage it would be impossible not to connect the pose to the recent injustice in the Michael Brown case and Eric Garner case.

It saddens me that while many of these issues (racism, stereotypes, etc.) represented in the dance pieces are rooted historically, these issues are still reoccurring and are ever so relevant in today’s society. #BecauseIAm not part of the Black / White binary, it is easy for me to take a complacent role. However I recognize my privilege as an Asian American woman at a private elite institution and therefore strive to make my voice of support heard (or physically shown through dance) as an ally. It is not my place to lead marches or chants. Sometimes I feel that as an Asian American, it is my role to be the token Asian American present at rallies and events to show that Asian Americans do care. I know it is wrong to think that, and while I go to events for my own reasons, I sometimes wish there were more fellow Asian Americans there. I have expressed my support in other ways such as talking about the court cases with my family and friends and educating myself on the issues. Even by just attending the dance concert and supporting the arts, I have learned by listening to more opinions and interacting a different set of perspectives I would have not had access to in my personal environment. I am inspired to get back to dancing in the Spring semester with fresh enthusiasm for the intersections of the performing arts and social justice.

 

Other Artists Respond:

A group of artists started this Facebook event calling for submissions for Artists Against Police Violence: https://www.facebook.com/events/1507356286217003/

Musicians write songs protesting the non-indictments: http://www.wnyc.org/story/we-need-new-dylans-new-public-enemys-new-simones-new-de-la-rochas/

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On Ferguson, Part I: 99 Questions

Dec 04 2014
By: Celeste Chen
Categories: Blog
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In light of the events in Ferguson and the most recent non-indictment in the Eric Garner/Officer Pantaleo case –and the ensuing reactions –this isn’t going to be a very policy-heavy series posts.

 

In terms of Ferguson, if my newsfeed looks anything like yours, you’ve already been inundated with statistics about how often grand juries indict, transcripts of Darren Wilson’s cross-examination, Facebook statuses revealing the location of the next protest, videos of rallies in and around your city, and the list goes on and on and on. If not, then I highly suggest that you go and read and spend a few hours digesting all of this information.

 

Instead, this series of posts is going to be a combination of my personal response, a  dialogue about why what happened to Michael Brown and Eric Garner matters to Asian Americans (i.e. Vincent Chin, LA riots horizontal oppression, Asian American and African American relations), and a brief examination of the public policy that runs through the events in Ferguson.

 

First things first: I had been on a 10-hour trip from DC to Boston when the news broke that the St. Louis County grand jury had decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. I did not find out until the next morning, and this is going to be my first point. If the community was asked not to protest in the evening of the grand jury’s decision, then why was the announcement made at 8pm?

 

It’s such a great example of the sort of half-baked decisions that officials in St. Louis are making: There is no way they would not have known that of course there would be riots in the evening following the grand jury’s decision. If they had wanted to avoid the scale of protests that went long into the night, then why not announce the news the morning after, or perhaps even just a few hours earlier than 8pm?

 

Moreover, the sensationalism of the protests is disappointing. Many news outlets have labeled the protests and rallies as “riots,” and while it is true that local stores were looted (more on that soon enough), the media has done a less-than-stellar job of reporting on the number of peaceful, nonviolent protests –not just in Ferguson, but in cities around the country and the world.  Consider this: It becomes a phenomenon wildly accepted–even anticipated–for sports fans to loot after their home team wins or loses. It even becomes a humorous story when the so-called rioters loot the surrounding area after a pumpkin festival?, etc.

 

Simply put, the news media covers and labels the actions of a community in mourning and anger in a wholly skewed manner. Why is a whole community demonized? Why are its residents labeled as “rioters”= rather than “protestors,” when elsewhere their white counterparts become the object of gentle humor, rather than an unquiet contempt?

 

Perhaps even more important, I find all the “devil’s advocates” creeping out of the woodwork incredibly disheartening. You may have seen a handful of posts like this, where black officers have shot white men, where terrible things have happened to white/non-Black people on account of a black man/black men.

 

This is not to say that one should disregard those lives and those deaths. But the thing is, that is neither here nor there. Being outraged that the response of the white/whole community to the death of a white man at the hands of a black man is not equivalent to the way that the nation reacted to Mike Brown’s death is foolish at best for simply the following reason: The death of a white man at the hands of a black officer is an exception, whereas the death of Mike Brown at the hands of a white officer is commonplace. That is something about which so many are enraged: the product of a flawed justice system, the many black lives and deaths that are swept under the rug, the frequency with which a whole community suffers the loss of its men and women.

 

There is no need to “whitesplain” away. If you may be outraged and irritated over the “big deal” that people are making about Ferguson, why are you not also outraged that this happens everyday? Do you not also have outrage for the death of a teenager? Do you not also have outrage for a community that has been so often oppressed that parents must teach their children how to dress and act and try harder than their white/non-black counterparts so as to avoid being shot? Why is there not also outrage over his death and his death and her death and his death? If there is outrage over the money lost due to looting and damage to property, why is there not also outrage over the incredible loss of life?

 

At the end of the day, there is no need for a “devil’s advocate” in this situation, simply because this is not a conceptual or philosophical argument. That is not allyship or “furthering the dialogue” or “raising innocent questions.” We are not arguing over whether or not it would be morally ethical to assassinate Kim Il-sung if time travel were possible. Rather, we are talking about a community that has borne a history that perpetuates racism: zoning policies that segregate along race and class lines, segregated housing projects that favor one race over the other, redevelopment projects that shift “ghettos” rather than clean up slums, and “denial of adequate municipal services” in ghettos, maintaining the status quo and preventing slums from improvement. Michael Brown’s death was the last straw.

 

We are ultimately looking at a problem that is systematic, where oppression and racism is not found only on an individual-by-individual basis. Nonviolence is surely necessary, but citing a Martin Luther King Jr. quote on peace and nonviolence in order to criticize or in an attempt to direct the way that the people of Ferguson are expressing their rage is not conducive to anything at all; rather, it’s incredibly patronizing.

 

There is no space for moral podiums here. I don’t see that right now; I see people writing off the events of Ferguson and being frustrated with those who are protesting. I can already count up the many who have already decided to ignore the events because “too much has happened” and they see it as old news. That’s privilege right there: having the ability to ignore something that will not ever be a personal concern or that won’t infringe upon one’s daily life. For many in the United States of America –from the black community to our undocumented immigrants –the events of Ferguson cannot be ignored. They cannot ignore it because when the grand jury decided not to indict, our justice system told our brothers and sisters that their lives will not be taken seriously. Our justice system showed that, for some Americans, the police force will be favored over their communities and their lives.

 

Ultimately, this is not a conceptual exercise; it is a reality, and steps should be taken to heal this community and meet them where they are. Instead, we see 12 year old boys playing with toy guns being shot by police officers. We see serial killers like James Eagan Holmes walking away alive after gunning down twelve people, but boys like Tamir Rice shot for waving a toy gun. We see those tasked with preserving and enforcing the law instead taking advantage of it. Look at what happened to Eric Garner. We see statistic after statistic after statistic.

 

And on that note, Happy Holidays.

 

 

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ECAASU Statement on Ferguson Grand Jury Decision

Nov 30 2014
By: daniel.hoddinott@ecaasu.org
Categories: Blog, Advocacy, Blog, Blog, Official Statements
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Following the announcement from the the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri to not indict Officer Darren Wilson, the East Coast Asian American Student Union (ECAASU) issues the following statement:

As a social justice organization, ECAASU is extremely disappointed that no indictment was brought against Officer Darren Wilson for his shooting and killing of Michael Brown. We believe that this decision brings no justice, no peace, and no accountability for Michael Brown and his family. We urge that a further investigation be done by the Department of Justice. We believe that police violence and racial profiling have no place in today’s society. The unarmed shootings and violent deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and countless other individuals by those who have been responsible for our protection and safety are unfortunate reminders of the daily injustices faced by People of Color. The system of justice has once again failed us and we are calling for change.

Until change comes, we will continue to serve as allies and stand against racial injustice, and stand in solidarity with our fellow Americans for whom racial injustice is an everyday reality. We urge people to continue to protest the decision peacefully. We want to continue to honor what The Brown family said, “Let’s not make noise, let’s make change.”  We urge the Asian American and Pacific Islander community to come together and work with other communities to make a difference in preventing these tragedies from happening again.

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"There's A Fine, Fine Line Between" Art and Racism

Nov 28 2014
By: Miranda Canilang
Categories: Blog
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Watching the 1961 Rodgers and Hammerstein Flower Drum Song musical film over and over again was an activity I automatically associated with my childhood visits to my Gong Gong and Po Po’s (Grandfather and Grandmother in Cantonese) house. My Gong Gong even went so far as burning the soundtrack on a CD so I could go home and sing “Chop Suey” whenever I wanted to, or pretend I was half as pretty as Nancy Kwan.

It wasn’t until college when I asked my Chinese American friend if she liked Flower Drum Song too that I learned there were racist undertones. Among these racist stereotypes portrayed in the musical are the Dragon Lady (Linda Low) and Lotus Blossom Baby (Mei-Li). Not to mention the political incorrectness of a “glamorous” Chinatown and illegal immigration issues.

Heartbroken by this news, I wondered if it was possible to reappropriate these old school musicals created by non-Asians and turn them into something worth appreciating. Flower Drum Song was written around the time of the Civil Rights Movement, where heightened racial sensitivity may have partially played a role in its initial flop at the box office. It is important to recognize that Flower Drum Song brought together an almost all-Asian American professional cast, a great feat at that time when non-Asians portrayed Asians and most films did not feature Asians as leads at all.

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The Real Asian Woman

Nov 23 2014
By: Cat Ye
Categories: Blog
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This piece was inspired by recently by revisiting my favorite YouTube comedian David So: In his v-log 113 (“Asian Women Are Submissive!”), he tackles the common Western stereotype that Asian women are…well…submissive. While this is a trope that has been talked to death and back again, he adds a layer to the conversation by contributing his experience as a(n Asian) male with Asian women. “My mother ran a business, made that guap, fed me kimchi, and still had time to whup my motherf*cking *ss, and if that’s not the definition of strength then I don’t know what is.” And this is why I love David So, ladies and gentlemen. Not only is he genuinely and effortlessly hilarious, he makes incredibly valid points in a way that makes an impression. One such observation is the following: “If you are going to base your perception of Asian women from a film, why not Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon? Asian women kick ass!”

But we’re not here to talk about how great David So is. We’re here to talk about the real Asian woman–the one who fed and coddled you, who pushed and scolded you, who, throughout it all, never stopped giving you her love. So in a great comedian’s words…1 2 3, son, let’s get it, leggo!

The real Asian woman is a daughter, a mother, a sister, a grandmother, a best friend, a classmate, a girlfriend. Like every other woman, she holds grace and poise, is full to the brim with strength and resolve, is unrelenting and ambitious in her endeavors. Like David So, I can only share my personal experiences, and here goes–my own experiences with the women from my own family, my own inner circle.

My mother, from my first conscious memory, has been the strongest person I know. Leaving behind security in China for myriad possibilities in the States, she then proceeded to make the biggest sacrifice she could–her career for our (her children’s) cohesive family life. Over the years, she’s been nothing but supportive, and nothing short of incredibly inspiring.

My grandmother, in one word, is resilient. Coming to a foreign country at her age, speaking little of the language, with the rest of her kin back in China, was horribly daunting. Yet she faced it with the determination and stubbornness that runs in all the women in my family–and all the Asian women I’ve met in my life.

My aunt embodies the concept of inner drive. Despite all the setbacks in her life, she charges forward, her personality and passion blazing paths before her. She takes no one’s bullsh*t and knows exactly what she wants from life–and takes it.

My best friend has a heart of gold. She will be everyone’s pillar of support, selflessly giving so that she may be another’s strength. She has been there for me through thick and thin, without skipping a beat in her career and academic goals. I could not be prouder of or more grateful for her.

As for me? I’ve learned from the women in my life all the qualities above. I am happy to say that I am independent but not averse to collaboration, persistent and stubborn but willing to compromise, focused and determined but still multi-faceted as an individual. I am inspired daily by the strength and ambition of the Asian women in my life, from Juliet Shen to Lucy Liu, to my flatmate and even to everyday strangers encounters.

Reflect on the Asian women you know and consider again whether there is any truth to the stereotype set forth by Hollywood and Western netizen culture. It’s easy to see that, when compared to real life, the tropes simply hold no water.

pc: Peter Ou

 

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#BringBackSelfie

Nov 16 2014
By: Alice Tsui
Categories: Blog
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By now you must have seen via #BringBackSelfie on Twitter that ABC decided to officially cancel the show. #epicfail on ABC’s part just as Selfie was finally on the upswing, so let’s recap the latest episodes.

Episode 5: Even Hell Has Two Bars

Two bars of what you ask? Cell phone service. Henry and Eliza are invited to spend the weekend at the lavish estate of their boss, where there is absolutely no cell phone service to Eliza’s dismay. Henry has been preparing for this moment for years with horse riding lessons, but Eliza seems to ruin all his plans to talk about himself and being promoted when she keeps spontaneously suggesting more “fun” activities like tanning and celebrity watching, since there is no chance for her to update Instagram. Through Eliza’s efforts to chill out Henry, the two get into an argument… but that doesn’t last for long when Henry finds out that his boss promotes him since he was indeed able to let loose. At the end, Henry sees Eliza trying to find a signal while walking around in the woods and comes riding up in a horse. A bit of flirting ensues, only to result in the two pulling out their phones when the somehow at that moment, cell phone signal is revived.

Episode 6: Never Block Cookies

In an unrelated next episode, “Never Block Cookies” features Eliza and Charmonique teaming up to get Henry laid in order to relax. The two ladies try to help Henry out by trying to initiate a spark between him and the barista, and then setting up a mixer of single women for him. There was even a scene where Eliza tries to give Henry tips on dating and Henry pulls Eliza in by the waist. Up. Close. But, Henry claims to be looking for the real deal and in comparison to the previous episode, the ending is a little forgettable.

Perhaps the order of the two episodes should have been switched to leave the audience with a stronger, more impressionable ending to the night. Regardless, there’s no real save for the show now. With only one definite episode left to air, we are left wondering why ABC pulled the plug so fast on a show that captured genuine moments from our everyday lives – both awkward and sweet.

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Come to the Culture Show: A Made-Up Guide of How to Share and Preserve Our Traditions (If only it were that easy!)

Nov 14 2014
By: Miranda Canilang
Categories: Blog
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This Saturday is my college, Bryn Mawr’s, Asian American Culture Show, also known as Asian American Students’ Association’s (AASA) biggest event of the year. After months of preparation and lost hours of sleep, I’m taking a step back and reflecting on the overall process.

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At a small liberal arts college, there’s no film school to shoot a professional looking teaser. There’s no arts school to design the posters and graphics. As a result, those English and Physics majors have to step up to the plate. I’ve successfully mastered the art of iMovie and Apple Pages (I’m too cheap for Final Cut Pro and Photoshop). Though a trailer and posters are nice to have (and of course, a Facebook page and event), our tangible presence via flyers around campus matters just as much as our online social media presence. Maybe the one definite benefit of a small school is a small campus to spread flyers around.

East coast colleges are also at a slight disadvantage due to location. East coast, small, higher education institutions are not diverse enough to have students to represent every type of Asian affinity group. It’s a wide known fact that California is the heart of Asian America and the entertainment industry. This year, my AASA are flying in two spoken word artists from California. Those plane tickets add up. That’s not to say there aren’t any new emerging Asian American artists on the East Coast, you just might have to search harder.

The great thing about student events is that there will always be school funding for your event. (As if putting together a single event is a representative for the college’s so-called “rich” diversity). In real life, though, who supports the arts? Even more importantly, who supports a minority’s art? If we don’t continue passing down our history and culture, no one will.

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An Alliance For All Asian Americans

Nov 13 2014
By: Shan Lin
Categories: Blog
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I attend a predominantly white institution (PWI). Within the last decade, The Princeton Review ranked Dickinson College the most preppy. I remember my first impression of the school during re-visit my senior year of high school. In the first week of classes, I attended the student activities fair. I passed by a sakura blossom- themed table and noticed that the members did not appear Asian. Across the aisle was the “Asian American Alliance.” A handful of upperclassmen wore t-shirts saying “S.W.A.G. Something We Asians Got” across the back. During the 2012 academic year, the Asian American Alliance (AAA) had been Student Senate recognized for one semester. The neat fragment of its history is that there was an organic coming together of these students. They come from New York City, Texas, Virginia,and Los Angeles. Many of them were half-Asians (or HAPA’s) and some were born offshore (but raised in The States). My freshman year enthused me with an undergraduate social life with Asian American classmates among the predominantly white peers. Those who were not interested in the Asian American Alliance were fraternity and sorority members. “Passing as white” or not identifying with an Asian American identity was a topic of conversation among the club members.

With senior members graduating, the organization remained “top-heavy” in its percentage of upperclassmen. Underclassmen recruiting was grim and I was among the first to join. We held weekly discussions led by students and faculty. In less than ten weeks, a rotation among the active members that presented a topic was completed. Our model for weekly conversation was running dry. Membership, leadership, and participation was dwindling. The semesters before I began classes were the best. Before formal school recognition, APIA students were interested in fundraising, partying, and lounging in public locations. Those beginning moments were as close to a sports team or a sorority as I have personally experienced. I collected the stories of my elder classmates and clung to those reiterations of a golden age for Asian American advocacy. What lies ahead for AAA’s future is unclear. I believe that participation in organizations such as ECAASU is critical to furthering AAA’s, and other colleges’ APIA student groups, missions. With their annual conferences at an east coast university, ECAASU can provide an extensive network to help connect numerous advocacy groups. The result could be a stronger Asian American presence among colleges that can spread westward, going further than Philadelphia.

 

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On Catcalls

Nov 08 2014
By: Cat Ye
Categories: Blog
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In light of the recent, long-overdue buzz over street harassment of women, I thought I would add to the discourse a narrative of the particular type of harassment that I, and many women like me, have had to suffer through daily. I am an Asian woman, early 20s, who walks paths all over the city: from East Harlem to the Lower East Side, from the West Village to Brooklyn, and most often, in the heart of the NYU Manhattan campus. But regardless of where I am or what time it is, the one experience I’ve gotten used to in life is the catcall. And not just any catcall–I am referring to the racially charged catcall that seems to haunt my steps.

 

For some reason, my ethnicity has yet again seemed to take the priority in my outward identity. “Hey China doll, why don’t you come on over and show me a happy ending?” 5pm. In the middle of winter. All he could see was my face, but that was apparently enough to warrant the comment in broad daylight, surrounded by two of his buddies and a few random strangers walking by on the sidewalk. Unafraid, in broad daylight, because he knew that his comparative status of a man with a few friends, versus mine, of a lone Asian woman, made his abuse beyond reproach–as long as I cared about my safety. All I wanted was to get from point A to point B. What I got instead was discomfort and raw nerves for the rest of my commute.

 

It is at this point that I’d like to address the naysayers and haters–because I know you’re already raising your hackles. “But not all men are like that! Surely you must have been wearing something scandalous…and if you’re walking around at x time, you’re practically asking for it. How can you expect not to be catcalled? Take it for what it is–a compliment.”

 

To all of this, I say hell to the no. There is nothing flattering about being catcalled. As brilliantly summarized in a cartoon by Robot Hugs, catcalling and harassment is not about appreciation or desire: it is all about power and control. It is an act of aggression, a hostile vehicle used to project dominance and reinforce a feeling of superiority. There is nothing anyone can do to deserve this kind of treatment at any time. Women have the rights to our bodies as much as do men, and we deserve the freedom of expression so easily given to our male counterparts. If women have learned to avoid the darkness for fear of rape and unwanted advances, surely it must be common knowledge that this harassment is both a common and unacceptable problem, that no woman is an exception to this crime. How could we expect not to be catcalled? This should be a no-brainer. Because we’re human beings. Because we deserve respect. Because men should know better.

 

For women of color, there is one more layer added to this harassment. All catcalling is horrible and is unjustifiable in every way, and the addition of racism to this harassment is downright unbearable. Not only am I a victim because I am a woman, I am made into a victim again as an Asian. The color of my skin is no excuse to further disrespect me.

 

Despite their immense relevance to life and their too-belated trending, #yesallwomen came and went, and so will the buzz over this video. It’s up to us to make sure this conversation doesn’t end, that we keep making the important points, that our experiences are no longer belittled, that men and women alike own up and take responsibility and do their part to make street harassment a thing of the past.

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Zoning: A Quieter Kind of Story

Nov 04 2014
By: Celeste Chen
Categories: Blog
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To be perfectly honest, before this past week, zoning had never really been an issue that I seriously considered. It wasn’t health policy, immigration reform, or any of the other “hot” policy topics that I held near and dear to my heart.

However, a confluence of factors drove me to explore the nuts and bolts of zoning.

First, I came across this story, profiling 75-year old Gum Gee Lee’s story of how she, her husband, and her disabled daughter were evicted from their San Francisco Chinatown apartment so that it could be remodeled and sold as a luxury unit. This process is commonly referred to as gentrification.

Her words stuck with me: Upon stepping into the newly renovated, $759, 000 apartment unit for which she once paid $778 per month, she said,

If I won the lottery, I would buy this place –even if it cost me more…Because even when I dream, I still think about this place.”

Also, I was in the middle of doing research on federal emergency response in New York City’s Chinatown in the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, and I repeatedly stumbled across Chinatown residents in New York pushing for a “Special Zoning District.” What role did zoning play in Gum Gee Lee’s story? Why was it a focal point in every policy recommendation about NYC’s Chinatown that I came across?

According to the New York City Department of Planning, zoning is a “key tool for carrying out planning policy.” To be more specific, designating a neighborhood or area as a specific “zone” carries with it a set of rules for what developers, landlords, and other commercial/housing bigwigs can do.

Useful terms before moving on: (you can find a more in-depth examination here)

  • - A zone can be commercial, residential, industrial, or mixed use, and zones differ mainly in terms of the building height and density of “dwelling units” or living spaces.
  • - Usually zones are named in a [letter][number] style, e.g. R6; the letter indicates the type of development (Residential, Commercial, Manufacturing) and the numbers reflect the density that is allowed, with higher numbers representing a higher accepted density.
  • - Upzoning means that the height and density of new buildings can be increased, which promotes new development. This means that private developers, hotels, and other commercial entities can come into a neighborhood and build higher, build more, and build for the wealthy.
  • - Downzoning, on the other hand, means that the amount of allowable building space is capped at a lower number, thus preventing the construction of luxury high-rises and maintaining a neighborhood’s local businesses and resident demographics.

Why is this so important? Because zoning regulations essentially control how much a neighborhood can be developed, a neighborhood’s zone can be a critical factor in enabling or preventing gentrification, thus making zoning an important concern for residents such as those in major Chinatowns across the United States.

Zoning determines whether low-income apartments can be transformed into luxury high-rises or whether large commercial brands can swoop in and replace smaller mom-and-pop stores. Zoning, essentially, can lead to either the displacement or preservation of lower income communities.

In 2008, East Village –a community where the income bracket is generally higher than those found in the Lower East Side and Chinatown –was downzoned: Building heights and unit densities were capped, affordable housing was incentivized, and hotels and dorms no longer received zoning bonuses. Chinatown and the Lower East Side were markedly excluded from this rezoning.

Because developers now faced more restrictions in East Village in terms of how they could build and develop, Chinatown and the Lower East Side were now more vulnerable: Without the downzoned privileges that East Village enjoyed, these communities –where a great number of low-income, immigrants worked –became more attractive targets for luxury development. Unlike the East Village, neither Chinatown nor the Lower East Side zoned in a manner that allowed them to incentivize renovating pre-existing buildings; instead, demolition became the developers’ preferred choice.  Consequently, as more of the Lower East Side and Chinatown became developed for commercial interests, the neighborhood physically changed, affordable housing dwindled, and residents were pushed out.

Some important numbers:

  • 1. According to the 2010 Census, over the past ten years, New York City’s Chinatown “lost 17% of its Chinese residents, or some 6000 Chinese New Yorkers.” This drain has been exacerbated in part by forced evictions just like that of Gum Gee Lee’s. On a broader timesale, this drain also stands as the culminating result of the economic losses sustained by many Chinatown small businesses, garment factories, and employees in the wake of September 11th.
  • 2. Between 2002 and 2009, an estimated 9000 rent-regulated areas in Chinatown were replaced and their residents displaced.
  • 3. Moreover, in a 2010 report and survey, more than 83% of Chinatown residents have seen their rent increase between 2007 and 2010.

A downward spiral of gentrification is thus set in place by zoning and its implications. Zoning, in its essence, shapes neighborhoods and cities. This is why residents in New York City’s Chinatown have been pushing for a Special-Zoning District designation.

What would such a designation do? It would ideally include “anti-demolition, anti-harassment and anti-eviction provisions as well as limits on the kinds of businesses that can open in the neighborhood.” Special-Zoning would protect small business owners. It would also install provisions that allow for affordable housing that would provide for lower income, immigrant families.

Otherwise, how many other Gum Gee Lees will become evicted because their landlords want to turn a profit? How else can residents stop the changing tide of gentrification? How many more small businesses will lose to conglomerates that swallow up the once-distinct faces of neighborhoods?

And the larger questions: What will become of our Chinatowns? What will happen to their communities? Are these spaces destined to become relics of the past? And if this can happen to such a distinct part of America’s urban landscape, what other communities, what other parts of our cities, are at risk?

For Further Reading:

http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/04/special-district-zoning-is-urged-for-chinatown/

http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20140514/lower-east-side/low-income-housing-advocates-push-for-more-units-chinatown-les

Reports

http://caaav.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Chinatown_Report_FINAL.pdf

http://www.chinatownworkinggroup.org/Two-Bridges_Framework%20to%20Preserve%20Chinatown%20LES.pdf

http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/ccpd/repository/files/rezoning-proposal-10_25_10final-draft.pdf

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