LOCKED OUT AT 81 BOWERY: THE FIGHT FOR HOME CONTINUES
CINEVUE: On March the 7th the tenants on the fourth floor of 81 Bowery Street were evicted in a raid by city officials, citing safety violations. The crammed tenement is the hub of low-income immigrants whose housing options have been diminished by the ongoing gentrification of the neighborhood. Documentary activist ManSee Kong (AAIFF’09, AAIFF’11) has been following the tenants of 81 Bowery SRO (Single Room Occupancy) since 2005. Her documentary short HERE TO STAY(2008) follows one of the tenant, Mr. Wong, faced with the previous eviction of the premises; and her narrative short ROOM #11 (2011), represents the vulnerable conditions of undocumented immigrants exposed to such threat of displacement. We have invited Sukjong Hong, writer and Asian American Writers’ Workshop Open City Fellow, to cover in this feature article how these two films should relate to the current state of 81 Bowery and why the battle is important to every reader/viewer. The latest update is that CAAAV Chinatown Tenants Union is holding a press conference at noon on Sunday, March 31st in front of 81 Bowery. Read on and show your support!
LOCKED OUT AT 81 BOWERY: THE FIGHT FOR HOME CONTINUES
HERE TO STAY (2008) and ROOM #11 (2011), two films by ManSee Kong
Words by Sukjong Hong
“If they evict us, we wouldn’t know where to go,” says 80-year-old Wong Pui Tak, a retired Chinatown restaurant worker, in HERE TO STAY, a short documentary film by ManSee Kong. In the film, Mr. Wong speaks on behalf of himself and the more than thirty residents of 81 Bowery’s fourth floor SRO as they struggle to keep their homes. When a new landlord takes over the building in 2003, he tries to evict everyone from the fourth floor, and the tenants fight back. But in 2008, an anonymous tip about dangerous living conditions triggered an emergency eviction by the city. It took the landlord nine months to make the required repairs, but in 2009, Mr. Wong and many other tenants finally returned home. How could he expect that just a few years after winning that long battle, that he would find himself locked out again?
HERE TO STAY (dir. ManSee Kong, 2008); Video Courtesy of Third World Newsreel
However, on March 7th, he and the other residents of 81 Bowery came home and found the doors of their units broken down. They were told that they couldn’t stay because of fire hazards, and later, an additional hazard of gas leaks. There was no warning, no time to prepare. This time it was not because of their landlord, but because this CNN clip had spurred a viewer in Arizona to report the building to the Fire Department of New York. When CNN returned to cover the eviction, they ended their coverage with, “It’s so sad for him, but, boy, it does look like a fire trap, doesn’t it?”
Who speaks for the benefit of the tenants at 81 Bowery? Is it CNN, whose coverage of the “dirty, dangerous” “fire trap” has resulted in all of the tenants being evicted? What is missing from the all-too-common portrayal of low-income immigrants as uneducated, helpless, and ‘other’? For one, the stereotype of the immigrant as victim ignores the history of many organizing for better conditions.
When they were evicted in 2008, the tenants at 81 Bowery, along with the Chinatown Tenants Union, spoke at rallies and press conferences to pressure the landlord and the city so they could return to their homes. Before this, they had sent hundreds of complaints to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) about dangerous wiring, broken windows and bathroom stalls, and other unsafe conditions. In the wake of this eviction, the tenants are again meeting at the Chinatown Tenants’ Union and planning a series of actions to make it clear that they plan to return home to 81 Bowery. Alongside them, Kong is filming in an effort to make a follow-up film that supports their organizing and highlights the impact of gentrification in Chinatown.
Kong first got to know the tenants in 2005 while working as a youth program coordinator and organizer at CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, which runs the Chinatown Tenants Union. While taking Third World Newsreel’s Production Workshop in 2005, she began working on HERE TO STAY as a way of using videography and filmmaking as an organizing tool.
When she interviewed Mr. Wong for the film, he was one of the leaders of the 81 Bowery tenants. Despite his advanced years, he was one of the most outspoken and persistent, rallying the other tenants to stand together. He has lived in Chinatown since 1977, and, as he says in the film, Chinatown then was far more affordable than it is now.
For now, Mr. Wong is staying in temporary housing provided by HPD. But, as is true for many of the evicted tenants, the daily commute and its cost is taking its toll. Kong shared, “Now that he has to spend his limited money on Metro Cards to go to Chinatown, he is no longer able to cook his regular meals and has taken to eating ramen for dinner most nights. He’s never left Chinatown, and has twice taken the wrong subway, towards the wrong direction.” For other tenants, especially those who are undocumented, their shelter situation is even more uncertain, as they are ineligible for temporary housing from the Red Cross or the city. Some are crashing with relatives or friends, and one tenant, Kong said, told her he was sleeping on the subway.
ROOM #11 (dir. ManSee Kong, 2011); Video Courtesy of ManSee Kong
The short film “Room 11” by ManSee Kong (2011) also centers on the precarious life of the tenants at 81 Bowery. The short tells the story of a mother and daughter who, in the midst of eating dinner, are suddenly notified of their eviction. But out of fear, and perhaps as a small act of defiance, the mother refuses to open the door to the pounding city workers. It is a moment that returned to haunt Kong as she and several CTU organizers knocked on the doors of tenants this March to notify everyone of the eviction and an emergency meeting. She recalled, “When I arrived at the door of a grandmother’s room, I knocked, but it remained closed, even though I could see her moving around inside. I knocked again, and gave her the update from the other side of the door. Not a single peep was heard from the other side. But she was there. I could almost sense her fear through the door. It was so upsetting to realize, at that moment, that this was happening to them again.”
Of course, 81 Bowery is not the only building where low-income tenants are finding themselves squeezed out. 11 Allen Street, 55 Delancey and 61 Delancey are other buildings where low-income Chinese and Latino tenants are being pressured to leave by their landlords but have resisted for years. One only need walk down the streets to see that Chinatown and the Lower East Side are transforming at breakneck speed, as tenements and factory buildings give way to high rise luxury buildings.
According to Helena Wong, Executive Director at CAAAV, what is happening in Chinatown shows a pattern of development that privileges the wealthy and is making it inaccessible for the residents who have lived there for decades. “Supermarkets that provided basic affordable necessities have closed, like the Pathmark and the Hong Kong Supermarket, and safety nets are disappearing, like public housing.”
She continued, “It’s not only in Chinatown; New York City as a whole has been going through a process where there’s no affordable housing. But the city has always been a city for new immigrants. The fight in Chinatown is coming from the heart and soul of NYC; immigrants provide invisible labor, but are often underemployed, exploited, so they’ve created community where they can support each other and survive.”
This is why CAAAV and its Chinatown Tenants’ Union continues to support and organize low-income tenants. Wong asserted, “For us, it’s about preserving ‘community,’ which is at the heart & soul of NYC.”
This larger pattern of displacement is what Kong wants to highlight in her follow-up film about 81 Bowery. She wants people to see what is happening to low-income families, and know that there are groups like CAAAV to support and be involved with. And while she is still in the middle of filming, she is already envisioning how she would like the film to be shared – not necessarily on the festival circuit, but passed around by bootleg DVD sellers to the Chinatown community itself. “I’m tired of people looking in from the outside at places like the Bowery and Chinatown and saying, ‘Gentrification is really sad,’ and just stopping there. I want community members to see the potential of organizing to improve their own conditions. Since most of our community members consume DVDs and videos as a way to unwind after a long work day, they are an important way to reach our community.”
CAAAV members were at 81 Bowery when the eviction was taking place, and released a statement with four key demands, listed here: 1) The landlord correct the violations that are preventing the tenants to be able to return to their homes; 2) The FDNY and all relevant agencies expedite the process to lift the vacate order; 3) The residents are provided housing by the City each and every day the vacate order is in effect; 4) The preservation of truly affordable housing at 81 Bowery be the priority of the City.
CAAAV’s Chinatown Tenants Union continues to support the evicted tenants. They are planning a press conference at noon on Sunday, March 31st in front of 81 Bowery. For those who have an interest in supporting the organizing work of CTU, and especially those who can speak an Asian language, CTU is always looking for volunteers.
When people ask how they can help, however, Helena stressed the importance of first asking: Is the struggle of the tenants your struggle? How is the struggle for affordable housing and community survival critical to your life? From rezoning plans to the proposed leasing of public housing land to private developers, there are numerous processes that contribute to gentrification, and just as many routes for the public to organize and intervene.
You can find updates on the 81 Bowery tenant situation at www.caaav.org or by following CAAAV on twitter @caaav.
MANSEE KONG is an independent filmmaker whose work focuses on the experiences of immigrants in the U.S., and empowerment through grassroots community organizing. Her work has screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, various film festivals, and community-based spaces. Visit her website here.
SUKJONG HONG is a New York–based writer and activist. She receives the Open City Fellowship of the Asian American Writers Workshop and contributes to Open City magazine, published by AAWW that documents the pulse of metropolitan Asian America as it’s being lived on the streets of New York right now.