and Resistance in Sunset Park
How arts and tech can preserve intergenerational neighborhood stories and fight back against gentrification.
November 1, 2018
Teresa Gutierrez’s cadences in Spanish pulsated through the television screen as she described the changes happening in Sunset Park, her neighborhood in Brooklyn.““The rents are so high that our community can’t find decent housing or a healthy place to live for themselves,” Gutierrez, a long-time resident and immigrant rights organizer, said. “We need to organize to protect ourselves to know our rights.”
Gutierrez was among numerous Sunset Park residents who were interviewed by multimedia artist and activist Betty Yu for her interactive, multimedia exhibit, “(Dis)Placed in Sunset Park.”
“Sunset Park is home to one of the largest populations of Chinese residents in New York City, exceeding the number of those living in Manhattan’s Chinatown.”
Yu, a long-time Sunset Park resident, opened her exhibit highlighting the accelerated gentrification and community resistance in Sunset Park in September at the Open Source Gallery, in the heart of where she conducted her interviews.
Attendees were immersed in a curation of photographs, maps, and short films that brought to life stories of how Latinx and Chinese residents have created home in Sunset Park, intertwined with their concerns and organizing work against displacement today.
Sunset Park is home to one of the largest populations of Chinese residents in New York City, exceeding the number of those living in Manhattan’s Chinatown. They mostly live in the 8th Avenue area of the neighborhood, while Latinx residents live in the 5th Avenue vicinity. Today, about 50 percent of residents are Latinx, from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and other parts of Latin America, while 40 percent are Asians, mostly Chinese. There is also a growing Arab and Muslim community from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, and other countries in the Middle East.
In the last decade, the neighborhood has been a prime target of real estate developers that has led to accelerated displacement. Developers have been pushing to change zoning and land-use laws in Sunset Park so they can build more luxury housing and commercial buildings, especially in areas like Industry City.
A complex of former manufacturing buildings owned by Jamestown Market, Industry City is one example of a project that is already displacing long-time residents, especially in the Latinx segment of the neighborhood below 5th Avenue. A $1-billion venture that spans seven waterfront blocks from 32nd to 39th Streets, Industry City is being designed to be one of the country’s largest innovation-maker hubs. The development comes at a large cost to the neighborhood, as it attracts college-educated professionals and simultaneously pushes out working-class residents.
“A lot of my friends in the 4th Avenue side are gone, because they’ve been displaced,” Yu said. “It’s really weird walking around there. Because what’s happening there is about to hit the Chinatown part,“ she continued.
Along with local organizers and scholars Joanne Zhao, Shaun Lin, and Tarry Hum, Yu co-founded the Protect 8th Avenue Coalition after seeing the gentrification descend on 8th Avenue with not much action from local service-based non-profit organizations.
The coalition brings together local residents and activists concerned about the impact of new commercial developments in the Chinatown part of Sunset Park. Their latest primary focus is on the proposed Eighth Avenue Center shopping complex, a new mega-development that would include an 11-story hotel, two 12-story condominium buildings, and a 12-story shopping center in the heart of 8th Avenue. The coalition is raising awareness of how this complex, developed by New Empire Corporation, would threaten the livelihoods and homes of working-class immigrants on 8th Ave, affecting over 40,000 residents.
“Developers have such a stronghold on the 8th Avenue narrative,” Yu explained. “A lot of people I talk to on 8th Avenue say, ‘these people look like me though, so it’s not insidious.’ In Chinatown, Manhattan, it’s galleries, white hipsters, and businesses they know aren’t serving them. In Flushing and in Sunset Park 8th Avenue, they look like them. So they think ‘oh it’s for us.’”
Yu and other members of the Protect 8th Avenue Coalition mobilized to attend a scoping hearing led by NYC’s Department of City Planning. At the hearing, they testified against the proposed complex, arguing that it would negatively impact the community. Under the plan, the complex is mandated to build units of affordable housing with its development.
“At the hearing, we found out that the median income to qualify for affordable housing is $82,000,” Yu said. “Yet, a family of four in Sunset Park Chinatown, and probably the Latino part, makes $32,000 a year. So clearly it’s not for us.”
“A lot of communities are losing their generational wealth, in terms of the history and the community knowledge, because we’re all being pushed out. People can’t afford to live here anymore.”
Thus, for Yu, this exhibit, which she’s been working on for over two years now, is intimately personal as it is political for herself and her community.
“The aim is to help use this to advance organizing and activism. But it is also therapeutic for me too, because I need an outlet to express what is happening around me,” Yu said. “Putting a human face on the issue through people’s stories is what I love to do. I love people’s stories. Through this project I wanted to mix people’s stories using technology and research.”
(Dis)placed in Sunset Park is part of a life-long project rooted deeply in her own family’s immigration story and experiences growing up in both of the Chinese and Latinx parts of the neighborhood. On one wall of the exhibit, Yu used augmented reality to take the public on a virtual tour of the neighborhood. After downloading an app, people held their phones up to a point on the map, which then prompted the corresponding video interview to appear on their phones. Part of Yu’s intention was to use this to engage in counter-mapping, a community-led map-making process where people appropriate the techniques of formal mapping to uplift marginalized people and histories.
On another wall were short films of interviews looping, which included footages of Yu’s parents, Chinese working-class immigrants, who were part of the first wave of Chinese residents to the neighborhood in the 1970s. Like many immigrants at the time, they found work in the garment industry, and later became active in efforts to change their working conditions. Interviewees also included residents active in the civil rights movement, as well as present-day teachers, business owners, students, and immigrant rights organizers.
From 2000 to 2017, the median price per unit for a one-family house in Sunset Park increased from $346,000 to nearly $1.3 million. At the same time that this is happening, the population of people of color has dwindled significantly. In the last 15 years, Sunset Park and its adjoining neighborhood, Windsor Terrace, has lost more than half of its Black and Latinx population.
“When I came back from college in 2016, the places where my friends resided were now these really tall condos,” Joanne Zhao, a long-time resident and local organizer said. “That was the first time I saw my neighborhood changing.”
At the scoping hearing, Zhao testified that many of her childhood friends have been forced to move outside of Sunset Park, “because of rising rents, tenant harassment to leave, and illegally converted apartment units.”
“This is a practice I fear will become more frequent in an already densely packed neighborhood,” Zhao said.
Maria Roca, another long-time resident whose family has been in Sunset Park since the 60s, chimed in, remembering happier, simpler times in Sunset Park.
“Rents were very affordable then,” she said. “The majority of small businesses were owned by people who lived in the neighborhood, whose children went to the neighborhood schools. So it was more of a small town. People looked out for each other.”
In comparison, she describes today’s growth as one where the people running the businesses are not the ones living in the neighborhood.
“You have more people arriving in the morning from elsewhere to open their businesses. They come in. They take the neighborhood’s money. And they take that money out. While before, that money was recycled in the neighborhood several times, which is what you need for the neighborhood to thrive,” she said.
“There couldn’t be a better time for this consciousness raising,” Roca added.
“It’s the same thing happening everywhere in New York City, especially in Brooklyn,” Cyrille Phipps, filmmaker and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said. “A lot of communities are losing their generational wealth, in terms of the history and the community knowledge, because we’re all being pushed out. People can’t afford to live here anymore.”
As a resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Brooklyn, Phipps drew a lot of parallels between the narratives of displacement in Sunset Park with what’s happening in Bed-Stuy.
“In Bed-Stuy, they’re chopping up brownstones and getting thousands of yuppies into one building. It changes the whole structure of the city,” she pointed out candidly. “You have all these people living here: What does that do to the environment and living space? How is it affecting people’s mental health? And it’s not benefitting anybody but people who are already well-off,” she said.
In the last 15 years, Bed-Stuy has lost over 15,000 Black residents, a 17 percent decrease, while the white population increased by over 1200 percent.
Phipps emphasized the importance of documentary and archival work, especially in the political moment Chinatown is in.
“In the early 2000s, Sunset Park became home to Chinese residents who were being pushed out of Manhattan’s Chinatown due to rising rents. Now with the impending displacement coming from large-scale developments, residents are once again at risk.”
“Even if you do get pushed out, people will know you were here. When you don’t have an opportunity to tell your own story, then nobody knows that you were there. Betty is bringing value to this community, to these stories, to her own family,” she said.
Above the two TV screens playing interviews with local residents hangs one of the largest displays in the exhibit: a framed photograph of Yu as a child with her grandmother outside their home. For Yu, the conversation about displacement is one that ripples back to her own family’s migration story and internationally.
“My grandmother is really meaningful to me as an anchor,” Yu said, “She’s someone who’s been through a lot when we talk about displacement.”
She looked up at the family photo and continued. “In many ways, when I talk about displacement and gentrification, you cannot not include the immigrant narrative, meaning people who are displaced from their home country because of turmoil, a lot of times caused by the U.S.”
She traced the journey of her mother being displaced for the first time by communism in China, living in New York City and being raised by her grandmother, and dealing with gentrification as a family.
“There’s a narrative we have to put out there that there’s actually really struggling Asian communities, specifically Chinese communities, to understand that we have a lot more in common with working class communities of color than rich Chinese banks buying up everything,” Yu said.
In the early 2000s, Sunset Park became home to Chinese residents who were being pushed out of Manhattan’s Chinatown due to rising rents. At the time, residential and commercial rents in the neighborhood were low. Now with the impending displacement coming from large-scale developments, residents are once again at risk.
As the city continues to be increasingly unaffordable for working-class communities of color who built the same neighborhoods they’re being pushed out of, it is uncertain where communities will continue to be displaced to and at what point will there be nowhere else to live.
“I don’t think any of this is inevitable. Or else we wouldn’t be doing this work,” Yu said at the end of the night. “I’m continuing to document; this hopefully will be a living archive of people still around, still living, still fighting, still in their businesses.”