We recently met two college students, Janette Lu and Nicole Choi, who worked together in creating the zine “Stop Lower East Side & Chinatown Displacement”. It is striking in its visual design and successfully illustrates the importance of the community-led Chinatown Working Group Rezoning Plan. It’s always great to see artists use their talents to help amplify important issue, so we decided to interview them to get the backstory of how this super great zine came to be 🙂
AAD: We had heard from a friend who teaches at Princeton that she had students who were making a zine about displacement issues, so it was a wonderful surprise to find your zine at the 85 Bowery celebration. Curious how you came to become interested in Chinatown/LES displacement.
JL: During the beginning of 2018, I began seeing posts about the 83-85 Bowery eviction and ongoing displacement in Chinatown that a friend from school, Rebecca Ngu, was sharing on Facebook and Twitter. As the months progress and the events in Chinatown escalated, I saw Rebecca and her sister Sarah reporting on the Bowery tenants’ hunger strike in May. I also came across Zishun Ning’s videos on Vimeo about the ongoing displacement and mobilizing efforts of Chinatown Staff and Worker’s Association (CSWA).
My interest in the momentum in Chinatown was also piqued through my classes at school too. During my freshman year, I had a visual arts professor who had made an experimental documentary about shift-beds in Chinatown.
NC: Going to school in California for the past couple of years (prior to that, growing up in Hong Kong) means I haven’t always been familiar with the ongoing displacement in Chinatown/LES, but I have been exposed to the similar gentrification of Chinatown in LA, much of the rest of LA, and neighborhoods across Hong Kong. At Pomona, I’ve been lucky enough to study institutional issues including gentrification, and have developed a sociopolitical responsibility into my practice as an artist. When Janette and I met and she asked me to help design the zine, I was more than interested in participating in the discussion of land and displacement; especially within the contemporary context of settler-colonialism and the important nuances when engaging with those conflicts.
AAD: How did you go about doing your research and fact-checking?
JL: During the beginning of summer 2018, I met up with Zishun a few times at CSWA to understand the history of the group, the efforts of other groups that were involved, as well as the current context of everything that was going on. I also attended a few meetings with Youth Against Displacement, a group of young people focusing on creating content and expanding outreach efforts in order unite communities to fight against gentrifying efforts of luxury developers and city politicians. Other research also consisted of reading a lot of smaller NYC news publications reporting on developer actions and community responses in Chinatown/LES, Sam Stein’s Zoned Out, and the Two Bridges LSRD Environmental Impact Statement.
AAD: What audience did you have in mind and how was your zine distributed?
JL: Nicole and I worked on this zine with guidance and input from YAD members Kai Wen Yang and Steph Kranes. From the beginning, we all clearly emphasized that the purpose of the project was to promote our perspectives on community-led rezoning plans over developer-led rezoning and expose the collusion of the city government with luxury developers, as well as to mobilize groups of young people. Because of our target audience of younger people who had organizing power, we wanted to make a zine that was visually appealing, direct, and most importantly accessible. We had our first print of the zine around September and it was released online on issuu.com then too. Around 300 zines were officially distributed in October at the celebration dinner for the return of the Bowery tenants. I’m thinking of doing another print run of the zine sometime this month and distributing it around campus and New York again as well.
AAD: Have you gotten any feedback and do you feel your zine helped others to become interested in the larger conversation around gentrification and displacement?
NC: Definitely! It was a really exciting project to share with the community discussed, but also with non-NY friends and family. Gentrification and displacement are contemporary issues anywhere you go, especially in major US cities. It was also a powerful moment for Janette and I to realize how much can be done, even by us (two college students interning in NY for the summer who had never met before).
AAD: We love that your zine makes clear that had City Councilperson Chin and Mayor de Blasio supported the CWG plan in full, Chinatown and the LES would not be under the same threat. Can you talk about your aesthetic choices in illustrating data and policy?
NC: Janette and I always spoke about making a zine that was accessible and straightforward. Generally, the most important thing from a design standpoint was to make the the complete product legible and approachable. Text and illustration needed work together and relatively simply. To that point, we were not afraid to use design to be immediate about the assertions and histories we were documenting. Clearing up the narrative and in particular, making clear which parties said what, was reflected in our legible and concise aesthetic.
JL: While Nicole worked with the graphic design elements and page layouts, I did the illustrations. For a lot of the pages, I really gravitated towards using a rougher/sketchier black and white aesthetic to convey a sense of urgency. We didn’t want a processed/produced or clean/bright look either, so most of the pages of the zine are darker, with black and grey backgrounds. For illustrating data and policy in regards to housing, displacement, and the movement of people, the clearest way that we felt to show this information was through maps and very purposeful text. Before drafting the illustrations, Kai Wen, Steph, and I mapped out a linear and digestible argument of our objectives — highlighting historical context, proposed policy, the community’s critique, and a call to action. Most of the data and policy is shown through the text, and I think that the illustrations heighten serve to highlight the tension and urgency as the timeline of this story unfolds over the course of the zine.
AAD: Where did you grow up and have you been involved in community activism and/or anti-displacement groups before making your zine?
NC: As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in Hong Kong and most recently am at Pomona College in Claremont (near LA), in my third year. It’s really at college that I’ve been able to become more involved with community activism, really in thanks to some amazing Professors who have helped me understand how different institutional factors shape the situations we’re dealing with today. In particular, Dr. Kehaulani Vaughn taught a course called “Community Health” where I was first exposed to Native Hawaiian and Native American scholars, and really learnt about U.S. colonialism and settler-colonialism. At the same time I actually was in an Art course called “Self-Publishing” and working across the two classes I started to engage with activist art focused on empowering indigenous communities–a form of anti-displacement.
JL: I grew up in Orange County and being from Southern California, I had always been keenly aware of the housing crisis that extended from LA to OC and to the Bay area. I had been involved in some environmental community activism in high school but I was not involved in anti-displacement groups or activism until this zine project. However, like Nicole, I also took a class in college that completely changed and re-informed my perspective of spatial inequality and displacement — a class called “Environmental and Social Crisis” taught by Dr. Laurel Mei-Singh, who is now teaching at the University of Hawaii. Through this class I was really able to delve further into ideas of environmental injustice, borders and migration, the carceral state, and displacement. I really have Laurel to credit for opening my eyes up to these urgently pressing issues.
AAD: What are you working on now and do you think about what you might like to do after graduating?
JL: I’m a visual arts minor at school and I’m starting to work on a few pieces (namely sculptural and film work) related to environmental racism and spatial inequality for my junior show and my senior show next year. This zine project has really informed my own interests and trajectory of academic work — for my senior thesis I’m interested in continuing research with housing policy and displacement in Chinatown/LES. I really have no idea what I will be doing after graduation, but I know that I want to continue to take part in community organizing and using visual art as a mobilizing force.
NC: I’m working on college–and my junior exhibition! I’m continuing to develop my practice as an artist and really centering in on documenting and empowering the experience of womyn of color. Right now I’m actually in the middle of a large-scale painting exploring WoC grief and anger (inspired by the works of Karyn Kusama and Kathy Jetñil Kijiner), and I just installed a collaborative vinyl piece celebrating the healing of WoC music. After graduating, I’m with Janette and totally unsure–but I know that art as an expression of the marginalized and inherently a form of activism will always be a part of that.