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W.O.W. Project Shares Stories of Resilience in Chinatown Open Mic Night

(Photos: Tara Yarlagadda)

In a dull gray building on Chinatown’s historic Eldridge Street, attendees squeezed into a cramped elevator and made their way to the youth center and activist space Project Reach, where the Chinatown Storytelling Open Mic event was being hosted on this humid Thursday evening. Two of the event’s organizers, Diane Wong—a Cornell doctoral candidate and visiting scholar at NYU who writes on gentrification and race in Chinatowns—and Huiying B. Chan—an Open City Fellow with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop—served as emcees. They opened the night with a sober acknowledgment that “we are on stolen indigenous Lenape land” and asked the audience to silently reflect on what actions they could take to acknowledge their occupation of such a space. That gesture set the tone for last night’s open mic night, which was part of the series “Homeward Bound: Memories, Identity, and Resilience across the Chinese Diaspora.”

Organizers Wong, Chan and Mei Lum are all affiliated with the W.O.W. Project, which hosts the Homeward Bound series. Lum is a fifth-generation store owner of Wing on Wo & Co., which is a nearly century-old porcelain store and one of Chinatown’s oldest landmarks. The longstanding family business was on the brink of being sold in 2016, but out of those troubled times, Lum founded W.O.W. as a way to preserve Chinatown’s creative scene through art and activism, particularly in the wake of rapid gentrification. Wong, who interviewed Lum and her family as part of her dissertation research, has been involved with W.O.W. since its inception.

Eldridge Street in Chinatown

“I think it’s important to show that Chinatown is very much a thriving, inter-generational community. There is a dominant narrative that portrays the neighborhood as sort of obsolete and dying, and that really isn’t the case,” said Wong.

Other groups, such as the Chinatown Art Brigade, have also used art as a vehicle to mobilize around neighborhood gentrification, but W.O.W.’s focus on the diverse stories of the Chinese-American diaspora seemed to be a way not only to inform outsiders about issues facing the neighborhood, but also a way to fortify their own in the wake of rising xenophobia and to help community members of different generations in Chinatown better understand one another.

“I think it’s really important as people of color and a diaspora to share stories and connect across communities. Especially now with the political moment that we’re in,” said Lum.

Against a backdrop of youth-created art, “Resist Fascism” posters and sparkling Christmas lights, more than a dozen storytellers stepped up to the mic to deliver their stories in the form of spoken word, graphic art, photos and videos. Annie Tan, a teacher and organizer, kicked off the night with funny picture of a stern four-year old Tan in a firefighter costume—a presentation which quickly became more somber when she spoke of cultural trauma. “I cried all the time. I cried because I was a kid of immigrants in Chinatown.” But her story took an uplifting turn when she spoke of how she used her own experience to become an effective educator in a Chicago school with predominantly Hispanic population, such as teaching her pupils about how Jim Crow impacted Mexican-Americans. Although she recently moved back to Chinatown because she missed the tradition and language of her own diaspora community. “Now I get tamales AND milk tea AND pork buns!”

Organizer Mei Lum stands in front of a papercut art design by artist Emily Mock.

Writer Nancy Huang held up her book, from which she read the poem “Tooth Fairy,” which she recited with gusto, “Ma said ‘smile big/You’ll catch a boy.” She encouraged audience members to consider purchasing the book from vendors other than Amazon, given the recent strikes over the company’s poor working conditions. Married couple Rocky Chin and May Chen, stalwarts of the Chinatown activist community, recited oral histories of their respective stories, including Chin’s valiant but failed bid for City Council and Chen’s work with the Chinatown Garment Workers’ Union in the 1980s, which earned them hearty applause from the audience. Chin also posed his frustration with the simple question,“Where are you from?” which could be read as a coded way to question the American identity of people of color.

Members from other diaspora communities were also welcomed into the fold to share their stories. Mahfuzul Islam of Jhal NYC—a group linked to the Bangladeshi community in Queens that sells T-shirts emblazoned with fierce tiger designs—spoke about his work in bringing older Bengali women or “aunties” into spaces outside of their immediate diaspora community—like bowling alleys—that they might shy away from due to language constraints and other cultural barriers.

Later, first-generation immigrant, writer and translator Lux Chen reckoned with her graduate program’s inability to offer adequate support for her depression and evoked The Great Gatsby in her expectations clashing with the harsh reality of New York’s literary scene. Artist Clara Lu delighted the audience through her exploration of her family and pride in her culture vis-à-vis Lu’s illustrations of her late grandmother’s dishes like braised pork and bean sprouts. Midway through her presentation, Lu exclaimed, “Oh, I forgot to speak Shanghainese!” Lu went on to recite dishes in both English and the Shanghai dialect. And last but not least, Emily Mock played a poignant animated video of paper cut artwork she created depicting an elderly woman preparing vegetables for a soup in her Chinatown apartment.

Celebrating the W.O.W Project’s second anniversary was so much fun so glad to have seen some familiar faces and share my 古筝 (guzheng) performance with y’all. (Thinking abt making more livestreams or maybe a whole separate account for that???) The @wingonwoandco fundraiser is still going on! Help us reach $15K to continue supporting this “women-led iniative in sustaining ownership over Chinatown ‘s future by growing and protecting Chinatown ‘s culture through arts and activism.” Your donations will fund the continuation of public programing, the 店面 Residency @emiemmy and I were part of this past year, the wonderful fellow of Resist, Recycle, Regenerate, internships, and other wonderful programs that grow out of W.O.W. Check out the link in @wingonwoandco ‘s bio for their campaign and see some of the rewards for your donations Also these prints are up for sale now, DM me if you’d like to purchase . . . . #wingonwoandco #mottstreet #chinatown #fundraiser #illustrations #anniversary #prints #catprint #handdrawn #sketch #drawing #instaartist #instaart #dailysketch #sketchoftheday #dailydrawing #clayruhlettering #sketchoftheday #foodillustrations #homedeco #homeprints #artprints #clayruhlettering #艺术 #画画 #艺术品 #唐人街 #纽约 #oneofthem

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W.O.W. will be hosting an exhibit in the fall or winter, so stay tuned and check out their website for future updates or to donate to their fundraising campaign, which aims to raise $15,000 by the end of July.

Performers at the Open Mic Night pose for a group photo.

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New Target Desperately Tries to Fit Into the East Village: Does It Hit the Mark?

(Photos: Tara Yarlagadda)

I had been caught in the pouring rain without an umbrella, and my shirt was soaked through like a wet dog on the night of the East Village Target’s soft opening. “This is a bad omen,” I muttered, the weather not improving my already lukewarm attitude toward the behemoth chain store right across from my home in the East Village. As a resident of 14th Street, I had walked by the 27,000-square-foot, two-floor Target at 500 East 14th Street nearly every day for the past year, spanning its early construction all the way up to its glitzy opening day. To confess: until yesterday, I– like many East Villagers— found the Target to be a mostly unwelcome eyesore and a reflection of the hyper-gentrification of the neighborhood. It didn’t help that one of my go-to Chinese food joints had been shuttered in 2017 in the same location. Sitting atop the Target are luxurious, $3,695-per-month apartment units.

As I peered into the store’s open windows and looked at the svelte mannequins sporting trendy summer dresses, I thought that it resembled something more akin to a Saks Off Fifth than the decidedly un-hip Targets of my suburban California childhood. But by the end of the store’s opening that night, I’d become mostly convinced that if a megastore must take over a corner of the East Village, it might as well be Target.

How did they convince me? Target plans to open up a new store on the Lower East Side in August and is coming to Kips Bay and Hell’s Kitchen next year. Part of the brand’s commercial success in metro New York may lie in its distinct appeal to the communities it serves. That’s evident from the moment you walk in the store and spot the pastel-pink mural designed by Vault49, which spans the length of the checkout area and references Avenue A and the Nuyorican community of the Village and LES. Or the kombucha in the grocery aisles and the sliced toasted coconut chips hanging near checkout, perhaps catering to the area’s millennial population.

A mural in homage to the East Village behind the Target checkout counter.

“When we think about going into a community, we spend a lot of time talking to guests and understanding what they would be looking for from Target,” said Target spokesperson Erin Conroy. “Making sure the store fits the flavor not just from an assortment perspective but from an aesthetic perspective as well.”

The East Village store’s team leader, Steve Dyba, echoed comments along a similar line. “I think we really have an opportunity to become the neighborhood store.”

Some might balk at the idea of Target becoming the “neighborhood” store in the once-burgeoning artists’ community. But gesturing towards a toy set which she intended to purchase for her grandchildren, Susan Stetzer, district manager for Community Board 3, said, “Where could I buy Harry Potter LEGO in our community? I can’t. I can’t. So I think people are excited about buying things that are no longer available in our community.”

I spoke with both Stetzer and Alysha Lewis-Coleman, chair of Community Board 3, near the first-floor produce section. Both were generally pleased with the new Target, which they said had been consulting with the community board prior to the store’s opening to hire local employees.

“Jobs are so needed and so scarce right now. I’m just happy they created another job source for families and young people in this area,” said Coleman. She added, “They wanted to do right by the community.”

A Target employee adjusts an item of clothing.

Over the course of the night, I did, however, learn that not all store employees were from the area. Not including senior Target team leaders or communications officials, I spoke to two of the store’s 110 employees. Neither of them lived in the East Village. Many employees who were not from the area seemed to be part of the extended Target family, such as Teresa G., a lively young woman who had been promoted from her previous station in Queens to oversee home goods and other items here in the East Village.

The star of last night’s show was the iconic English bull terrier and Target mascot Bullseye. I wondered how they had managed to paint the Target emblem—a bullseye, of course—around the pooch’s eye. I then decided better of it. Attendees gleefully posed for photos with the terrier, who was perched atop his own pedestal.

Employees pose for a picture with the Target mascot.

Following that, attendees sipped red wine, chowed down on mini Korean BBQ tacos being passed around by servers, and explored the store’s wares, which included an array of women’s wear and reasonably-priced produce on the first floor, as well as apparel and home goods—including a Target-owned men’s clothing brand and candles affixed with the image of Jesus Christ—on the lower level. The odd, but somehow fitting assortment of items made me think that while this Target would never become a beloved neighborhood fixture, it was going to do just fine. Maybe I would even stop by and pick up some of their $2.99 mini watermelons to make a summer slushie. But as I left, I frowned, asking myself, “Am I a sellout? Or just adjusting to the changing reality of the East Village?”

The East Village Target is located at 500 E 14th St.  The store launched for its soft opening yesterday. Its grand opening will take place on July 21.

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Shakespeare in the Parking Lot Saved, Making For Some Dreamy Midsummer Nights

Performers from Shakespeare in the Parking Lot’s “Hamlet”, including Gracie Winchester as Ophelia and Jane Bradley as a female Hamlet (Photo posted on Instagram by Gracie Winchester)

Shakespearean tragedies don’t typically see a peaceful resolution, but it looks like there’ll be a happy ending for a drama that unfolded center stage at a Community Board 3 meeting last month.

There, Hamilton Clancy, artistic director of the non-profit that runs Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, bemoaned the potential loss of their performance space at the parking lot managed by the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center. His efforts to find a second home for the theater company in Sara D. Roosevelt Park had been met with bureaucratic red tape. All hope seemed to be lost.

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Popular Skate Spot at Columbus Park in Limbo Due to Renovation

An empty recreational facility at Columbus Park (Photos: Tara Yarlagadda)

At the intersection of Baxter and Worth Streets, adjacent Columbus Park’s basketball courts, some olive-green workout equipment and a fire-engine red jungle gym sit unused. Plastic sheets cover the workout equipment and the jungle gym lays barren, practically begging buff dudes in muscle tees to do some pull-ups. A sign on the cordoned-off fence surrounding the site reads “Work in Progress.” But during a recent visit there were no workers or construction materials in sight.

This closure also comes as the latest offense for frequent skateboarders of the park who feared “grave consequences” when a fence was erected between the fitness units and an adjacent basketball court earlier this summer, thus limiting skaters’ ability to crisscross the park. Previously, skateboarders would skate up or down a two block ledge between the fitness area and the basketball courts, making for some gnarly video footage. Since the late 1990s, Columbus Park been known as a sweet unauthorized spot for skaters to hang without getting booted by the Parks Department. Though that may all change post-renovation.

An empty recreational facility at Columbus Park (Photos: Tara Yarlagadda)

The outdoor recreational facility has been closed down as part of a multi-site renovation effort, which also includes Chelsea Playground, in Staten Island, and the handball courts at Booker T. Washington Playground, on the Upper West Side. Unfortunately, due to unexpected conditions found at Columbus Park, the reconstruction project has been delayed and a revised layout issued to handle problems with measuring the site.

Barring any further impediments, the Columbus Park fitness units will be re-opened at the end of the summer, but it’s a bummer for Lower East Side skateboarders who often frequent the park. According to Quartersnacks.com, local skateboarding legend Robert “Bobby” Puleo put the spot on the map when he nailed a manual going down a kinked ledge at a much-more downtrodden Columbus Park circa 2000. Its hallowed reputation only grew in the mid-late 2000s. If you were any sort of halfway decent New York skater, you were expected to pay your respects with a session at Columbus Park rail.

In any case, for the time being, may we recommend Slappy Sundays at Boca LES instead?

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Detroit-Inspired Pizza, Coney Dogs, and More New Restaurants

(Image courtesy Paradise Lounge via Instagram)

Between a bizarre amount of Detroit-inspired greasy goods and fish-shaped ice cream delights, we’ve compiled a lineup of new openings to keep you stuffed this entire weekend.

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Vote on East Village Tech Hub ‘Seriously in Question’ After Hearing

A sign held by an attendee of a hearing on the proposed Tech Hub (Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

“Let us have peace”– the words of Ulysses S. Grant– hung high on the ceiling of the City Council’s austere chambers. But down below, at a hearing yesterday, a not-so-peaceful conflict brewed over a proposed $250 million, 21-story retail and tech center off of Union Square.

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Watch Out, Pizza Rat: Croissant Squirrel Hits the Town

(Detail of photo posted by Andrew Goldston on Twitter)

For some time, the lore of Pizza Rat reigned supreme over the subways and streets of Manhattan. But this morning, a truly worthy competitor strolled into town, ready to take the crown. Meet: Croissant Squirrel.

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Beloved Korean Chicken Joint Mono + Mono Returns Five Years After Fire

(Photos: Tara Yarlagadda)

After a five-year-plus hiatus, Mono + Mono is officially back in business starting tomorrow, July 10. The much-loved Korean fried chicken joint known for playing classic jazz closed down after a fire blazed though the building in 2013. There were a few times over the years when it seemed like it would re-emerge, only to no avail. But now it’s finally up and running, and has returned to occupy its old haunt on East 4th Street. Keep Reading »

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Swinging Like Hell With Grove Street Stompers, Oldest Jazz Gig in Town

The Grove Street Stompers perform at Arthur’s Tavern (Photos: Tara Yarlagadda)

It’s your typical Monday night at Arthur’s Tavern in Greenwich Village, an eclectic spot on Grove Street that’s been serving jazz fans since the speakeasy days of the 1930s. Portraits of jazz legends hang on the wall amidst Christmas lights and a faded Happy Halloween sign. It’s late June—in case you were wondering.

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Come for the Beach, Stay for the Brisket at Rockaway Beach BBQ

(Photo: RBQ on Instagram)

After a bit of a delay, Rockaway Beach BBQ (RBQ) is finally up and running in the site of the former Playland Motel, which was sold to investors in 2017. Officially opened earlier this week in time for the 4th of July, this offshoot brought to you by the team behind Swingbellys in Long Island is sure to whet any famished beach-goer’s appetite.

Two of RBQ’s business partners, Ryan Moroney and Jacob Marlin, are from the area. Marlin, who’s also the head chef of RBQ, spoke fondly about returning to his native roots. “Oh, it’s a great feeling. Between friends and family and the community board, everyone knows us.”

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Even MORE Hummus Among Us: VISH Opens On East 8th Street

(Photo Credit: VISH)

It’s been a hummus-filled week, folks. Alongside the arrival of Panorama near Union Square, vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurant VISH Vegetarian Hummus opened up earlier this week on E. 8th Street in the heart of NYU’s campus community. Falafel-lovers’ favorite, Maoz Vegetarian, closed in the spring and left a pita-shaped void on the block. But since VISH is opening in the exact same spot, fans can rest easy.

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The Very Latest on the City’s Plan to Deal With the L-Pocalypse

(Photo courtesy of Buck Ennis)

Speaker Corey Johnson opened this week’s City Council hearing on the 15-month L-train shutdown with a dramatic flourish. He promised “dogged oversight” and suggested with a firm note in his voice that there better be a “hard stop” at the project’s anticipated completion date. As you’re probably aware, service is expected to be suspended for 15 months between Bedford Avenue and 8th Avenue starting in April 2019. Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation (DoT) and the MTA are working around the clock with new plans to ease the fretful minds of legislators and affected residents and commuters. Here’s the important stuff you need to know from this week’s hearing.

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