Artists Won’t Give Up the Fight as New Chinatown Jail Looms

On Chinatown’s White Street, crashing construction noises mark the demolition of the Manhattan Detention Complex. The city is tearing it down so it can be built back up — with the final jail set to become one of the tallest in the world. The project, a component of New York City’s Borough-Based Jails plan, has faced pushback from a broad coalition of residents ranging from labor rights groups to restaurant owners and culture workers since its announcement in 2019. But as city officials sidestep residents’ concerns and demolition plows on, formal opportunities for resistance have narrowed. 

A coalition of arts workers is determined to keep the fight alive. On October 19, the Wing on Wo (WOW) Project — a women, queer, and trans-led organization working at the intersection of arts and activism in Chinatown — kicked off Cartographies of the Present: Charting Our Freedom Dreams. The free public programming series investigates the relationship between carceral expansion and the struggle for self-determination in Chinatown, centering art and culture as tools for building political consciousness against the jail. Two events in the program took place this month; the third and final event is scheduled for Saturday, December 2 at 26 Mott Street. 

Wing on Wo, a porcelain shop and the oldest operating storefront in Chinatown, housed the second event in the Cartographies of the Present series. (photo Jessica Zhang/Hyperallergic)

For Serena Yang, one of the organizers of the series, just because demolition is underway does not mean the jail is a foregone conclusion.

“I’m thinking a lot about Stop Cop City and I think there’s a huge potential here for abolitionist mobilizing,” she told Hyperallergic, referencing a desire to facilitate connections between New York City’s Borough-Based Jails plan and the $90 million militarized police training center being built in a southeast Atlanta forest, which was forced to halt construction last week due to mass protests. 

Yang is a student, writer, and poet who first became involved with WOW Project’s youth programs while attending high school in Queens. She is also the artist behind The Jail, the Police, and the People’s Chinatown, a zine centered around the Chinatown jail proposal; nestled between its undulating typography and collage poetry are newspaper clippings of police assaults on Chinatown residents and a 1980s protest against a jail expansion in the neighborhood. On one page, astigmatic letters spell out the question: “What does justice look like to you?” 

Serena Yang reading from her zine at the launch event (photo courtesy Sonia Tsang) 
A spread from The People’s Chinatown Zine by Serena Yang (image courtesy the artist)

On October 19, at a community center blocks away from the Chinatown jail site, people gathered to celebrate the launch of zines, including Yang’s, centered around abolition in the Asian-American community. The walls were plastered with liberatory poems and photos from the archives of Chinatown resistance. In one corner, attendees clustered around a button-making machine, stamping “No New Jails” pins. The atmosphere was lively and communal. Yang described the zine launch as an invitation for people to re-engage with conversations or questions surrounding the jail.

The event was co-organized with Immigrant Social Services (ISS) and cultural collective Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB). Artist Tomie Arai, one of CAB’s co-founders, has been involved in activism in the neighborhood since the ’70s. “I’ve seen so much change in Chinatown over the decades,” she said, going on to describe how the art and culture industry has been implicated in gentrification and carceral expansion. 

“When they held the first community outreach sessions, the architects printed these designs of the exterior of the [Chinatown] jail having a beautiful dragon sculpture,” she explained. “There was supposed to be a gallery on the first floor. They were selling it as a cultural center.” 

chinatown wow
A zine event served as an invitation for people to re-engage with conversations or questions surrounding the jail. (photo Jessica Zhang/Hyperallergic)

Local activists view these attempts to “beautify” carceral expansion as part of a broader pattern of “artwashing,” in which arts and culture is used to legitimize harmful actions. In 2021, for example, protests erupted against the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), a neighborhood cultural institution, over its acceptance of $35 million in funding linked to the new jail.

Organizations including CAB condemned MOCA for its betrayal of residents, many of whom fiercely opposed the plan. These events ignited Arai’s belief that art and culture workers have a unique responsibility in Chinatown’s jail fight. 

For the second event in its programming series, WOW Project cultivated a more intimate environment. On November 11, a small group coalesced in the basement of Wing on Wo, a porcelain shop that is the oldest operating storefront in Chinatown, and engaged in a collective study session around the Women’s House of Detention. The prison, active in Greenwich Village from 1932 to 1971, boasted an Art Deco facade and publicly commissioned murals that prison reformers touted as signifiers of a more humane approach to incarceration. These design elements, though, were not enough to prevent the abusive and discriminatory conditions that contributed to the prison’s eventual closure.

Organizers of the zine launch event. Back row: Angela Li (Immigrant Social Services), Beatrice Chen (Immigrant Social Services), Serena Yang (WOW Project), Tomie Arai (Chinatown Art Brigade); front Row: Yuki Haraguchi (WOW Project), Mei Lum (WOW Project), Di Wang (WOW Project) (photo courtesy Sonia Tsang)

Yang and co-organizer Denise Zhou centered this aestheticization of penal reform, pointing to parallels in New York City’s current rhetoric around more “humane” and “modern” Borough-Based Jails. For example, the Brooklyn jail, which entered its demolition phase this week, will be constructed using a “warm palette” to evoke the “rhythm of [neighboring] brownstones,” according to official descriptions.

The study session recalled the “intergenerational classrooms” active in Chinatown in the ’70s and ’80s, when collectives like Basement Workshop provided both a physical and intellectual space for residents to engage with local issues.

“Arts and cultural organizations maintain the social fabric that makes resistance possible in the neighborhood,” Yang told Hyperallergic. “The energy of social movements doesn’t appear out of nowhere.” She used the metaphor of Indigenous seed-keeping, in which ancient seeds are preserved until germination conditions are met.

“Art and culture is about the unseen or quiet moments of social movements,” Yang continued. “Places [like] WOW and CAB have to maintain and take care of that soil and those little sprouts during the in-between times.”

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