photography / documentary: chinatown baby boomers: Bayard and Elizabeth Streets

NYC’s Chinatown in Lower Manhattan is intertwined with the nearby fabled immigrant enclaves of Little Italy and the Jewish Lower East Side, not only geographically but as part of our shared imagination of who we are as a city and a nation, a tapestry woven by the stories of earlier Americans who sought a new beginning in this country. We understand these neighborhoods as stepping stones to a better life: necessary to a newcomer’s survival in the New World, places where a shared language and regional or kinship networks allow new arrivals to find their bearings, left behind as families rise to middle class status. And in many regards, that trajectory is borne out by the experiences of successive generations, until the flow of migration changes, and the Lower East Side becomes Latino, Little Italy turns Chinese. And yet, the American Dream as shorthand for guaranteed upward mobility glosses over more complicated realities of first generation immigrants stuck in dead-end jobs, suffering wage theft and lack of basic labor protections. A cheap labor economy relies on their physical strength to remain employable, which might turn into downward mobility as people age and suffer from work-related injuries. Historian Peter Kwong likens the immigrant enclave to a “warm bath tub – comfortable to get into, but cold long before you want to get out.” In the end, what sustains that first generation is the hope that perseverance over hardship will pay off not for themselves, but that the next generation will be able to prosper.
Bayard and Elizabeth Streets

NYC’s Chinatown in Lower Manhattan is intertwined with the nearby fabled immigrant enclaves of Little Italy and the Jewish Lower East Side, not only geographically but as part of our shared imagination of who we are as a city and a nation, a tapestry woven by the stories of earlier Americans who sought a new beginning in this country. We understand these neighborhoods as stepping stones to a better life: necessary to a newcomer’s survival in the New World, places where a shared language and regional or kinship networks allow new arrivals to find their bearings, left behind as families rise to middle class status. And in many regards, that trajectory is borne out by the experiences of successive generations, until the flow of migration changes, and the Lower East Side becomes Latino, Little Italy turns Chinese.  

And yet, the American Dream as shorthand for guaranteed upward mobility glosses over more complicated realities of first generation immigrants stuck in dead-end jobs, suffering wage theft and lack of basic labor protections. A cheap labor economy relies on their physical strength to remain employable, which might turn into downward mobility as people age and suffer from work-related injuries. Historian Peter Kwong likens the immigrant enclave to a “warm bath tub – comfortable to get into, but cold long before you want to get out.” In the end, what sustains that first generation is the hope that perseverance over hardship will pay off not for themselves, but that the next generation will be able to prosper.