Chinatown

Dimitri Mellos

2007 - Ongoing

New York, United States

New York City’s Chinatown is just about the only neighborhood in Manhattan that still retains some of the atmosphere of old New York: a city that was not as sterilized and gentrified as it is today, but much more down-to-earth; raw, gritty, noisy, often dirty, a city of immigrants and the working class.

Partly due to its geographical overlap with parts of the Lower East Side, today’s Chinatown is uncannily reminiscent of the immigrant neighborhoods of a century ago, allowing us to imagine what it must have been like on those crowded streets we see in old photographs. In this part of town, recent immigrants from China are still making a new home in America—in many of the same tenement buildings that were occupied by generations of past immigrants from eastern and southern Europe more than 100 years ago. In no other part of today’s New York does the past still feel so alive, but I don’t know how much longer this will last.

I started photographing in Chinatown several years ago, drawn by its history but also by its contemporary vibrancy and energy and the strong sense of community of the Chinese diaspora. More recently, though, my project has attained an added urgency and poignancy, as it is becoming clear that even Chinatown is, inexorably, gradually succumbing to the forces of modernization and gentrification. Grocery stores are shutting down and old apartment buildings are being demolished in order to make way for fancy new hotels, boutiques, and the like.

I am anguished to see Chinatown start losing its character right before my eyes, and the act of photographing affords me the illusory comfort that I am preserving some little bits and pieces of it in a form impervious to the passage of time. My work is fueled by a sense of loss and nostalgia foretold.

These photographs blend a documentary impulse with a street photography methodology and aesthetic. I like documenting life unobtrusively as it unfolds, striving for a fly-on-the-wall style as much as possible. My aim is to convey to the viewer the experience of wandering around the streets of Chinatown as a curious and interested outsider, greedily imbibing the poetry and beauty of the fabric of everyday life.

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