“Dogman” Sculpture Stirs Controversy in Chinatown (Updated)

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Just as Lunar New Year celebrations are beginning in Chinatown, controversy has erupted over a statue that was supposed to be unveiled in Chatham Square this week.

The Chinatown Partnership and Chinatown BID commissioned the Australian artists Gillie and Marc Schattner to create the, “Good Fortune Dog,” part of their “Travel Everywhere with Love” global sculpture project. But the “Dogman” installation was cancelled after Chinatown activists launched an online petition, arguing that the sculpture, to be placed in Kimlau Square, is culturally insensitive.

According to the petition, initiated by well-known local arts advocate Amy Chin, it would have been demeaning to place the statue, “under the Arch named for Lt. Benjamin R. Kimlau,” who died in World War II fighting for the United States. “This insulting image of a ‘Dog-Man’ has no place next to this sacred and solemn community site where we honor our community heroes.” Questions have also been raised about the process used to select the project for one of the neighborhood’s most visible public spaces.

Wellington Chen, head of the Partnership and BID, told The Lo-Down earlier this week that the unveiling was cancelled due to the controversy and his organizations are now paying to store the 900 pound statue. While efforts are being made to install the piece somewhere else, finding a new location has not been an easy task.

The installation was planned in collaboration with “Art in the Parks,” a program administered by the NYC Parks Department. Reps from the city agency appeared before Community Board 3’s parks committee last Thursday night, offering project details. A handout explained:

The Dogman sculpture will be holding a beautiful red apple. Since 3 is a lucky number during the Year of the Dog, the apple will feature 3 leaves. In Chinese, the word for an apple is ping, the homonym of which is peace. Especially in today’s day and age, the apple symbolizing peace holds particular significance, and will help spread the message of diversity and acceptance for all beings.

Kimlau Square. Photo via Explore Chinatown website.

Kimlau Square. Photo via Explore Chinatown website.

The Parks Department was not seeking the community’s approval, and there was no vote last week. Karlin Chan, a Chinatown activist, is a member of the parks committee, and he was on hand for the meeting. While the Parks Dept. reps did indicate a general location for the statue, Chan said they were not specific. During the meeting, Chan said he took notice of the “Dogman’s” western-style suit and lack of Chinese imagery and symbolism.  He is among the more than 500 people who have signed the online petition.

In the Chinese press, Chan told us, the board has come under criticism for failing to oppose the installation (Chan is the only Chinatown resident on the committee). He pointed out that not a single member of the Chinatown community came to the meeting. Chan argued that opponents of the sculpture had an obligation to show up and speak out, rather than simply relying on the community board to advocate for their points-of-view.

Another longtime activist, Jan Lee, has been critical of the community board’s role in vetting the “Dogman” sculpture. Parks Department officials routinely appear before local community boards to provide information about public art installations, but the agency never asks for their approval. Lee says, however, that board members, appointed by local elected officials, obviously have a responsibility to represent the community’s best interests. Even if the city doesn’t invite it, board reps should be the neighborhood’s “fail safe,” pushing back against projects that fail to reflect local values, said Lee. Separately, he also objects to the Chinatown BID’s efforts to position itself as the local arbiter of public art. The organization, he believes, had an obligation in this case to consult with members of the community, including Chinatown-based arts organizations.

Wellington Chen said his organizations have the utmost respect for war veterans. The Lt. B.R. Kimlau/American Legion Post 1291 was consulted beforehand about the sculpture. Chen noted that Gillie & Marc’s sculptures have been embraced around the world, and have been displayed in numerous locations throughout New York City without incident. He pointed to the artists’ mission statement, which explains, “Gillie and Marc’s beloved Rabbitgirl and Dogman tell the autobiographical tale of two opposites coming together to become best friends and soulmates. Without a definitive race, religion, or culture, they symbolize the acceptance of all people as one.”

Chen said he sees the controversy over the sculpture as counterproductive and self-defeating. The only goal, he said, was to bring a highly regarded art work to the neighborhood, and to create some much-needed foot traffic in the area.

A spokesperson for the Parks Department said, “Parks supports the Chinatown Partnership’s decision to find an alternative location for this public artwork, and we are working closely with them to accommodate its installation as soon as possible.”

UPDATE 2/19 Although we contacted Amy Chin, who started the petition, before publishing this article, she was unable to respond immediately due to the Lunar New Year holiday. Chin replied to us over the weekend, saying that the petition was started on Tuesday, after she heard from several concerned local residents. They were angry, and determined to start a petition, but lacked language/computer skills, so Chin helped set up the campaign. Chin points out that she and others strongly support the presence of public art in Chinatown. However, she believes there should always be, “an open process with more community engagement and input, especially from local arts lovers, artists and arts organizations.” The Chinatown BID is funded through assessments paid by property owners.  As a publicly funded organization, said Chin, the BID owes the neighborhood that type of process if it’s going to bring public art to the neighborhood.

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New “Wayfinder” Sign System Introduced in Chinatown

This week marks the first installation of a new WalkNYC program, a comprehensive “wayfinding” sign system, to help both New Yorkers and tourists navigate through the city, as easily as possible.

Chinatown Businesses Awarded $79,000 in Post-Sandy Grants

Grant recipients and community leaders posed for photos last week in Chinatown.

Last week, 79 business owners in Chinatown received grants to help them bounce back from the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy. The program was set up by the Chinatown Business Improvement District and the Chinatown Partnership.  Each business was given a check for about $1000.

At the urging of City Council member Margaret Chin, the groups launched a fundraising drive, including a benefit dinner, which raised $79,000.  There were small donations but also some big contributions to the fund.  First American International Bank (FAIB), CAIPA (Chinese American Independent Practitioner Association) and the Magna Carta Insurance Company all donated $10,000.

About one-third of the recipients were restaurants, which were closed for more than a week following Sandy and were forced to throw out a lot of spoiled food. Other recipients included Chinese herbal medicine stores and beauty salons.

 

Marking Earth Day in Columbus Park

Columbus Park, Earth Day 2012.

Earth Day yesterday was a soggy affair.  You’re looking at the scene in Chinatown, an event sponsored by the new Chinatown Business Improvement District in Columbus Park. After donning plastic ponchos and posing for photos, participants fanned out across the neighborhood to pick up garbage along several routes.

City Council member Margaret Chin and NYC Comptroller John Liu co-sponsored the cleanup day. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was also on hand to give a few words of encouragement. Among the participants: lots of community activists, but also students from Emma Lazarus High School, Stuyvesant High School and kids from the United East Athletic Association.

City Reverses Course on Fees Charged to Chinatown Property Owners

Bethany Li of AALDF with Jan Lee and other property owners.

The city has decided to credit property owners who were prematurely assessed fees for the newly created Chinatown Business Improvement District.  Yesterday, neighborhood activist and building owner Jan Lee, other property owners and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund held a news conference on Mott Street to celebrate what they called a significant victory.  They said the city only acted after they threatened legal action.

Chin Celebrates Creation of Chinatown BID

Speaker Quinn, Councilmember Chin -- Wednesday afternoon.

More now on Wednesday’s big story – the City Council’s unanimous vote creating a Business Improvement District in Chinatown.  In a news conference before the Council meeting with Speaker Christine Quinn, Chin said, “This has been a long time coming. It’s an historic day for Chinatown.”

City Council Approves Chinatown BID

This afternoon, the City Council voted unanimously to approve a Business Improvement District in Chinatown. In a news conference before the vote, City Councilmember Margaret Chin, who fought vigorously for the BID, called the impending decision “an historic moment for Chinatown.” We’ll have a full report tomorrow morning.

Decision Day for Chinatown BID and (Maybe) 135 Bowery Landmarking

File photograph; Council Speaker Quinn and Councilmember Chin at the New Amsterdam Market.

City Councilmember Margaret Chin may well have reason to cheer this afternoon. According to a media advisory released by Speaker Christine Quinn last night, the City Council will vote today on a proposal, sponsored by Chin, to create a Chinatown Business Improvement District.

It’s an idea Chin has been been championing for well over a decade, long before she became Lower Manhattan’s representative at City Hall.  Victory looks to finally be in her reach, assuming the Council’s Finance Committee votes in favor of the proposed BID in a morning hearing.  The panel’s approval would clear the way for a vote of the full Council in the afternoon.

Not everyone will be cheering the outcome.   Many property owners and community activists have voiced strong opposition and vow to keep fighting the BID, even after today’s vote (legal action is one option under consideration).

There’s a possibility another controversial issue, the landmarking of 135 Bowery, will also be voted on by the full Council today. Last week, the Landmarks Subcommittee, acting largely on Chin’s recommendation, overturned the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s decision to protect the nearly 200-year-old federal house.

Preservation activists are furious with Chin for siding with the owner of the building, Patrick Yau, one of the leaders of the pro-Chinatown BID campaignLast week, we posted a brief story on the 135 Bowery hearing.  This morning, we have a more comprehensive recap:

Next Step for Chinatown BID: Hearing May 26

The City Council’s Finance Committee this morning scheduled a hearing on the proposal to create a Chinatown Business Improvement District, the latest step forward for the plan, which has been championed by City Councilmember Margaret Chin.

“We’re really happy that it’s finally happening,” said Kelly Magee, Chin’s communications director. “It’s something we’ve been working for for a long time.”

The May 26 hearing will take place at 10 a.m. and will be followed by a committee vote. If approved, it would move next to a full vote by the City Council, Magee said. That date has not been set.

All three downtown community boards approved the proposed BID last year, and the city’s planning commission gave it the nod in March, despite some criticism at public hearings and complaints from local merchants they would not be able to afford BID assessments.

 

Chinatown BID Campaign Marches On, Congestion Pricing Redux, Kanye Parties with NuMu

  • Chinatown BID backers appear before City Planning Commission (WSJ).
  • Brokers are high on the LES (Post).
  • Price drop: resale in Norfolk Street’s Switch Building (Curbed).
  • Congestion pricing is back — our representatives in Albany poised to play pivotal roles (Daily News).
  • Tom Robbins pontificates about SPURA, urges CB3 to bring peace to the Middle East (Village Voice).
  • New York’s Conservative Party targets Sheldon Silver in robocall (Capital Tonight).
  • Rapper Saigon teams up with the Bowery Mission to provide blankets to the homeless (Boom Box).
  • Kanye rocks the New Museum’s “Mental States” opening (Guest of a Guest).
  • The war on the San Gennaro Festival (Jeremiah).
  • Red-tailed hawks discover what humans already knew: the food on the Lower East Side is superior (DNA Info).
  • Josh Yuter: the Stanton Street Shul’s tweeting rabbi (Tablet).
  • Secret Lower East Side bar throws in the towel (Grub Street).