Burst water main floods Philadelphia’s historic Center City (VIDEO)

A burst water main flooded Philadelphia’s bustling Center City, sending torrents of water flowing through the streets and leaving behind churned up tarmac, mud and rubble.

The site of the break, Sansom and Juniper streets, is just three blocks from Philadelphia City Hall, and seven blocks from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in on the 4th of July, 1776. Both sites are popular tourist attractions.

The Philadelphia Water Department said that a 48-inch transmission main broke in the area of Sansom and Juniper around 4am on Tuesday. Crews battled to shut off the flow of water, finally closing the main at around 7.40 am.

Streets are beginning to dry out, but over 1,000 residents have been left without power, and homes and basements have been flooded. Philadelphia’s Center City is the nation’s second-most populous downtown area, with a population of 183,000 residents.

Water Department official John DiGiulio told ABC News that the city’s recent heatwave could be to blame for the break, as customers use more water than usual, stressing the main.

Streets remain closed, and the cleanup operation is expected to take days, DiGiulio said.

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Indian football fan dies in car crash near Wold Cup city of Sochi

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After Seattle Ditches Its Amazon Tax, Silicon Valley City Mulls a Google Tax

As Seattle repeals a literal tax on jobs, a similarly bad idea is taking hold further south.

Passed by a unanimous vote of the city council in May, the city’s so-called Amazon tax, which imposed a $ 275 annual fee for every worker employed by a company grossing over $ 20 million a year, was on the books for barely a month before city elders nixed it, hoping to avoid a bruising voter initiative campaign that sought its repeal.

The move provoked howls of betrayal from some of the tax’s most ardent supporters. Councilmember Kshama Sawant called the repeal a “shameless capitulation.” One impassioned activist told the city council in a public hearing that “when it’s our turn, we won’t make excuses for the terror.” Accusations like bootlicker were thrown around with liberal abandon.

Yet while the Amazon tax might be dead for now in the Emerald City, a Google tax is gaining steam in Mountain View, California.

Last week the Mountain View City Council gave its preliminary endorsement to putting an employee head tax on the upcoming November ballot. The proposal would levy as much as $ 150 per employee for firms that employ more than 50 people in the community.

This is projected to raise $ 6.1 million. Over half of that—roughly $ 3.4 million—would come from Google, which employs 23,000 people in the town.

The idea is to get Google to kick a little back to the town for the problems their growth has wrought.

“We want everyone to pay their fair share. We’re asking for something that can begin to cover the impacts that we’re seeing,” one tax proponent tells the Mountain View Voice, comparing Google to a restaurant patron ordering the most expensive meal at the table and then slipping away to the bathroom when the check arrives.

“If we’re lucky, some of the companies won’t expand here and they will expand elsewhere, where the workers live,” Mountain View Mayor Lenny Seigel says in the San Francisco Chronicle. (Seigel has previously described his town’s problem as having “too many good jobs” and not enough transit.)

Seigel’s hope is precisely the fear of many Mountain View businesses, who worry that they’ll be the ones to suffer should Google decide to shrink its Mountain View workforce.

In a survey conducted by the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce, 54 percent of local businesses say that they oppose an employee head tax, with 38 percent in support and 7 percent undecided. If larger corporations skip town to avoid the tax, 62 percent of local enterprises say they would be negatively affected.

Similar uneasiness from the wider business community, along with unions and other city stakeholders who don’t see economic growth as a bad thing, was enough to kill Seattle’s head tax. Of course, the backlash there also had a lot to do with popular resentment toward a city government that people see as out of touch and ineffectual. Politics is presently less fractious in Mountain View, where a city-sponsored survey shows two-thirds of voters favoring an employee head tax.

The idea is catching on in a number of other Silicon Valley towns as well. Apple’s hometown of Cupertino, like Mountain View, is mulling the idea of putting a head tax on the November ballot. San Jose, Redwood City, and Sunnyvale all have job taxes already.

Whatever their popularity, these taxes are bad ideas. They’re predicated on the mistaken notion that thriving tech firms are growing at the expense of communities.

As opposition from the wider business community demonstrates, corporate behemoths are not hording all the growth to themselves. Other businesses benefit from their proximity to large corporate campuses and the customers they bring, as do the employees of those smaller businesses. Mountain View property owners are no doubt happy to see the value of their homes increase as a result of Google’s growth in the town, even if they don’t like the added traffic congestion.

The prosperity these companies bring, in short, is spread as widely as whatever negative impacts they might have.

Jared Walczak of the Tax Foundation says employee head taxes “are rare and for good reason.”

Walczak thinks cities have legitimate concerns about the impact of large commuting workforces on their town’s infrastructure. But the revenue projections for these head taxes are often based on the current levels of employment in the towns that are looking to adopt them. And as Walczak notes, “Tech firms tend to be mobile. The jobs themselves can be located elsewhere, whether that’s down the street or across the country.”

This is particularly true of companies like Google, which has large corporate campuses around the country. They would in all likelihood minimize the impact of a head tax by reassigning jobs elsewhere, just as Amazon promised to do in Seattle. When those employees go, so does the revenue the cities were going to rely on.


'Suspicious' microwave causes City of London lock-down, Twitter takes the p**s

The City of London went into lockdown on Friday morning amid a bomb alert over a suspicious package, which turned out to be an old microwave. The item was spotted just outside the capital’s iconic Gherkin building.

Reports of a suspicious package at the Gherkin’s address, 30 St Mary Axe, broke during rush hour. People were told to stay away as a bomb squad was deployed to the scene. A robot was subsequently used to blow up the microwave, which had been placed next to the entrance of the landmark car park.

READ MORE: Cambridge Analytica’s London offices sealed off over ‘suspect package’

“The cordons put up around St Mary Axe due to a suspicious package have been lifted and the area is now clear,” City of London police said in a tweet. “No cause for alarm – the box turned out to be a discarded electrical item.”

The incident on Friday is one among the many false alarms keeping the country on edge amid fears of another terrorist attack. Police have been on their marks ever since the UK was rocked by five attacks in 2017 that killed 36 people and injured many more.

People who witnessed the drama have taken to Twitter to share their moment of suspense as officers carried out the explosion, while others have seen a lighter side of the story.

Some even took the time out to hold a Mario-Kart marathon while stuck in the stairwell during #MicrowaveGate.

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Maryland City Raises Property Tax on Businesses by 800 Percent, in Bid to Attract More Businesses

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you want more of something, don’t tax the dickens out of it. This principle appears to have eluded the town of Seat Pleasant, Maryland, which jacked up five businesses’ property taxes by 800 percent as part of a scheme to attract more businesses to the community.

Now two of the targeted companies are suing, claiming the small suburb—located just outside D.C—violated everything from their own charter to the U.S. Constitution when it imposed the tax.

“It is backward economic thinking. It’s borderline racketeering,” says Steven Franco, who owns and operates the Discount Mart and is one of the plaintiffs in the suit.

Franco saw his property taxes shoot up from less than $ 6,000 to over $ 55,000 in less than a year. This, he says, has had an “extremely adverse impact” on his business. “People’s schedules have been cut. Profits have been almost depleted….One guy had to get laid off.”

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include married couple Si Quang Chen and Chang Lin Chen, who own a Chinese restaurant next to Franco’s store. Their property tax bill went from $ 3,482 to $ 31,180.

In May 2017, the Seat Pleasant council passed a yearly budget that included a special assessment to fund a “Special Revitalization District for Businesses.” The tax was supposed to bring in about $ 252,864 a year, which would be used to spur economic development and develop a “stronger financial portfolio” for the city.

According to Seat Pleasant’s charter, a special assessment like the one levied on Franco and the Chens must be spent on specific improvements to the targeted taxpayers’ properties—for example, by adding a sidewalk or sewer main. The city must also hold a public hearing on the assessment and give affected property owners a chance to appeal.

But the budget document makes it clear that the assessment is intended to benefit the entire town. Menawhile, the lawsuit alleges that Franco and the Chens received neither a public hearing nor a chance to appeal. The suit also claims that the tax violates the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on taking property without due process of law.

Mayor Eugene Grant, named as a defendant in the lawsuit, tells the local NBC affiliate that “all of these dollars are necessary for us to provide efficient and effective services for the residents of Seat Pleasant.”

Grant is a controversial politician, who held court for several months in a tent outside the Seat Pleasant City Hall after the city council voted to bar him from the building because of alleged hostile behavior toward city staff. In 2016, he engineered a takeover of the city council with a slate of candidates favorable to himself, in an election that sparked accusations of voter fraud.

Grant has expressed a desire to redevelop the area occupied by the businesses that were hit by the assessment. Franco thinks the tax is intended to force him to sell his property to the city, which already owns sizable nearby lots. Grant had previously floated the idea of using eminent domain to seize Franco’s property, according both to the lawsuit and to texts supposedly sent between Grant and Franco. (The texts have been posted to the website xposesp.com.)

Franco, whose store sells everything from milk to computers to school uniforms, says that Seat Pleasant is already a difficult place to do business, setting aside the special assessment.

Most Maryland personal property taxes—a tax paid on furniture, tools, and other movable property used in a business—are levied at less than 2 percent, with many towns and counties charging less than 1 percent or having no personal property tax period. Seat Pleasant’s personal property tax, by contrast, is 15 percent, over six times the Maryland jurisdiction with the next-highest rate.

Franco says that such high tax rates, plus the treatment he and other business owners have experienced, will only discourage the economic development that local officials say they want to create.

“Anyone who is considering coming in to do business is going to have serious second thought,” Franco says. “Seat Pleasant could be a great place, but their policies are backward economic thinking.”

A pre-trial hearing is scheduled for April 2.


Explosion in New York City: Blast near Times Square and Port Authority Bus Terminal

American media are reporting an explosion close to New York City’s busy Port Authority Bus Terminal. The location is also extremely close to the iconic Times Square.

The New York Police Department has said it has take one male suspect into custody. There have been no injuries except the suspect himself. 

Update regarding explosion at 42nd St and 8th Ave, in subway: One male suspect is in custody. No injuries other than suspect at this time. Avoid the area. Subways bypassing #PortAuthority and Times Square Stations. Info is preliminary. pic.twitter.com/bEAdjq8mYc

— NYPD NEWS (@NYPDnews) December 11, 2017

News agency ANI tweeted this video of the location of the incident:

There is no confirmed information yet this was an accident or a terrorist attack. 

Minutes after the incident, NYPD tweeted a single line advisory, which read, “The NYPD is responding to reports of an explosion of unknown origin at 42nd Street and 8th Ave, #Manhattan. The A, C and E line are being evacuated at this time. Info is preliminary, more when available.”

NYPD’s transit bureau chief tweeted that all subway services through Times Square have been restricted, and requested everyone to avoid the area:

Local news media giant The New York Times is reporting that the Port Authority Bus Terminus has been evacuated.

White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted that US President Donald Trump has been briefed about the explosion.

More details are awaited.

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A Mexican Painter Changed by the City, Changes Art 

It’s not only the people one meets in a big city that can be inspirational. For artists, it’s often the work they see there.

The Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo got acquainted with a number of artists the first time he moved to New York City in the 1920s, among them Reginald Marsh and Stuart Davis.

But the greatest impact of that city on his painting was chiefly visual, from the skyscrapers outside his terrace, to the swirl of amusements at Coney Island to the exciting gallery work in the international art capital that struck him like thunder. A colorful new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum traces the connections between New York’s cultural dynamics and what Tamayo put on canvas in the first half of the 20th century. Forty-one works from 1925 to 1949 comprise Tamayo: The New York Yearsthe first major retrospective of the artist in a decade, and the first to concentrate on his crucial New York years.

In the early 20th century, New York City was becoming the place for artists to be, says E. Carmen Ramos, the museum’s curator of Latino art, who spent three years creating the show. “There,” she says,  “Tamayo saw works by major European modernists for the first time.” Face to face with the work, Tamayo would later say. 

“In New York, I went berserk over painting. There, I experienced the same passion that I had felt during my encounter with popular and pre-Hispanic art,” he said.

Rufino Tamayo (2 of 2) by Irving Penn, 1947 (© The Irving Penn Foundation)

Those influences had informed his work and served him well; it was the native influence, too, that was motivating contemporaries from Jackson Pollack to Marc Rothko. But suddenly Tamayo was face to face with Europeans that included Matisse, Braque and Duchamp. 

“One of the artists he was taken with was, surprisingly to me, Giorgio de Chirico,” Ramos says.  He was really interested in how De Chirico mixed all of these different temporalities, in part because the cultural scene in Mexico was also interested in merging the past and present, given the strong interest in indigenous culture as well as the modern era.”

It was difficult for Tamayo to find a footing in New York; he only stayed two years in the 1920s, returning in the early 1930s just as the Depression was having its effect, making staying difficult. He returned for the longest period from 1936 to 1949. All told, he lived in the city 15 years before he left for Paris in the postwar period. 

During that time, he became more enamored with the city, as seen in his attraction to the swirls and sounds of Coney Island in the 1932 Carnival, a recent acquisition to the museum; and in the colorful 1937 cityscape, New York Seen from the Terrace, a kind of self-portrait, as it depicted the artist and his wife surveying the spires all around them. 

Academic Painting [Pintura académica] by Rufino Tamayo, 1935 (HirshhornMuseum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966. ©Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photography by Cathy Carver)
Carnival [Carnaval] by Rufino Tamayo, 1941 (The Phillips Collection,Washington, DC, Acquired 1942. © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)
Fire [Fuego] by Rufino Tamayo, 1946 (Collection of Mrs. J. Todd Figi. © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)
The Pretty Girl [Niña bonita] by Rufino Tamayo, 1937 (Private collection. © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Image courtesy Colección Hemerográfica–Archivo Tamayo, Museo Tamayo)
Woman [Mujer] by Rufino Tamayo, 1938 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Estate of John Hay Whitney. © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY)
Total Eclipse [Eclipse total] by Rufino Tamayo, c. 1946 (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer Jr. © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College)
Women Reaching for the Moon [Mujeres alcanzando la luna] by Rufino Tamayo, 1946 (Private collection, Courtesy of Christie’s. © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Image courtesy Colección Hemerográfica–Archivo Tamayo, Museo Tamayo)
Dog Barking at the Moon [Perro ladrando a la luna] by Rufino Tamayo, 1942 (Private collection. © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Most influential to him that decade may have been a Pablo Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, which coincided with the unveiling of Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica at the very gallery where Tamayo was also showing.

“These two events had seismic implications not just for Tamayo, but for many artists in New York,” Ramos says.

Tamayo was inspired to depict the scenes of Mexican folk art he had been doing using masks, in the way that African masks had influenced Picasso. But Guernica in particular struck Tamayo to the core, Ramos says. “It really signaled a different approach to engage with the crises of the day.”  

Picasso’s masterpiece was seen “not only as an antiwar painting, but as an aesthetic antiwar painting. And Tamayo really drew inspiration from that example.”

It’s clearly seen in a series of paintings Tamayo did between 1941 and 1943, using animals as an allegory for exploring the anxiety surrounding World War II. The twisted face of his howling dogs in Animals, as well the creatures in Lion and Horse, mirror the same agonized expression as the horse in Picasso’s painting.

One sure sign of his success, Ramos says, is that his works of this period “were acquired almost immediately after they were created.” Animals, painted in 1941, was already in the Museum of Modern Art collection by 1942. 

“Tamayo is hailed again during this period for redirecting Mexican art and for creating work that responded to the moment in which we’re living, and art that was based on the culture of the Americas,” Ramos says. He extended the allegory in a 1947 work that gets prominent placement at the Smithsonian exhibition, Girl Attacked by a Strange Bird.

“He wanted to explore this anxious moment in global history, this post-war moment, but he didn’t want to do it in narrative terms,” Ramos says. “He really turned to allegory.”

In doing so, he also returned to subjects he had long been using, she says. “He blended his interested in Mesoamerican art and Mexican popular art with this idea of engaging the modern crises of the day, in allegorical terms.”

The attacking bird certainly conveys this postwar anxiety, if not the off-kilter tilt of the girl. 

Throughout his career, Tamayo’s paintings never abandoned the representational—which may explain why his star fell a bit amid New York art circles embracing abstraction to the exclusion of anything else.

Tamayo stayed with figures, Ramos says, because it remained important for him to continue to communicate with an audience. He painted his last work in 1990, a year before his death at 91 the following year. Like his fellow Mexican artists, Tamayo worked in murals—an influence that rose north to America and helped inspire the Federal Art Project of the Workers Progress Administration during the New Deal. 

But unlike colleagues like Diego Rivera, Tamayo was not interested in using his art for overtly political reasons. 

Instead, he was interested in concentrating on form and color, Ramos says, and in adopting the color of Mexican ceramics and of popular Mexican folk art. 

In his influential time in the city, Ramos concludes her essay in the accompanying catalog, “Tamayo absorbed the New York artistic scene, was transformed by it, and also helped redefine notions of the national across the Americas at a crucial time in history.” 

“Tamayo: The New York Years” continues through March 18, 2018 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. 

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Deir al-Zour: Syrian army retakes IS-held city as Iraqis also advance

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The Syrian army has retaken Deir al-Zour, the last major stronghold of so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria, state TV says.

Other reports said the Syrian army and its allies were clearing the last pockets of resistance from IS.

IS had held most of the city since 2014. It was important because of its proximity to the border with Iraq.

Meanwhile Iraqi forces have entered one of the last towns under IS control on the other side of the border.

The operation to retake al-Qaim and the surrounding area was launched last week.

Some 350,000 civilians in Syria’s Deir al-Zour province have been forced to flee their homes during weeks of fighting.

Significant setback for IS

Jonathan Marcus, BBC diplomatic correspondent

The success of the Syrian government forces inevitably raises the potential for clashes between them and US-backed, predominantly Kurdish units who hold a significant swathe of northern Syria.

It is a powerful reminder that while the war against the IS “caliphate” is well on the way to being won, the situation on the ground in Syria is becoming ever more complex.

With Iran eager to consolidate its influence, questions remain as to the Trump administration’s future policy direction now IS is collapsing. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has consolidated his position and looks to squeeze opposition forces in the months ahead.

Why is Deir al-Zour important?

The city lies on the Euphrates river about halfway between the city of Raqqa, previously the headquarters of IS’s self-styled “caliphate”, and the Iraqi border.

IS had designated the area on both sides of the border as its “Euphrates Province” and used it to transfer fighters, weapons and goods between Iraq and Syria.

The cross-border province was also a symbol of the jihadists’ intention to eradicate all the region’s frontiers and lay to rest the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, an emblem of the colonial division of the area resented by many Arabs.

Last month a US-backed alliance of Syrian fighters pushed IS out of Raqqa,

In September, the Syrian army broke a siege by IS in part of Deir al-Zour that had trapped an estimated 93,000 civilians in an enclave on western bank of the Euphrates since 2015.

What territory does IS still control?

The militant group is now confined to just a few pockets in Deir al-Zour province.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syrian government forces – which are backed by Russian air strikes and fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement – have been carrying out separate offensives in Deir al-Zour province with the aim of taking control of Albu Kamal, a key crossing on the border with Iraq.

Interactive Slide the button to see how the area IS controls has changed since 2015


Area controlled by Islamic State group at the end of October 2017


Area controlled by Islamic State group in January 2015

In some areas the US-backed SDF and Russia-backed Syrian army have taken up positions just a few kilometres apart.

An SDF spokesman told the BBC they were still encountering some resistance with the militants using suicide cars and trucks, thermal missiles and mortars. In some towns and villages there was house-to-house fighting, Kino Gabriel said.

IS has also suffered a series of defeats in recent months to Iraqi government forces, who are advancing along the Euphrates river on the other side of the border.

Iraqi government forces have entered the IS-held town of al-Qaim, which lies across the border from the Syrian town of Albu Kamal. Soldiers, police, Sunni tribesmen and mostly Shia paramilitary fighters, some backed by Iran, are taking part in the assault.

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IS has now been driven out of about 95% of the land the group once held in Iraq and more than 4.4 million Iraqis have been freed from its rule, the US-led coalition fighting IS says.

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New York City Activists Protest Chinatown Gallery Exhibit for Being “Racism Disguised as Art”

Activists drop a banner outside the James Cohan Gallery in Chinatown.Activists drop a banner reading “Racism disguised as art,” in front of the James Cohan Gallery in Chinatown. (WNV/Louis Chan)

Artist Omer Fast’s crass, stereotypical mock up of a business in pre-gentrified Chinatown has finally left New York City. His transformation of the James Cohan gallery into a dingy, fake storefront with a waiting area that proudly displayed a broken ATM sign, drew fire from the community. Its emphasis on depicting faux squalor was received as poverty porn. Both artist and venue were charged with mocking immigrants being driven from the neighborhood.

On October 28, protesters from the Chinatown Art Brigade, Decolonize This Place, Bushwick’s Mi Casa No Es Su Casa, and the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement hoisted a banner, which read “Racism disguised as art,” across the faded awning Fast had installed. Faced with protesters banging drums and chanting “Chinatown, not for sale,” the Israeli-American artist received quite the send off.

This symbolic intervention featured a conference with local Chinese language press and a bilingual speak-out about the pivotal role galleries and the art world play in gentrification. This was key, as residents and neighborhood advocates needed space to loudly decry the ongoing displacement and demand a municipal model that would protect the neighborhood. Activists say these issues are simultaneously connected to and bigger than the individual prejudices of Omer Fast and individuals like him.

In fact, the link between the art world and gentrifying developers deserves intense scrutiny. According to the Chinatown Art Brigade — a collective of activists, artists and media makers committed to defending tenants rights and fighting evictions — galleries are often involved in displacing the most vulnerable long-term residents in neighborhoods they enter. Viewed in that light, Fast and James Cohan’s conduct was simply a particularly bold iteration of entrenched structural racism that abets creeping gentrification.

The Chinatown Art Brigade has worked alongside the Coalition Against Anti-Asian Violence and the Chinatown Tenant Union. They helped launch the “Here to Stay” project, which used massive outdoor projections to illuminate art “based on oral histories, photography and video created in community-led workshops.” They have also confronted galleries for being implicated in the expulsion of 30 percent of the Chinese population and elimination of 50 percent of affordable housing throughout Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

This has catalyzed a drastic transformation of these neighborhoods. The galleries are a vanguard for pricey condos and megatowers that push out grocery stores and other services on which the community has relied. The gentrification of Chinatown is a brutal business. Ambitious landlords heap abuse on poorer tenants and reserve needed repairs for units intended for newer tenants with higher disposable incomes. At the same time, outlets like Paper and i-D ponder whether Chinatown is the “new Chelsea.”

Residents and advocates protest gentrification of Chinatown outside the James Cohan Gallery.Residents and advocates protest gentrification of Chinatown outside the James Cohan Gallery. (WNV/Louis Chan)

In reality, an incoming population that is whiter and more affluent is receiving benefits largely withheld from the existing community. This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, though. This kind of discrimination has been integral to the historically racist treatment of Chinatown, which has taken many forms including unreliable trash collection and residential segregation. Today, these each factor into the exodus of Chinese and other residents of color from Lower Manhattan.

Moreover, gallery owners are directly involved in the real estate transformation that is making life in Chinatown prohibitively expensive. Marc Straus, for example, owns several properties near James Cohan that have been slated for demolition and replacement by a seven-story luxury building. On his website, it says his gallery at 299 Grand Street is located in what “began as a tenement and in the last century has housed various retail stores consistent with a changing population.”

James Fuentes, who fastidiously emphasizes his Lower East Side and South Bronx roots, is a creative-class nomad, like many in the gallery scene. Fuentes has relocated several times, beginning on Broome Street and then settling at 55 Delancey Street two years ago. Gallery owners, it turns out, aren’t immune to the rent cycle either. The difference is that they can pay more than Chinatown’s working class residents. When there’s a large gap between the disposable incomes of newer and established tenants, landlords see the opportunity to raise rents. Fuentes has noted this, saying that he “knew he was implicated from the minute” he signed a 10-year renewal on his latest space.

Fuentes waxes nostalgic about the Lower East Side — and by extension Chinatown — being a hub for the immigrant community. He is a fatalist about gentrification, though, convinced that the immigrant presence is bound to be supplanted and that galleries are the future of development. During an interview with the Art Dealers Association of America, he referenced Darwin when describing the “nature” of New York, explaining that “the species that survives is able to best adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

The Chinatown Art Brigade and its allies would dispute that sort of received wisdom. Presenting the transformation of Chinatown and the Lower East Side as an evolutionary process, where those who cannot adapt are naturally selected out, is in and of itself a historically racist position. It obscures how powerful entrepreneurs aggressively leverage their advantages, which were largely conferred by historic discrimination and segregation, over tenants.

The protest inside Omer Fast's racist exhibit at the James Cohan Gallery.The protest continues inside Omer Fast’s racist exhibit at the James Cohan Gallery. (WNV/Louis Chan)

Individuals like Fuentes and Straus like to brand their ventures as small businesses. Fuentes has gone so far as to anoint his space a “Mom-and-Pop” fighting the good fight before the culture of Lower Manhattan gets erased. That framing, however, is relative. As Liz Moy, one of the brigade’s activists, pointed out, a bakery in Chinatown would have to do significantly more business than a gallery to make rent, since the latter need only sell a few pieces. Moreover, the capital concentrated in galleries won’t be reinvested in the neighborhood long term, at least not in ways that are immediately beneficial to the community. Straus’ work demonstrates how investment in galleries eventually leads to building high-end condos.

This is why the Chinatown Art Brigade has been putting these owners on notice and fighting for an alternative development model in the neighborhood. Before the latest protest, a small contingent of organizers live-streamed a gallery tour in which they presented each owner with a pledge to support Chinatown’s middle and lower-class residents’ right to public and residential space, as well as initiatives to curb the impact of gentrification.

Last year, Margaret Lee of the 47 Canal gallery responded positively to a similar pledge. Straus, on the other hand, refused to look at the current version. Regardless, the gallery owners should know by now that those who won’t respect Chinatown’s existence can expect continued resistance.

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