City neighborhoods are often identified by one iconic street for many people. For instance, Wall Street is to New York’s Financial District what Portobello Road is to London’s Notting Hill. Doyers Street, along with Pell Street, holds such an association for many in New York’s Chinatown. The primary draw for visitors here is the Nam Wah Tea Parlor (presumed to have brought the first dim sum to New York), Ting’s Gift Shop (a bright red souvenir and trinket store), and Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles (a bustling, bare-bones soup joint). Despite the food and shopping affability, “Bloody Angle” is a common moniker for Doyers Street, once the site of numerous gang fights and street killings. Supposedly, more people have died here of violence than on any other street intersection in the United States because of shootings amongst the gangs of Chinatown. But that was a century ago and much of Doyers Street is now home to tourists and visitors getting their dim sum and fortune cookie fix.
A few days ago, we were curious observers in Chinatown along with street photographer Dimitri Mellos, who has spent many years documenting this old and gritty neighborhood, one he calls “more down-to-earth and working class.” In a city with soaring real estate prices, even the oldest neighborhoods are ultimately victims of gentrification. Mellos suggests that “Chinatown is just about the only neighborhood in Manhattan retaining some of that old New York atmosphere,” but he isn’t sure how long that will last. Old Chinese establishments are getting replaced with pizza and burger joints, gourmet restaurants and boutique hotels at a pace faster than America’s GDP.
That Mellos is intimately familiar with Chinatown is clearly evident, not only with his geographic grasp on the neighborhood but also his incisive reflections on how the community is transforming. The local context aside, his awareness and pursuit of good light, along with everyday moments unfolding themselves are a delight to watch and learn from. Local fish and vegetable markets, children’s playgrounds which double down as a social hub for the elderly, community trade in the underbelly of the Manhattan bridge, and street art as a backdrop of human exchanges – all offered ample street photography opportunities. This accompanied by Dimitri’s anticipation of light and shadow at specific street intersections made it both edifying and exciting.
Chinatown is different things to different people. There is a lot on offer and a lot to absorb as a street photographer. Chinatown’s chaos and energy is electrifying – its food stalls, street vendors and markets abuzz with activity. Tenement buildings occupied by generations of Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants before the Chinese came in retain the grit and character of 19th century New York and give Chinatown’s its distinct visual character. The local community largely comprises of Cantonese speaking migrants, yet is diverse thanks to the increasing number of newer generation immigrants from mainland China’s Fujian province getting their start in America.
Street photographers will have numerous opportunities to create short, anecdotal essays in Chinatown, and with company like Dimitri’s, the experience is both local and educational at the same time. The images shared here are a select sample of what’s possible rather than a structured journal. Three hours passed by rather quickly here, but the desire to uncover more is strong and certain to take me back there. We even ended our time with Dimitri talking about his story, evolution as a street photographer and plans looking ahead (a feature on that is coming soon). Lastly, my eyes and taste buds were opened to the nuances of Chinese bubble tea as I was exchanging notes on street photography and visual trends.