Chinatown Invisible is an exhibition of abstracted cartography by professor, theorist, and artist Liska Chan.
Mapmaking as creative practice assumes refreshing resonance in a time of turmoil. Last Tuesday, a map of red and blue states revealed divides within our nation. A major takeaway from this result: Place matters. As Americans try to make sense of the presidential election and subsequent social revolution, we turn from our government to our streets. Communities across the country are protesting threats to their way of life.
On the border of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, downtown New York is experiencing unprecedented development and corresponding cultural shifts that are bringing people of the city's most intermingled district into conversation about changes. Where to next? While there is no roadmap to navigate environmental, social, and political chaos, understanding how we got here might be a good place to start. This exhibit uses mapping and drawing to reveal how the contemporary Chinatown landscape is a palimpsest of pivotal events and patterns in American history.
The story begins 400-years ago in a Lenape village on the banks of a freshwater pond that we now consider part of Chinatown. Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam were swiftly claiming this landscape and named the freshwater pond “Collect” (after “Calck,” the Dutch word for chalk, in reference to the oyster shell middens populating the pond’s banks).
By the turn of the 19th Century, New York City had expanded north of its original walls. In 1811, the same year our city’s grid was mapped for the first time, the pond was polluted with waste from tanneries and slaughterhouses, drained, and filled.
Within 50 years, this new acreage became known as “Five Points,” a crowded home to thousands of Irish, Jewish, and German immigrants and hundreds of previously enslaved African Americans. Two centuries later, many of Five Point’s original tenements haunt the heart of Chinatown.
Evidence of this district’s history is barely perceptible, yet relics of the past including an African burial ground, bubbling springs, and the unsettled ground of its landfill imbue present ecological and social questions with a density of meaning. Themes presented are ponds, streets, springs, horizon lines, burial, expansion, submersion, and segregation.
Elisabeth 'Liska' (Clemence) Chan is an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Oregon where she teaches design studios, theory and media classes. She received her Masters of Landscape Architecture from Cornell University (2000) and a Bachelor of Arts in American landscape studies and biology from Hampshire College (1993).
Her creative practice resides in two distinct areas, representation and landscape reclamation, and most of her projects tie the two areas together. Using cultural theory and art theory as a point of departure, her work explores methods for communicating and working, and the disconnect and tension created in the translation from drawing to landscape. Most of the sites and projects with which she tests questions of representation are environmentally marginalized urban sites in need of remediation.