HomeChinese AmericanNY Chinatown storefront replaces t-shirts with social services

NY Chinatown storefront replaces t-shirts with social services

By Rachel Kim

On the outside, it looks similar to the souvenir store selling iconic I Love NY T-shirts to tourists in Manhattan Chinatown. Except, this storefront is a little different from normal souvenir shops. No merchandising is to be found

The non-profit Immigrant Social Services (ISS) repurposed and activated one of the empty properties closed by local businesses during COVID-19 into a community hub called “Storefront for Ideas”.

The SHOP transformed 1,660 square feet of space into a souvenir-themed store, displaying T-shirts on its glass windows while providing free masks and health guides further in the back of the store. Upon closer look, one white T-Shirt reads, “With every breath, a person on the street will inhale harmful gasses and millions of particles”. The counter is decorated with educational pamphlets, and the shelves are stocked with free gimmicks that cite community resources. Voices of community members can be heard through notes written on post-its and cards.

It is located at 127 Walker Street, New York, NY.

Founded in 1972, ISS is a community-based nonprofit serving immigrants and children of immigrants particularly in “the larger AAPI and immigrant communities” on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, Chinatown. ISS originally offered multiple services like English language courses and citizenship support services to its community members. Within the last 10 to 15 years, the organization narrowed its array of services to after-school programming, counseling services, and childcare.

“During the 70s and 80s…families started moving into Manhattan Chinatown Lower East Side. Child Care was a major concern. Also at this time, there was a rise of Chinatown gangs,” says Karen Lew Biney-Amissah, Director of Community and Strategy at ISS.

“That’s why childcare programming was always at the center of our services because young people needed a place to go to in the midst of parents working and gangs trying to recruit young people in this neighborhood”

ISS, however, wanted to do more than just provide traditional direct services.
The organization jumped into an opportunity that would reimagine social services over two years during the pandemic.

The SHOP (127a Walker Street) is a community education and resource hub. The adjacent storefront (127 Walker Street) is the larger exhibition and programming space. Both these spaces make up the Storefront for Ideas (SFI).

For The SHOP to engage in conversations around different pressing issues with the Asian immigrant community in Chinatown, a conversation starter seemed necessary.

As their first project, The SHOP chose to tackle the issue of air quality and health in Manhattan Chinatown. Working closely with the Environmental Defense Fund and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, Lew Biney-Amissah and her team interviewed community members about their perceptions of air quality. The reaction they discovered within the community was mainly one of indifference to the issue of climate injustice.

“When you juxtapose different issues, like rent burden, the threat of anti-Asian violence, or food insecurity, air quality wasn’t a pressing issue,” said Lew Biney-Amissah.

Shopper engage in a conversation about air quality at The Shop
Photo by Rachel Kim

Wanting to dig further, they learned about low-cost, air quality sensors such as PurpleAir, a real-time measurement of air quality. ISS used those instruments to monitor air quality and brought the information to the public.

“Part of the shop is also like an inquiry. We’re presenting items that are factual, meaning we know what the pollutants are. And we know how community members feel, but a lot of it is also about exchange and dialogue. We also would like to hear from visitors – what did they think of air quality?”

The storefront has also discovered that offering the community a space to go to also served as a way to engage residents while also collaborating with and supporting local causes.

The t-shirt reads
Photo by Rachel Kim

“Space is just so lucrative [in NYC]. That’s why housing is like a big issue and so many nonprofits have trouble finding community space. I think part of our initiative in having these two storefronts is like making it known that these spaces are available for folks to use,” said Angela Li of ISS. “Anyone is free to come into the space and use the resources. It means that we are looking for resources that are bilingual, that have language accessibility for our community members. That requires a little more research and thought. But cohesively, all these different materials are accessible for everyone.”

The Shop aims to keep its space welcoming to people who don’t speak English. They also make sure the aid does not stop there.

“Some of them come to us to help with outreach, and we’re like ‘sure, here are some orgs we suggest that you reach out to’ or ‘if you’re thinking about targeting seniors or elderly, maybe instead of doing it at our storefront, you should set up a table at Columbus Park’, and just giving that feedback and perspective. So, I think more than just offering that space – making sure that space is a right fit, if at all.”

With self-driven research, interchangeable themes, and an interactive twist to social services, the impact the SHOP has on the Asian American immigrant community is seen in the form of local feedback and reaction.

“Some of the senior folks that come by…just take face masks or a back scratcher, and that’s all they can digest for the day. And that’s fine. It’s more like come as you are. Recently, a mom came in and said she wanted the shop to bring more joy. ‘This is such a wonderful space’ she said in Chinese. I think this was feedback in terms of like this space is great but we need more of these in Chinatown. Where people can come in, admire, and pause for a little bit, which is hard in NYC in general,” said Li.

The SHOP also activates its space in forms of activism around anti-Asian violence, poverty, environmental injustice, and more. Several of their collaborations include an art building event with the NYS Poor People’s Campaign, subway safety guides with Angry Asian Womxn, and a hate crimes prevention art contest with OCA-NY.

“We hope to hold different types of community conversations in the storefront that can inspire us to focus on different topics in the shop,” said Li.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the formal names of ISS and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. We apologize for the error).

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