by Shirley L. Ng, AsAmNews Staff Writer
Mosco Street in Chinatown will now include a co-name, “Corky Lee Way.”
On the corner of Mott and Mosco Streets, over 200 people from the community, including elected officials gathered to the unveiling of the new street sign, “Corky Lee Way,” after the late photojournalist and Asian American advocate that slayed injustice with his camera. Lee died of COVID-19 complications in January 2021.
Check out our slide showing of the Corky Lee Way street sign unveiling below. (All photos by Shirley L. Ng. // Permission must be requested for photo usage.)
Over the past two years, the four local chapters of the OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates, Chinese Adoptee Alliance and Think!Chinatown advocated for co-naming the street. They collected more than 900 signatures and over a dozen letters from elected officials and community organizations in support. Community Board 3 and the New York City Council introduced its passage of co-naming Mosco Street, “Corky Lee Way” in June. On July 23, NYC Mayor Eric Adams signed it into law.
It is most fitting that there are now two community activists on one street as beacons to guard the community they both loved. Mosco Street was named after Frank Mosco, a local resident and community activist who sought to improve the lives of the local residents. In doing so, Mosco bridged the Chinese American and Italian American communities together. He was a member of Community Board 3 and the Chairman of New York City’s Planning Board. He lived at the corner of Park and Mulberry Streets. Park Street was later renamed Mosco Street in 1982 the year Mosco died. His family fully supports the co-naming of the street with “Corky Lee Way.”
John Lee, Corky Lee’s brother told everyone why his younger brother was so passionate about his photographic advocacy.
“When people would ask him, why are you doing this? He said, he didn’t do it for fame, he didn’t do it for fortune. He did it because our stories had to be told. So he did it,” John Lee said at the unveiling.
Organizers chose Mosco Street because it is the location of Lee’s last photo exhibit in 2020. He loved exhibiting his photographs and explaining the story he captured in them. He would also frequent Silk Road Cafe just mere yards away on Mott Street to rest or get a hot cup of their special tea.
New York City District One Council Member, Christopher Marte said at the unveiling, “One of the most remarkable things about this individual that touched all of our lives is that it wasn’t just about the photographs that he took, he lived those photographs. Whether there was a protest against displacement, a protest or a march against the Chinatown jail, a civil rights march, Corky was not there to be a bystander, not to be an observer and not to have a major portfolio. He was there because he wanted to be in the fight. He believed in the fight.”
Marte also said the crowd was the largest he’s seen for a street name unveiling as a council member.
Many of Lee’s friends were at the unveiling and spoke to AsAmNews about how they felt about Chinatown honoring their friend.
Virginia Wong told AsAmNews, “I’ve known Corky for 35 years. Corky is absolutely deserving of this honor.”
Another friend, Kim Mui felt Lee’s photojournalistic work made him deserving of a street to be co-named after him.
“His dedication to the Chinatown community and beyond! He wanted recognition for the Cantonese and Toisan descendants of the railroad workers,” Mui said to AsAmNews.
Mui referenced the 2014 photo of what is Lee’s defining legacy, his re-creation of the 1896 black and white photograph of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at “Golden Spike,” Promontory Summit, Utah. Unlike in the old photo, Lee included Chinese Americans and descendants of the 12,000 Chinese railroad workers to rightfully correct the black and white 1896 photo that intentionally left out the Chinese workers who helped build and finish the Union Pacific Railroad. This was uniquely Lee’s photographic justice, providing imagery of the forgotten and often excluded history of Asian Americans. This was the Corky Lee way.
Peter Zhao of Queens could not attend the unveiling, but spoke about Lee’s advocacy to AsAmNews.
“Corky left behind photographic memories to cherish and there is no better way to celebrate his legacy than by co-naming a Chinatown street after him, ” he wrote in an email to AsAmNews.
It has been quite a year of activities to honor Lee. He was featured as a Google Doodle on May 5. It was 35 years ago in 1988, when then Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins proclaimed May 5 as “Corky Lee Day,” recognizing Lee’s contribution to New York City. Two years later, Dinkins would be elected mayor.
Last July, the Chinese American Museum of Washington DC opened their exhibit on a collection of Lee’s photographs that runs through January 2024. Then early this month, a pre-order was made available for “Corky Lee’s Asian America,” a book with a collection of over 200 of his photographs, some that have never been seen.
On the Penguin House pre-order website, it describes the forthcoming book: “Corky Lee’s Asian America” is a stunning retrospective of his life’s work–a selection of the best photographs from his vast collection, from his start in New York’s Chinatown in the 1970s to his coverage of diverse Asian American communities across the country until his untimely passing in 2021.”
The unveiling included confetti, “Where’s Corky Lee” stickers, a life-size cardboard cutout of the photojournalist, a large message board for the community to sign and a block party on Mosco Street and Corky Lee Way. Additional elected officials, Assemblywoman Grace Lee, New York State Senators Brian Kavanagh and John Liu and the American Legion Lt. B.R. Kimlau Memorial Post 1291 attended the unveiling. The American Legion spoke about his advocacy when he and other supporters went to Washington DC to gain support for the Congressional Gold Medal for Chinese American WWII Veterans.
Lee took photos to capture Asian Americans at their best and their lows with the struggle of injustice. He has even contributed to AsAmNews. His images told of their struggles to convey that Asian Americans are everyday Americans too. His photos gave insight into their lives and stories of Asian Americans in their way that needed to be told. He documented what many didn’t see in Asian Americans and that was humanity.
(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified David Dinkins as New York’s mayor in 1988. He was not elected mayor until 1990.)
Happy Lunar New Year! Time is running out to support our Lunar New Year Fundraising Drive through this link. The campaign ends Sunday. AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.