A Chinatown community group last Tuesday staged a small protest at a SoHo art gallery whose owner has spearheaded a four-year legal battle against the Asian produce wholesaler next door. Before a Manhattan Community Board 2 subcommittee at the Puffin Room Gallery at 435 Broome Street, protesters slurped from cartons of “smelly Chinese food” and chattered in dialects of Chinese to “confront elitist Soho loft dwellers with their stereotypes of uncivilized Asians,” according to participant and Chinatown resident Dan Liu.
Their actions may have been too subtle to get the point across—subcommittee chair David Reck says, “It wasn’t a great disturbance.” But the flyer they distributed speaks volumes and has raised the stakes in a longstanding local dispute.
“Urban Renewal = CHINKY Removal,” the document declares. It singles out gallery owner Carl Rosenstein, who initiated a March 1997 lawsuit against World Farm, a produce distributor. Joined by the locally prominent Soho Alliance—a coalition of real estate interests, retailers, and residents—Rosenstein accused World Farm owner Harry Tran of numerous zoning and quality-of-life violations, including dangerous operation of forklifts and noise from idling delivery trucks. In an April 1997 court order, Tran agreed to stop these activities—a move he now calls “stupid,” since, he says, he made it in a misguided attempt to mend fences and not because he had done anything wrong.
Two judges’ decisions later—the first favoring Tran and the latest affirming Rosenstein—the opponents are still arguing over the mixed-use area’s zoning rules and, more heatedly, over each other’s conduct.
According to Rosenstein, World Farm is a “rogue business,” operating in defiance of zoning and public safety laws. Tran’s lawyer, Patrick Brackley, says World Farm’s activities, while they may bother Rosenstein, are perfectly legal. In fact, it may be the other side that is guilty of wrongdoing, Brackley says, asserting that Rosenstein’s photo and video surveillance amounts to “harassment” and that the singling out of World Farm from among local businesses suggests bias.
Rosenstein bristles at the suggestion that he has, as the protesters’ flyer states, made “racist allegations.” Such accusations, he says, “offend me to my marrow.” He reels off a litany of nonracist credentials: He is married to a Japanese woman; his gallery is “an activist space,” where the exhibits are “culturally and ethnically focused”; upstanding citizens, five of whom he prompted to contact the Voice, can vouch for his progressive character.
Soho Alliance director Sean Sweeney also goes out of his way to deny bias, prefacing his defense by noting this Voice reporter’s racial identity. “It’s really terrible that people cry wolf,” he says, stressing that “we file lots of lawsuits against everyone.” He seconds Rosenstein’s avowal that “this is about a business on the corner that happens to be owned by a Chinese person.” (Tran is, in fact, Vietnamese.)
“I’m sure they genuinely think they are not being racist,” says Hyun Lee, associate director of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, which supports Tran. “But racism is not just calling someone slant-eyed, it’s pricing an entire community out of a neighborhood or saying that some populations don’t fit with a certain aesthetic.”
“There’s a real-estate property interest that doesn’t like that there’s a ‘Chinese guy’ driving down their property value,” Brackley contends. He plans this week to file a notice of appeal on the recent decision finding Tran in civil and criminal contempt for disregarding the 1997 court order. Brackley also intends to investigate whether Asian-owned businesses in particular have been targeted in recent Soho quality-of-life campaigns. He believes they have.
Rosenstein attorney Jack Lester says the accusations of racial bias amount to “slander.” But his client does not necessarily disagree with what Tran’s supporters identify as an exclusionary neighborhood trend. “The only [businesses] that can afford to be here now are boutiques that hang 10 dresses in the window,” he observes. Several Asian-owned produce businesses have recently closed, and Rosenstein is hopeful that the exodus will continue. “The way real estate goes, it only goes one way.”
Surprisingly, he concedes that “for [World Farm] to maintain the nature of their business precludes” operating in a manner that would please him and other complainants. Tran has, in fact, argued that his activities, while perhaps irritating to neighbors, are not only legal but necessary to running his business.
But with his admission, Rosenstein ups the ante. “Businesses like that should not operate on city streets,” he argues, suggesting that the best outcome for him would not merely be for Tran to comply with the court order but for World Farm to leave the neighborhood altogether. He proposes the city relocate businesses like World Farm to a special industrial zone.
“In poorer neighborhoods, where folks don’t know how to organize, this kind of thing just passes,” he says, referring to the impingement of World Farm’s commercial activities on residents’ lives. But not, if he can help it, in Soho.