A Hunger Strike on the Bowery

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No one remembers who suggested a hunger strike. But when it was proposed, almost everyone raised their hands to volunteer.

Thirty people were huddled together in the crowded back room of a workers’ center, Chinese Staff Workers Association, in Chinatown on a cold day in late January. Having already staged a big rally in front of the offices of Housing Preservation and Development, they were heatedly discussing what their next move should be.

The room was mostly filled with working-class, immigrant Chinese grandparents, parents and children who had lived in Chinatown for decades. They called this meeting a few weeks after their landlord had vacated them from their rent-stabilized home at 85 Bowery. The discussion was almost entirely conducted in Mandarin, as very few people spoke English. They had already hosted a few public demonstrations, but they wanted to do something more serious.

That’s when the hunger strike was proposed.

“Everyone wanted to go on strike, but we said, ‘No, not everybody,’ Because some people were very old, 80-something or 90-something years old, we don’t want them to do that,” recalled Vincent Cao, a member of the Bowery Tenants Association and a spokesperson for the tenants.

After half an hour of negotiating, the number was whittled down to eight. All but one were women. Most of them were in the 40s and 50s. Women were prioritized over men for strikers because, as Cao explained, “if you go to the protests, it’s always the women who stay in the front. They are very strong. They go hand out flyers and make phone calls.”

For the past few years, the tenants, with the help of CSWA, have been organizing and fighting against their landlord, Joseph Betesh, due to his previous efforts to evict them and lack of repairs made to their rent-stabilized buildings. In response, Betesh has argued, in a lawsuit filed to the State Supreme Court, that in order for the buildings to be repaired, the tenants have to vacate their homes, and that buildings should not be rent-regulated. After a protracted legal battle, a judge ordered Department of Buildings to inspect 85 Bowery on January 18. That day, DOB issued a vacate order for 85 Bowery, citing structural instability of the main staircase.

Surrounded by cops and city officials, 24 families were given two hours to pack their belongings and leave. Elderly grandparents, working parents, young kids, and babies were bussed first to a public school gymnasium for the night and then to a rat-infested emergency shelter in East New York, Brooklyn for two weeks—more than an hour’s commute away from their workplaces and schools in Chinatown. The vacate order was supposed to last only for a few weeks while 85 Bowery was repaired. But the tenants already suspected that the deadline would be pushed back, given that their landlord had been angling to evict them for the past two years.

(It’s now been more than five months since their eviction; the staircase has been fixed but additional issues with the building were discovered, extending the timeline. In a statement emailed to Splinter, a spokesperson for Bowery 8385 LLC wrote: “We are committed to moving families of 85 Bowery back safely into their homes as quickly as possible. Our team is working diligently each day to make the building safe for habitation. We understand this is an extremely difficult time for families of 85 Bowery and that is why we are providing quality hotel accommodations in Chinatown, for the duration of repairs, so families are able to remain in the local community while our work continues.”)

The hunger strike lasted for five days; it was called off so that the strikers could celebrate Chinese New Year, a holiday celebrated by eating together with family. One of the strikers was Zun Jing Zheng, a 70-year-old grandmother, who I met at a March rally.

“Did you really eat nothing?” I asked Zheng, who moved from the Fujian province in China to New York 20 years ago. When she spoke, I couldn’t help but think of my own Fujianese grandmother who is turning 80 this year. Imagining her going on a hunger strike voluntarily was unbelievable, even painful, to me. Food was so central to her and all my grandparents. At meals with them, every grain of rice had to be eaten, a habit formed partly out of the years of scarcity during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia. Many of the 85 Bowery tenants are Fujianese, part of a greater wave of migration from Fujian to New York City that began in the 1990s. Compared to the longstanding Cantonese community in Chinatown, Fujianese immigrants tend to be poorer and less educated; many of them work in restaurants.

“Yes, I drank only water, nutritious water,” she responded in Fujianese, which was then translated to Mandarin and then, finally, to English with the help of my friend and interpreter, Jin Ting. Zheng’s husband, who is in his late 80s, recently had heart surgery, she explained. She was anxious that the “uncertainty over whether his family might become homeless” was hurting his heart. Her 50-year-old son tried to convince her not to go on strike. But she went ahead. “The government forced me to,” she replied.

I wondered at the time why she did not say, “My landlord forced me to.” It was still early in my reporting on the Bowery tenants’ campaign. My younger sister, Rebecca, had pulled me into getting involved a few weeks before.

We were used to seeing our millennial, college-educated Asian American peers attend protests and post woke hashtags on Twitter and Facebook, but seeing our “elders” hold up protest signs in Mandarin, give interviews in limited English, and camp outside of city buildings with empty, angry stomachs was something we hadn’t seen before. What was motivating them?

When we first started to report this story in March, we assumed this would be a “Chinatown gentrification” story. And in many ways, it is. But the more we stuck around and learned about the broad, diverse coalition fighting this battle, the more we realized how much bigger the story actually was.

It started with a single lawsuit. Shu Qing Wang, 42, had moved into 83 Bowery with her husband and two kids in 2012. The next year, Joseph Betesh, whose family owns Dr. Jay’s apparel stores, bought 83 and 85 Bowery along with several other buildings for $62 million dollars in cash. Over the course of the following years, the tenants complained about the lack of repairs. Some reported constant water leakage from ceilings; in one apartment, tenants kept an umbrella up in the bathroom to prevent water upstairs from coming down when someone took a shower.

Although the tenants’ complaints were mostly unheeded, as the landlord claimed that the tenants had to be relocated for significant repairs to be made, Wang didn’t want to leave. Her rent was stabilized and $950 a month for a two bedroom apartment was not a price she could find elsewhere. Plus, her whole life was rooted in Chinatown, as was her family’s; she did not want to live anywhere else.

Then, in early 2015, Wang received an eviction notice from the landlord. Landlords are required to give tenants an opportunity to sign new leases if the apartment is rent-stabilized, and Betesh was alleging that based on renovations done to the building, her unit was not eligible for rent regulation and thus her family had to vacate the apartment. She was doubly angry because her family had paid the building’s previous owner $7,000 in “key money” in 2012, an old-school, off-the-books practice in which landlords require upfront money in exchange for a rent-stabilized lease. They were not just going to pack up and leave.

Wang expected that other tenants would receive notices, too, but she was surprised to learn that she was the only one. She told her cousin, Vincent Cao, about what happened to her. He referred her to Chinese Staff Workers Association, a workers center that helped Cao organize his fellow restaurant workers for higher pay and overtime back in 2007.

Wang and Cao suspected that the reason why she received the eviction notice was that her family was the newest tenant in both 83 and 85 Bowery buildings. Perhaps she was the first “test case.” The rest of the tenants would be next. Wang went around, with Cao’s and CSWA’s help, to rally the whole building together.

The tenants pooled their money together to hire a lawyer and architect who would examine the building to see how much of it had in fact been renovated. When Betesh found out about this, he withdrew the case. But he followed up a year later, dropping off around 40 boxes, filled with lawsuits and vacate orders, for every tenant. The tenants sprang into action, forming a tenant association and holding public rallies to protest Betesh’s harassment. In 2016, they hired an engineer who wrote a court affidavit arguing that the staircase could replaced while the tenants resided in the building. That same year, Public Advocate Letitia James helped broker a deal where the tenants would receive 99-year leases if they’d temporarily relocate so they could renovate the buildings. The tenants rejected the offer, as the deal did not specify how much their rent would increase after the renovations. As the tenants started to organize, they decided to join a larger coalition: the Chinatown Working Group.

The story of the Chinatown Working Group begins not in Chinatown but in the East Village. In 2008, the East Village passed a rezoning plan that capped height development and ensured affordable apartment units. Residents of Chinatown and Lower East Side, two neighborhoods that occupy the same community district (CB3) as the East Village, protested the rezoning, arguing that it would shift development pressures down south into predominantly Latino and Asian American neighborhoods.

David McWater, chairperson of CB3 at the time, argued at the time that rezoning plans to protect Chinatown and LES would come in due time; East Village was simply going first. After the plan passed, a coalition of dozens of community organizations in Chinatown and LES came together to form the Chinatown Working Group. After years of debate, it proposed its own 151-page rezoning plan for Chinatown and the LES. The Bowery Tenants Association joined the CWG in 2016, seeing its rezoning plan as the real long-term solution to their struggles. If the plan, with its height restrictions and plans for affordable units, passed, Betesh would have little financial incentive to kick them out.

But the plan was rejected by de Blasio’s administration for being “too ambitious.” Margaret Chin, the first Chinese American council representative for CB3, proposed with a “Chinatown-only” proposal which excluded the Lower East Side, which has several public housing complexes, with a large population of black and brown residents (the exact details of the proposal have not been released). Many community organizations saw Chin’s proposal as not only a futile effort to stop gentrification, but also a replication of the racial dynamics behind the rezoning of East Village: white people first, then Chinese, and finally, Latinos and black people.

“Chin’s proposal gives the impression that Chinese are protected and Latinos and blacks are excluded as way to pit one group against the other, which only helps developers,” said Zishun Ning, a CSWA staff member and a key organizer in the Bowery coalition. “Even if you do protect this small part of Chinatown, it becomes an island—in the end most people will be kicked out, leaving a facade of a cultural center which becomes a mini tourist attraction.”

Last August, the Bowery Tenants Association held a protest outside Chin’s office, accusing her of explicitly undermining their campaign, failing to support the CWG plan, and “aiding in the massive displacement taking place in her district.” They, along with CSWA, also campaigned for Christopher Marte, an anti-displacement candidate who ran against Chin last year.

Amid this larger ongoing struggle, the Bowery tenants have won a few victories. A state agency recognized their buildings as rent-stabilized in December 2017, ending a multi-year legal contestation between Betesh and the tenants. After the tenants hosted a public rally to protest their eviction, Betesh agreed to the tenants’ demand that he pay to house them in a hotel on the Bowery. Their lawyer still does not know how we were able to get our landlord to do that, Cao told me. “What lawyers can do is fairly limited,” he said. “We understand that unless we give more pressure to the government agency and landlord, we cannot get anything.”

The tenants’ involvement in CWG is just one way in which they have been broadening their activism. Over the past few years, they’ve shown up at rallies held by 199 Henry Street tenants who are fighting their landlord, protested efforts to build a housing development on top of a Little Italy community garden, and marched to City Hall to protest high-rise developments in the Lower East Side (one of the buildings, nicknamed the “Extell Tower,” is selling units for millions and offers many amenities, including a “bowling alley” and an “adult tree house”). The Bowery tenants are invested in much more than saving their own homes or even Chinatown; they’ve enlisted in a larger working-class struggle.

“It’s not about ‘You help me this time, I help you next time,’” Cao explained. “It’s about helping people understand that we are fighting the same fight.”

This is not an accident. Chinese Staff Workers Association, which began in the 1970s, is fiercely worker-centric. It organizes primarily Chinese workers to lead pickets, strikes and rallies for higher wages, overtime and better treatment. Known for its more radical brand of politics, it was fire-bombed in 1996. Next door is their sister organization, National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, a multiracial workers’ center.

JoAnn Lum, a member of NMASS and its director, described the philosophy behind their tenant-organizing: “We try to organize tenants as working people, in contrast to other groups that organize tenants as ‘tenants only’ – people who are owed certain services because they pay rent,” she said. “That’s why 83-85 Bowery sees their fate as linked to other working people in this community.”

One of the Bowery coalition members is Carmen Hulbert, a community activist who lives in Red Hook. She met Ning and the Bowery tenants at an anti-displacement protest of de Blasio last year. Back then, she was running for city council in a district that encompasses Red Hook and Sunset Park (CB7); when Ning found out about it, he connected her with a CSWA organizer who helped her out. When the 85 Bowery tenants were evicted this past January, she got a call from CSWA: Would she come help? She jumped on board.

“Sunset Park has become the place where the Chinese community is moving to as a result of the displacement from Chinatown. I got involved to help the people where the original exodus is coming from so we can stop the displacement,” Hulbert, who is originally from Peru, explained. “The Latino community [in Sunset Park] was blaming the Chinese community for taking over their homes, but to me, everybody is a victim here.”

Another key coalition member is Hank Dombrowksi, who is also a member of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, a nonprofit that tries to preserve the “historic character of Bowery.” Dombrowski, who’s lived in a rent-stabilized unit in the adjacent neighborhood of NoLiTa for the past 21 years, has fought his landlord for construction harassment three times in housing court over the span of eight years. “I went through all my savings paying for a lawyer,” he said. “I’m fortunate because I’m white and I was able to navigate the court system a little bit, but it was exhausting for me. To see them being harassed like this…I just can’t stand the thought of it.”

Perhaps the best example of the Bowery coalition’s breadth is the boycotts of Dr. Jay’s apparel stores, owned by the Betesh family, in the South Bronx and Downtown Brooklyn. When the Bowery tenants launched those boycotts, they did so in conjunction with several organizational allies. Members from the South Bronx Community Congress, whom the tenants met at an anti-displacement rally at Gracie Mansion, pitched in along with Democratic Socialists of America’s Lower Manhattan chapter.

Tiffany Gong, a member of that chapter, and her husband, a member of CSWA, found out about the Bowery tenants as they live down the block from CSWA. They connected DSA to the Bowery campaign, and DSA worked to mobilize people for the boycott, building the website boycottdrjays.com and training marshalls for the rallies outside the stores.

After running the boycott rallies, Tiffany said, “It was incredible how many people in those communities stopped to talk and immediately identified with the tenants based on their own personal experiences.”

If displacement is one unifying theme across the Bowery coalition—and across the working class nationally—the other is frustration with the city’s housing and building agencies. At their tenants’ most recent rally on April 26 outside of the DOB, I was struck both by how diverse the 50-person group was, despite how similar their complaints were. Tony Queylin, 56, who works as a doorman at night, lives in affordable housing complex, where repairs are very slow when they happen at all. Ever since the Extell Tower, which is 77 stories high, was built close by, he has felt his building move and shake.

“If they can tell the Bowery tenants that ‘Your building is unsafe, you have to vacate,’ maybe they will tell us that, too,” he said.

At the rally, I also spoke to NYC Loft Tenants, a group of tenants who live in factory or commercial buildings; most of them are artists who live and work in the same space. They shared similar experiences at the hands of the DOB: One of their tenants said they were evicted by the DOB due to the landlord’s removal of the sprinkler system in the building. They have been out of their home for three years.

People held posters at the rally that said, “Slumlords + City Agencies: Partners in Displacement,” and chanted, “Brooklyn! Not for sale. Chinatown! Not for sale. Bronx! Not for sale.” Their suspicions are only confirmed by recent news headlines. In 2014, dozens of DOB inspectors were charged with taking bribes from developers. In 2012, five HPD employees were charged with bribe-taking. A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an exposé of how NYC’s housing court has become an “eviction machine” utilized by landlords and their lawyers to kick out thousands of tenants.

One of the loudest voices at the rally was Jin Shou, an 85 Bowery tenant, who was there with her six-year-old daughter.

“Do they see us as humans? We will not stop protesting!” she yelled in Mandarin, holding a microphone with one hand and gesturing to her daughter with the other. “How do I live? I can’t live! I can’t eat! My daughter, she is so little. There are many children who are one-year-old, and some are even 6-month-old babies.”

I understood only a few words, but the sound of her raging voice still echoes in my head. There is an unshakable sense among Asian Americans that we are expected to be “quiet” and “not make a fuss” when we are treated poorly, especially if we are poor and don’t speak much English.

These Bowery tenants have completely flipped the script. They have, against the odds, amassed a broad coalition of support and fought back vigorously against their landlord in unprecedented ways. “The 85 Bowery tenants are not victims,” Cao said. “They are fighters.”

Towards the end of the rally, the handful of cops standing guard allowed Cao and Zheng to walk into the DOB and present a letter for DOB Commissioner Rick Chandler. The letter asks the DOB to “stop colluding with landlords to kick out tenants” and demands a deadline for when the tenants can return home (NYC law requires deadlines to be attached to vacate orders). When asked about the deadline, the DOB provided the following statement to Splinter: “DOB and our fellow agencies are pushing the owner to complete major repairs at 85 Bowery as quickly as possible—and substantial work has been completed. We remain committed to holding the landlord responsible for providing tenants with a safe place to live.”

When tenants got up to speak in front of the microphone at the rally, they were furious. A few weeks ago, they caught construction workers, hired by Betesh, bundling up their possessions—books, medication, stuffed animals—into garbage bags and throwing them into a dumpster. (Some of the items were thrown out “because they were perceived to be perishable food or in contact with perishable food and/or other unusable items,” Betesh’s spokesman, Sam Spokony, said in an emailed statement.) They plan on launching another a hunger strike on May 30 if they aren’t allowed to return home by that date.

Youth Against Displacement, a group of young adults birthed out of CSWA’s and NMASS’ organizing to fight displacement, has been trying to broaden the coalition to include NYCHA’s public housing campuses, which houses many African Americans, in the Lower East Side. De Blasio’s administration is planning to allow developers to build on public housing land in order to raise funds for NYCHA repairs.

Yanin Peña, who lives in Washington Heights and is a YAD and NMASS organizer, argues that this move—known as “infill development”—will contribute to the displacement of working class folks, including NYCHA residents, as it’ll raise the cost of living. A group of volunteers from YAD spent several days in April flyering NYCHA residences and talking to residents they met about the connection between the 85 Bowery’s displacement and NYCHA’s infilling.

Many people showed up at these rallies not just due to shared experiences of landlord harassment and gentrification, but also out of explicit admiration for the Bowery tenants. “Radical” was a word I heard repeatedly to describe them, even by self-identified socialists.

“This is the most militant action I’ve seen in NYC from tenants,” said Daniel, a 22-year-old black man, who came out to a March rally. “I definitely would like to organize in this way in my community in Harlem, as well.”

I’ve come to realize over the course of my sister’s and my reporting that the Bowery tenants do not want “help” from others. They want our solidarity. They want us to see ourselves as part of their fight; to understand that, despite the real differences that stand between them and us, we are linked with them in the same fight. To grasp that in some small but fundamental way, we all are Bowery tenants.

Update: After publication, Bowery 8385 LLC released another public statement on Medium, wherein they reiterated that they “are continuing to advance this work each day and continue to provide ongoing updates on the status of our progress to city officials and the Court which ordered the initial inspection.” The full statement can be read here.

Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She’s written for Jacobin, Public Radio International, and Sojourners.

Rebecca Ngu contributed additional reporting to this piece.