Clio Logo
The housing story began in 1969. The New York Telephone Company bought buildings in Chinatown and evicted all tenants. Tenants used various strategies to resist. Finally, their efforts secured a long-term lease.

Text, Vintage clothing, Employment, Advertising

Text, Photograph, Monochrome, Monochrome photography

Illustration, Visual arts, Paper, Painting

The shortage of affordable housing was central to the urban crisis in New York City at the end of 1960s. Manhattan’s Chinatown was typical of lacking affordable housing urgently in New York. New York City has a tradition of tenant resistance beginning in the early twentieth century. In sum, after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 had abolished the national quota of immigrants, thousands of immigrants flooded into New York’s Chinese community in the 1970s. The influx of immigrants led to a shortage of housing and other social resources. The urban crisis of New York City exacerbated people’s discontent. Asian Americans demanded a fair distribution of housing and other resources. Some immigrant leaders became activists after the city government rejected their legitimate rights and interests. The Chinese community transformed profoundly during the 1970s.

In the summer of 1969, the New York Bell Telephone Company bought several residential buildings in Chinatown. The telephone company planned to demolish residential buildings at the end of 1970 with the ultimate goal of using the property for a new switching station. However, the telephone company overlooked the difficulties of relocating those tenants. Chinese tenants believed the landlord's request for moving was “eviction.” Landlord’s request endangered their core interests, i.e., housing and communities, and awoke the silent Chinese community. If they were forced to move, those tenants who lived on this block, the Chinatown border, could not afford comparable housing nearby and would have to leave their community. The widely held belief that the telephone company was evicting them demonstrated the poor communication between landlords and tenants. The telephone company ignored the social network that shaped the Chinese community. The company made efforts to understand Chinese concerns but blundered into not compensating tenants.

The “We Won’t Move” Committee, initiated by the Metropolitan Council on Housing, organized two demonstrations, including a small-scale one at the downtown office of the telephone company and a large-scale one with several hundred protesters on Chinatown Market Street. About 70 protesters came to the first demonstration, probably making a limited influence. Later, Getting Together called people to protest on Saturday, July 18, 1970. On that day, as The New York Times reported, “several hundred Chinese, Italian, Puerto Rican, Black and Jewish” residents participated in this demonstration, which meant that most of 296 evicted Chinese and Italian family members attended it, and other racial groups came to support. Although Chinese and Italian tenants had limited interactions when they had lived together, they collaborated to protect their apartments. They decided to ask the mayor for intervention.  

However, the telephone company did not allow tenants to return from July to September. On the morning of September 25, twenty-four Chinese families unlocked the apartments vacated by the telephone company armed with screwdrivers and crow-bars with the assistance of I Wor Kuen, a radical Marxism organization.

Then, the counterattack of the telephone company intensified the conflict. Getting Together claimed, on September 27, that the telephone company had “arrested” two squatters. On September 28th and 29th, the landlord hired the Relocation Management Association to forcibly remove people and systematically destroy the remaining apartments.

Moreover, as activists claimed, the telephone company “hired undercover plainclothes detectives to snoop on residents of the area, and police patrols were increased in order to prevent any further ‘liberation’ of apartments.” The participation of police patrol disappointed tenants again, firming their belief that Mayor Lindsay was on the side of the telephone company. 

Metropolitan Council on Housing, as a principal organizer, took a mock trial at Columbia University on December 7, 1970. They invited the Black Panther Party, Young Lords, and other community organizations as presiding judges. IWK’s delegates did not sit in the rostrum, suggesting their relatively low position in the interracial coalition. Chinatown tenants who were evicted by the telephone company attended the trial as a witness. This mock trial was another example of the interracial coalition in 1970s New York.

Under pressure from the City Hall and smarting from the damage done to its corporate image, the telephone company signed an agreement in 1971 to give tenants a ten-year lease and find an alternative site for the switching station. Tenants still occupy these now. The first Asian-American tenant struggle in New York City ended in a tenant victory.

Accessed January 17th 2021.