A Library of Congress scholar seeks to re-create communities lost from American cities

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Americans old enough to remember when many cities had thriving Chinatown neighborhoods may wonder what happened to them. Now the Library of Congress has launched a program to recreate lost Chintatowns as immersive 3D models. To learn more about the project, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with the library’s 2023 innovator in residence, Jeffrey Yoo Warren.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Now, just tell us about your relationship with the Library of Congress as the innovator in residence. You’re there for a year kind of on assignment, you might put it?

Jeffrey Yoo Warren: Yeah, I’m an artist and educator in Providence, Rhode Island. And yeah, I wrote a proposal based on work I’ve been doing over the past year to look into the history of Chinatown here in Providence and lucky enough to get to do that for the coming year at a much larger scale and and also to look into other places where Chinatowns and other neighborhoods have been destroyed or lost.

Tom Temin: And give us a sense of the extent of Chinatowns, we think of it as San Francisco and Boston and New York and so forth. But really, from what I’ve understood, lots of hamlets and villages throughout the nation had Chinatown’s?

Jeffrey Yoo Warren: Yeah, I mean, I’m still learning a lot of it, especially outside of Providence, which has been my focus. But yeah, I mean, I think the biggest Chinatowns and the biggest cities, many of them are still here, in some form. Maybe they’ve been displaced or moved or transformed in different ways. But in smaller cities, that may not be the case. Like here in Providence, a lot of people don’t know that there was a Chinatown back in 1910. And in the West Coast, there were a whole Chinatowns that were also destroyed in racial violence, racist violence in the 1800s. And the people from those Chinatowns often came to the East Coast. And so our Chinatowns in the east coast have a history of people sort of escaping that and coming to start Chinatowns here. So there’s a connection that goes across the country as well.

Tom Temin: So fair to say they disappeared for a lot of reasons. One, as you say, the violence and wanton destruction, but also by simply urban renewal, assimilation and dispersion of the Chinese population. I mean, just like a lot of city dwellers, they went to the suburbs and got wealthier, and so forth.

Jeffrey Yoo Warren: Yeah, certainly, there are a lot of different stories, and not a lot of them are overlaid. I mean, here in Providence, the Chinatown from 1910 was destroyed when Empire Street was widened. So it was all at once. But then the subsequent Chinatown neighborhood across what was where the highway is now. Yeah, I think that kind of more gradually dispersed as people, you know, moved into neighboring cities and suburbs and things like that, although I don’t know the full story of that. And I looked forward to kind of learning more about it in the coming year as well.

Tom Temin: All right. So let’s talk about what you’re specifically doing for the Library of Congress trying to recreate the Providence Chinatown and other Chinatowns? And if so, how do you begin to go about doing that?

Jeffrey Yoo Warren: Well, I think for me, one thing that’s really important about the process is I live in the neighborhood that was Providence’s Chinatown today. So I’m a resident of that neighborhood, I can kind of think about what it used to be like here, and I’m not Chinese American, I’m Korean American. But as an Asian American person living in Providence today, that history has a special meaning to me. And to be able to sort of imagine what it would have been like to walk down that street or be in that enclave, I think is very special. And so I think, for me, this project is not just about remembering the harms that were done, you know, the why is Chinatown gone, you know, the moment of its destruction, but actually to think about the more human moments, the the community feeling, the everyday events in this neighborhood and how rich it was, and alive it was and the stories of people there. So that’s the perspective that I’m coming into this year.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Jeffrey Yoo Warren. He is the 2023 innovator in residence at the Library of Congress. So the output will be then some way to visualize what it looked like and what happened in the original Chinatown. And how does that happen?

Jeffrey Yoo Warren: Well, that’s the yeah, that’s in the weeds, I guess in the process is basically going through all these old photos, old maps, I even have a kind of a map where I pin up all these pictures and try to figure out what I’m looking at. And eventually, you can begin to see buildings from different angles, and to rebuild them in a 3D program. And the end goal, which I’ve achieved to some degree with Providence’s Chinatown. Is that Yeah, you can kind of log in, so to speak, and walk down that street virtually almost as if you’re kind of a virtual character. But the point is to feel a sense of immersion, rather than just see pictures that are sort of in a museum display case or in an old album to feel that you are within the space and even hear some of the old sounds or feel some of the ambient environment

Tom Temin: And does the Library of Congress itself among its holdings, which are vast, have some of these maps and pictures and so forth that you can draw on and what other sources do you have?

Jeffrey Yoo Warren: Yeah, it absolutely does. And I would say especially the map collection is a really great place to start because you have to know you know which building was where and which address is what and when you look at these old pictures, even the streets themselves have moved around or changed names. And so it’s really hard to say, you know, this little corner store? Am I looking north or south? You know, that statue in that plaza? Was it there 100 years ago, you know, and the question is often no, it was, it was moved. And so you have to almost do this kind of detective process, to piece it together, mark the dates and things like that. But yeah, it can be, it can be an enjoyable process to begin to peel back and try to understand what this place felt like. And to get a glimpse of that.

Tom Temin: In some sense, there’s almost no end to it, if you visualize what you could do, for example, searching business records and title records, you could find names of families and small businesses that existed in a certain spot. And that could lead to a whole genealogical exploration, you’ve got to, at some point, decide this is what I need to know about this particular neighborhood.

Jeffrey Yoo Warren: Yeah, it’s so true. And actually, one thing I found is that when beginning in sort of the official records, or the city archives, or say local newspaper coverage, you’ll get a very particular view of the community and often through racist language or stereotypes from that era. And so to see past that, and see through it, and try to understand people’s individual stories is really challenging. But one thing I did in Providence was, I looked at all like maybe 1,000 different articles from the Providence Journal. And I compiled people’s names whenever they were mentioned at an address. And maybe they were being unfairly targeted by the police, or whatever the case was. But eventually, I was able to look okay, at 51 Empire Street, this is the list of people who are mentioned at that address. These were their names. And this is where it comes into local collections and family collections. I met someone from the Chinese Historical Society of New England, whose family ran the only Chinese language print shop in Boston, and they published original business directories. So while the Providence Journal may have misspelled or may not have cared too much about getting the details, right, I’m hoping we can cross reference that with the Chinese language business directory to really understand who lived there, what were they doing? What were their lives like?

Tom Temin: And in your time at the library do you plan to just be able to make this visualization of Providence? Or do you think maybe other cities could get in there, too? It sounds like a lot of painstaking work.

Jeffrey Yoo Warren: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’m starting with Providence. That’s where I live. This is where I’ve begun the work. But certainly over the coming year, I’m looking already at different sites where this could be done. There’s a question, is there, are there enough records? Are there people engaged in this location? Are there local community members who are interested in these histories who I could work with? You know, are there descendants of this or that particular community that want to know this information, and perhaps have this very personal relationship with those histories? And so between that and just how many photos are there leftover, or that I can dig up from whatever collection? And yeah, I’m hoping there will be a lot of use of these techniques in other places as well.

Tom Temin: It strikes me that you could also develop a methodology and a standardized practice, almost, that anyone could apply to whatever lot because many ethnic groups have lost communities in various cities. It seems like you could have a methodology that’s reproducible, for whoever would like to take it up.

Jeffrey Yoo Warren: Yeah, it sounds like maybe I don’t know, if you read my proposal, there will be what’s called a relational, what I’m calling the relational reconstruction toolkit. And I think you’re right, that there are some techniques that can be reused, especially this sort of, here’s how you take the facade of a building and how you map it on to a 3D shape, or here is a relatively well structured way of organizing the photos and maps that you find and cross referencing them and things. But there’s also just going to be a lot of unknowns and a lot of creativity needed to sort of trace these histories. There’s going to be a lot of conversations and a lot of community outreach and community collaboration to make this work. Because I really think you can’t do it just from the official records, you know, there’s just not enough that was preserved to make it work. And, you know, the important part is what does this mean to people today, and especially to Asian Americans and Chinese Americans who have this personal relationship to the project and without that, it’s not going to be possible.

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