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Betty Yu

Betty Yu looked to capture the labor stories of everyday people—past and present; union and non-union; informal and formal; immigrant, undocumented, and US born. She interviewed a broad cross section of workers—people in retail, labor organizing, the service industry, non-profits, and domestic work. Yu also hosted a story circle with longtime union organizers and members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. For Yu, working people are the backbone of this neighborhood, and of the city.

 

Betty Yu looked to capture the labor stories of everyday people—past and present; union and non-union; informal and formal; immigrant, undocumented, and US born. She interviewed a broad cross section of workers—people in retail, labor organizing, the service industry, non-profits, and domestic work. Yu also hosted a story circle with longtime union organizers and members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. For Yu, working people are the backbone of this neighborhood, and of the city.

 

“The stories go beyond the parameters of today’s Chelsea,” says Yu. “These are stories from workers who recount the neighborhood before the millionaires, luxury towers, big box stores, and expensive art took over.”

In Chelsea, the mix of lower and higher income residents, and of workers and employers, is in constant motion and interaction with one another. The stories Yu collected, and the signs she created, speak of this history, agitation, and change.

“The stories go beyond the parameters of today’s Chelsea,” says Yu. “These are stories from workers who recount the neighborhood before the millionaires, luxury towers, big box stores, and expensive art took over.”

In Chelsea, the mix of lower and higher income residents, and of workers and employers, is in constant motion and interaction with one another. The stories Yu collected, and the signs she created, speak of this history, agitation, and change.

Profiles

Johanna Chicas
Domestic worker
Member of National Domestic Workers Alliance

“It starts with us first. We have to be empowered to reach more nannies. We have to be together. I try to educate my employer and teach them. With me—this is the way you have to treat me.”

Audrey Momo
Domestic worker
Member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance

“The kids are three and five years old so they are still pretty little. You are like the mom. It’s 24/7 and I’m really tired. Not every day is a good day. The kids have good days and bad days too.”.

Domestic workers in New York City are powerhouse organizers. Through their member-led organizations (specifically Domestic Workers United and groups in the New York Domestic Workers Justice Coalition) they worked for the passage of a labor bill that would protect them from discrimination and harassment, and that included mandates for overtime and paid leave. In 2010, they won.

New York’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is the first of its kind, in any state. As Johanna Chicas, an organizer and domestic worker from El Salvador, said, “We are fighting to be recognized for our job and what we bring to the society. We want fairness and to be treated as equals.”

Erasmus Cisneros
International Grocery
9th Avenue between 40th and 41st streets

“My favorite part of the job is people. Talking with people. Mostly old customers but there are some new ones.”

International Grocery has been open “around 40 years, at least,” says Cisneros. He’s worked there for 30 years. In that time rents have increased greatly in the neighborhood. Will International Grocery be around for another thirty years? “I hope so,” he says. “It depends on the prices.”

Casey Morgan
Former receptionist and office assistant
The High Line

“When I was a custodian it was very different than being in reception now. I was never in the building I was always in the park. I would come in get my bin and go to my zone. The park is divided up into three zones for custodians. Taking out the trash, picking up garbage as we’re walking down the High Line, cleaning the bathrooms, restocking tissues.”

Gary Schoichet
Photographer and former union newspaper editor

“I worked at the Type Shop at 14th and Washington Place in the late 1980s and I remember walking from 8th Avenue and 19th Street where I lived. I would walk down 8th or 9th avenue to go across and walk through sides of beef hanging on 14th Street, because it was a real meat market back then.”

Marisol de la Rosa
Managing partner, Brass Monkey

Former staff at Florent, a gay-owned all-night diner in the Meatpacking District

“It was such a unique time to walk around these streets and there was hardly anything around. Florent was the epicenter. There were drag days and burlesque. That’s when I first moved to New York, so it was nice to have this community of of awesome people.

Florent opened in 1985 and was a haven for queer people, including those living with HIV and AIDS during the early years of the AIDS crisis. The owner, Florent Morellet, was vocal and open about his HIV status. He used to post his fluctuating T-cell count on the specials board. Florent closed in 2008, as their rent was set to go up to $30,000 a month.

Jesse Ehrensaft-Hawley
Co-founder, FIERCE

“Being able to see young people taking back space and building a long term strategy for how to do that – that was amazing.”

In the early 2000s, members of FIERCE organized against increased criminalization and displacement of LGBTQ+ youth of color and homeless youth at the Christopher Street Pier in the West Village; a pier that was set to be redeveloped. This was a place where LGBTQ+ youth had built community over many decades. FIERCE talked to neighbors, planned actions, made phone calls, and articulated their demands, which were twofold: to “acknowledge that LGBTQ+ youth of color are an important part of the West Village community [and to] allow our voices to be heard in the pier development process.”

 

 

Round Table on Labor

As part of In/With Chelsea, a community-driven street sign installation with the NYC Department of Transportation and the High Line, artist Betty Yu organized a round table on labor with long-time union and labor organizers in the neighborhoods surrounding the park. View individual interviews in the accompanying videos.

Lidia Correa was one of eight long-time union workers and organizers who gathered at the High Line to share stories and compare International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Unions (ILGWU) wag. May Chen arrived with a rhinestone ILGWU pin. Lana Cheung wore a patchwork apron with ILGWU logos sewn on.

Everyone in the room knew each other, and remembered the days of a bustling Garment District and lots of jobs.

In the 1970s, imported goods flowed heavily into the North American market and union-made garments were on the decline. The ILGWU stepped up their marketing with this television jingle designed to get consumers to look at the labels before buying.

Michael DiPalma’s story illustrates what many independent businesses are going through in the Garment District. After locking in a great nine-year lease agreement during the financial crisis of 2008, he was looking at some new numbers when that rate expired. “Was is doubled?” Yu asked. “Tripled,” DiPalma replied.

Other In/With Chelsea Projects

Lizania Cruz

Throughout the spring and summer of 2018, Lizania Cruz ran a series of workshops at the New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans Center (The Center). She asked: “How can we tell the lesser known stories of LGBTQ+ Chelsea?”

Learn more

Shannon Finnegan

Disabled artist Shannon Finnegan spoke with people with disabilities and those who live with mental illnesses about creating community on the West Side of Manhattan. She connected with the Center for Independent Living in New York, Fountain House, and Heidi Latsky Dance.

Learn more

Alicia Grullon

Alicia Grullon worked with the senior programs at Hudson Guild and Penn South to untangle political issues around development, displacement, culture, housing, and long-standing communities. Grullon talked to long-time residents of Chelsea who have experienced all of the neighborhood changes.

Learn more