Chinatown Museum Draws Heat After it Finalizes $51M Purchase of Its Building with City Help

The city agreed to provide $39 million in 2019 under the condition that the Museum of the Chinese in America (MOCA) uses the premises “for the benefit of the People of the City.” Critics say that the money is a bribe for the museum to provide cover for the construction of a 300-ft prison tower in Chinatown.

| 12 Feb 2024 | 04:41

The 43-year-old Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) paid $51.1 million to a firm called the Grand Machinery Exchange for a building at 215 Centre Street north of Chinatown, which it had occupied since 2009. The deal for the 46,7000 square feet of built space and an additional 34,774 square feet of air rights closed on January 10, 2024. This follows another purchase of $7.4 million that the museum transacted for the land beneath the museum in 2021.

A large part of the building’s cost was covered by the city, which provided a $39.4 million mortgage according to public records. City officials say that the funding agreement with MOCA disbursed city capital towards a portion of the purchase, on the condition that MOCA uses the premises “for the benefit of the People of the City.” The grant was part of a memorandum of understanding between the city and the city council in October 2019, after a long campaign by the museum’s board of directors for capital funding that started during the Bloomberg administration.

As MOCA celebrated the windfall, another campaign took shape in the surrounding neighborhood. Protesters, led by community and workers-rights groups like the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association (CSWA), accused the museum of taking the money as a “giveback” in return for their silence over a new 300-foot prison tower planned for construction in the middle of Chinatown. Several artists, in solidarity, pulled out of MOCA exhibitions and events featuring their works. Since 2019, protesters have picketed the museum entrance almost every day.

“MOCA, by selling out Chinatown, has hurt the working people, small businesses, the entire community,” Gary He, a member of the Chinatown-based organization Youth Against Displacement, told Our Town Downtown. “It’s clear now that they were fishing for a bribe. They took $39 million from the de Blasio administration in the name of representing the community, for their own benefit.”

He and other protest leaders maintain that the $39 million should have been returned, or better yet, used to help businesses and working people in Chinatown. One of those businesses, the popular restaurant Jing Fong, closed down in February 2021. Angry locals blamed MOCA board chair Jonathan Chu, the restaurant’s landlord, for killing it and putting 100 people out of work in order to realize his plans for a new luxury development.

MOCA defended their acceptance of the city’s grant, saying that they “have no control over where city hall decides the location of new jails or has influence over criminal justice reforms.”

“We also understand there has been a historic displacement of the Chinatown community when government builds new infrastructure without much consultation with the local community,” the museum continues on an FAQ posted in August last year in response to ongoing protests. “We see these two issues as separate, have their own merit, and should not be conflated.”

MOCA’s new home sits two blocks north of Canal Street, the northern boundary of Chinatown, in what used to be called the Machinery District. The building used to house an assortment of industrial machinery for sale, until its owner, Grand Machinery Exchange, moved its operations to Long Island in the 2000s. The company was among the last purveyors of machinery that followed the rest of the 1970s and 1980s exodus from the so-called machinery district as office buildings and sleek new restaurants took their place in the neighborhood.

The museum was previously located at 70 Mulberry Street, and in 2006 found an opportunity to rent out the vacant Centre Street location, which was still owned by GME. The move was finalized in 2009, though 85,000 artifacts that formed the core of MOCA’s collection remained on Mulberry Street. The items, spanning 160 years of Chinese life in America, includes old Chinese restaurant menus, letters from migrants to their families back home, piano music sheets, and a T’ai Chi sword acquired just last year. A fire that broke out in January 2020 destroyed most of those items, with water sprayed into the building causing further damage, but workers were able to salvage a fraction—around 200 boxes—of the collection.

To celebrate Lunar New Year, MOCA is preparing a lineup of events, including a family festival on February 17 that will feature traditional dances by the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company. CSWA, Youths Against Displacement, and other critics of the museum plan to show up as well, slogans and protest signs in tow.