A public art project in Boston’s Chinatown highlights the effect of development on the lively, historic downtown neighborhood.
Life-size portraits of residents through the neighborhood’s long history are going up in plazas and on street corners for about a week starting Sept. 10.
Among the dozen sets of cutouts are a laundry owner and his family posing in front of their shop in the 1930s, a young brother and sister in a Chinatown tenement in the 1940s, and two shopkeepers at a Chinese grocery in the 1950s.
Artist Wen-ti Tsen will also set up photo stations to take portraits of current residents, workers and passers-by in front of historic backdrops of the neighborhood. He’ll eventually turn those into life-size cutouts, too.
Tsen said the project, called “Home Town,” is meant to underscore how development continues to affect the community, which was founded in the late 1800s and has over 12,800 residents.
“This has been a Chinatown for a long, long time,” he said. “This is to make it known to the city, to the community and to casual visitors of the long history of Chinatown as a continuing place where generations of people lived and worked.”
Susan Chinsen, managing director of the Chinese Historical Society of New England, which provided the historical images Tsen used to develop his figures, suggests the exhibit provides a somewhat “neutral” view of the often contentious gentrification debate.
“There’s a connection between what happened in the past and what’s happening in the present, and we have to be mindful of that,” she said.
Located between the city’s financial and theater districts, Chinatown has faced development pressure since the 1950s, when row houses were razed for an interstate highway that cuts through the city.
The growth of Tufts University’s medical school and health sciences campus became a point of conflict in later decades.
The city’s more recent economic resurgence has only added to that pressure. New luxury high rises have sprouted up along Chinatown’s edges, and a handful of boutique hotels are proposed on its borders.
“Boston is a city steeped in history, with many sides to each story,” said Kim Szeto, a program manager at the New England Foundation for the Arts, which provided a $10,000 grant for the project. “It’s important to not lose sight of these stories in the midst of what sometimes feels like rapid changes.”
Giles Li, head of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, a social service agency, said the exhibit is a reminder that Chinatown is “first and foremost” a residential neighborhood.
“As the region develops and more people come through the neighborhood to shop or eat, we must also hold on to our heritage as a site where people actually live,” he said.
Tsen’s project isn’t the only public display in Chinatown highlighting the neighborhood’s rich past.
The Chinese Historical Society and Tufts have also launched an exhibit of archival photos and images showcasing the importance of the written word in Chinatown, from its newspapers to community bulletin boards and recent efforts to bring a public library branch back to the neighborhood.