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Located only ten blocks from the World Trade Center, Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood in lower Manhattan and still struggling to revive its economy and address the social, environmental and psychological problems arising from 9/11. Chinatown’s recovery lags behind more affluent neighbors near Ground Zero such as Tribeca, Little Italy, Soho and Battery Park. Due to the challenge of collecting oral histories rather than digital materials, and a funding delay, it was even the last neighborhood to be included in the archive CUNY created following the attacks.

Now, in partnership with the CUNY Graduate Center’s September 11 Digital Archive, a group of city educational institutions has filled that gap with a multimedia oral history project capturing the experience of post-9/11 Chinatown residents, giving voice to those often not heard because of limited English proficiency. Ground One: Voices from Post-911 Chinatown is a collection of 30 video interviews with neighborhood residents, community leaders and workers co-produced by the Museum of Chinese in the Americas (MOCA), Columbia University Oral History Research Office and NYU's Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute. Unemployed restaurant workers, laid-off garment factory workers, community activists, youngsters and seniors open up about how 9/11 has worsened traffic, caused more pollution and higher asthma rates, crippled local restaurants, jewelry businesses and garment factories, and how the historic moment reshaped their new identity as Americans.

“Even the Muslim and Arabic communities were surveyed and Chinatown is being forgotten. Ideally, we should have documented the stories right away. We’re trying to catch up and save an important piece of history,” said Cynthia Lee, MOCA’s deputy director of programs. The project was initiated in the fall of 2003, Lee said.

Funded by the the Rockefeller Foundation, the entire oral history project is now available through the website, which includes interview transcripts in both Chinese and English, and the ability to search personal stories by theme. The project was archived by the Library of Congress this spring, and tomorrow MOCA is having a launch event for a special educator’s DVD.

In one of the videotaped interviews, immigration lawyer Zhongyue Zhang describes how the heightened border security after 9/11 didn't just affect Arabs and Muslims, but hurt his own business. The number of Chinese undocumented immigrants entering the country dramatically dropped, which resulted in what he called a “95 percent” decline in the number of political asylum appeal cases for local Chinese immigration law firms.

Before 9/11, half of Zhang’s law firm’s business came from filing political asylum appeals for incarcerated Chinese illegal immigrants. He handles few of these cases now since the stricter immigration law took effect. The new legal procedure makes it much easier to lose. Since then, he shifted his business direction and seeks out more family and spousal immigration business. [09/11/06]

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