A History of Canal Street, in 7 Objects

The Canal Street Research Association collected items from Canal Street that embody its history as a haven for hustlers, street vendors, and artists, such as Empire State Building souvenirs alongside oyster shells. Photo: Parker Menzimer. Image courtesy the artists.

To Shanzhai Lyric — the artistic collaboration of Alexandra Tatarsky and Ming Lin — covert accounts of a place or a time are often more telling than official records. This is true of Canal Street, especially. The enduring stereotype of the street is as a destination for bootlegged items, but the hyperlocal story is more nuanced: It’s about how a largely immigrant vendor community survives through creative perseverance. “Everyone on Canal Street is a hustler and everyone on Canal Street is an artist,” Shanzhai Lyric says. But very little of the street’s dynamic characters are captured in municipal archives or on tax rolls. So Shanzhai Lyric initiated the Canal Street Research Association, a fictional organization that created an archive of the street and its “places that elude public record,” as they said. And the story of how this archive went from a Canal Street storefront to MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” show, on view now, is not as straightforward as it may seem.

For these artists, whose previous work involved finding poetry in counterfeit and bootlegged garments, the project is a personal one. Tatarsky and Lin are childhood friends who grew up around Canal Street. (Lin lived a block away and Tatarsky in the East Village.) While the street has always been in flux, they noticed how much more quickly street vendors and informal economies, like the one revolving around counterfeit bags, were displaced during the Bloomberg administration. The pandemic, which emptied storefronts and stilled foot traffic, triggered another period of stark change.

The Canal Street Research Association’s archive is “in storage” at MoMA PS1 as part of the museum’s “Greater New York” exhibition. The items include drums from a street vendor and artist, a custom landscape painting, and tourist souvenirs. Photo: Marissa Alper

“There’s this rich history of all the different businesses and people who occupied the buildings,” Shanzhai Lyric says. “And then there’s this perhaps even richer history of all the different businesses, people, projects, creative enterprises, and hustles that occupied the streetscape. It’s harder to find documentation of that because it lives so much in oral history and in people’s memories.”

Their project joins a long tradition of artistic interventions on Canal Street, which often provide the only documentation of the street’s informal economies. For example, “Transmigration of the Sold,” a 2006 performance and film by Yoko Inoue explores a very specific Canal Street product related to post-9/11 American identity. In the piece, Inoue unravels handmade American-flag sweaters imported from Peru and Ecuador into spools of yarn inside a souvenir shack on the steps of Canal Rubber, and then reweaves the material into new items. “It’s the only mention we have found in the so-called ‘official record’ of handmade post-September 11 paraphernalia,” Shanzhai Lyric says. Similarly, the CSRA provides a record of Canal Street during pandemic-era New York.

To carry out the project, they took over a storefront on the busy street itself. In October last year, Shanzhai Lyric got the keys to a pro bono space at 327 Canal through Wallplay, an organization that ran pop-up gallery programs to fill vacant storefronts. (A grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council plus enhanced unemployment benefits allowed them to fund the project and work there seven days a week.) Then, they photographed every building on Canal Street, from the West Street to Essex, tacked up the images on the walls as a panorama, and invited visitors to annotate it with their memories of a particular address. The artists also collected and displayed objects and ephemera from street vendors and local artists — like T-shirts, Empire State Building models, molds from Canal Plastics — in the gallery and screened films like Inoue’s “Transmigration of the Sold” on the storefront.

The archive includes a photographic “timeline” of all the buildings on Canal Street from the Westside Highway to Essex Street. Visitors to the Research Association scribbled memories next to the photographs. When Shanzhai Lyric were evicted from their space, they removed portions of the walls upon which those notes were written. Photo: Marissa Alper

Passersby often thought the CSRA was another tourist shop. When they found out it wasn’t, it was an opportunity for Shanzhai Lyric to talk about their archive. Much like the Fluxus Collective’s Fluxshop at 359 Canal St., open during the 1960s, where the real work was creating the shop and filling it with goods as opposed to selling them, the CSRA’s work was more about putting on a performance of a research organization — bringing people together, hearing stories, and creating a space for creative exchange — than an exhaustive attempt to collect and archive everything about the street.

In January, Wall Play told Shanzhai Lyric that it was folding, and that all subsequent communication about the space would need to happen directly with the landlord. The landlord visited CSRA soon after and decided that their activities weren’t appealing to prospective tenants compared to a more traditional art gallery. “He thought we weren’t professional enough as artists because we were using brown paper to paint on, and not canvas,” Shanzhai Lyric says. “He said we weren’t proper artists.” They ended up negotiating a three-month extension if Shanzhai Lyric promised to make cosmetic improvements to the gallery. But in late March, he abruptly asked CSRA to vacate in a week, saying that he found a permanent tenant for the space.

Shanzhai Lyric left the Canal Street space on March 30 — the same day the Times published a feature on the project. Then, they moved the archive into storage, and now it’s on view at MoMA PS1. Their storefront space remains vacant. Shanzhai Lyric told Curbed about seven items in the archive that represent the Canal Street they know.

Mountain Hamlets by Leo Liu

Photo: Shanzhai Lyric

“Leo is one of the last remaining portrait artists on Canal Street. He sets up in front of the McDonald’s on Canal and Lafayette and illustrates caricatures of tourists, and has become a friend and collaborator. One of the reasons that an artistic history of Canal Street provides such a rich account, or is able to provide an account at all, is because of the legal loophole that artistic expression holds through the First Amendment. He told us that a lot of Chinese immigrants first took up street art because it was one of the forms of street vending you can pursue without having to have a license, because it’s covered under freedom of expression. That’s a sort of the claim that we’re interested in — what does labeling something an artwork allow for? He has a whole archive of tourists who have been visiting Canal Street for decades.

“We worked with Leo to do portraits of everyone who came by or came in one day to kind of create this archive of passersby. We also commissioned a mountain landscape drawing from him. This kind of idea of the mountain landscape is really central to our whole practice because the Chinese word shanzhai, which loosely means counterfeit and literally means mountain hamlet. It’s a reference to an area on the edge of empire that’s kind of hidden by mountains where bandits are able to abscond with goods and then redistribute them among people living there. For us, this has become like a central metaphor — that Canal Street itself is a kind of a mountain hamlet where goods are taken and redistributed and made accessible to the people.”

Walls from the Canal Street Research Association Timeline

Photo: Shanzhai Lyric

“Early on in the project, Bing Lee — a downtown artist who is responsible for the beautiful porcelain tile work in the Canal Street subway station and is a founding member of the Godzilla Asian American Arts Network — came into the association and suggested that we have a visual timeline prompting visitors to the space to recall Canal Street memories. Beneath a picture of 59 Canal, one of the street’s many cross-country bus stations, someone wrote: ‘After Hurricane Sandy, when all the lights were still out, this bus station was fully in action and only lit by tall white candles.’ Beneath a photograph of what’s now the Mahayana Temple at 133 Canal Street, there’s a note that says this used to be the site of the Rosemary Theater where they ‘played Kung Fu flicks and porn.’ Another note says: ‘Notorious for bad feng shui (because of chaotic energies at the bridge) only thing to correct bad juju was temple.’

“For us, the typology of the timeline accumulating notes and memories bears visual and conceptual resonance with the tradition of Chinese landscape painting, where emptiness in the composition leaves room for multiple signatures and inscriptions. In a landscape painting, value is accrued not necessarily by association with an original author or singular narrator, but by the accumulation of collective voices and co-authors.”

When we were asked to leave the space at 327 Canal, we managed to steal some sections of the wall, which you see in the storage. A portion of these timeline fragments is on the type of white particle board typically used in souvenirs shops along Canal, harkening back to the space’s days as a shop. The rest of the timeline exists only in photographs.”

Bootleg David Hammons Molds from Canal Plastics

Photo: Shanzhai Lyric

“David Hammons was famously elusive, and there’s a line in a book about him that offered a window into his process. Apparently, he had bought these plastic molds from either Canal Street Plastics or Industrial Plastics, we’re not sure which, to make these perfectly spherical snowballs that he laid out on a piece of fabric for his Bliz-aard Ball Sale in front of Cooper Union, which only exists today in a few photographs. We staged a bootleg version of Hammons’s performance, and used a Muslim prayer rug that we bought from a prayer rug vendor named John. He represents a tertiary economy: Selling to the large Muslim population of street vendors.”

Canal Sewer Water by Marco Barrera

Photo: Shanzhai Lyric

“A canal still runs underneath Canal Street. In our storage unit, there are about three jars of Canal Street water that have been slowly turning a really amazing shade of pink over the past six months or so. Marco is one of our neighbors, and now friends, who caught wind of what we were doing and would regularly drop by with different artifacts and ephemera for the archive. He descended into the sewer at an undisclosed location to collect the water. We also heard stories about the ‘Canal Catacombs,’ which is supposedly where illegal arms dealing took place beneath the street, probably a leftover from the Vietnam War. In our final three days in the space, we turned it into what we imagined the landlord’s fantasy was for us would be and we became a ‘successful retail enterprise.’ Everyone wanted a jar of the Canal Street water, which Marco insisted could only sell for $1 a jar.”

Djembes from Khadim Sene

Photo: Shanzhai Lyric

“Khadim is a bag vendor, but he was also trained from a very young age to play the djembe, which is a West African drum. He also comes from a family of griot, so he’s a storyteller. In December we held a drum lesson and concert in honor of his spiritual leader who had come to New York in the pandemic and encouraged him to start a band as a way to boost morale of his friends on Canal who are all part of this branch of Islam called the Mouride. The band is Sopé Bahké and everyone can be part of the band. We held the concert and lesson on the steps of Canal Rubber, which is closed on the weekends. Khadim teaches a few kids on Canal Street at the moment, but he’s very excited about doing more group concerts and lessons.

“We first witnessed these drum sessions as soon as we got our space because directly across the street there’s this little area protected by a scaffold on a building where vendors gathered and had very celebratory day-long events — there was drumming, there was barbecuing, there were lamb roasts. Everyone was welcome to come eat and feast and dance and sing. They still occasionally do this, but in June, when the city opened up, literally all of the Canal Street of the past year really disappeared because the NYPD started doing 24-hour surveillance with floodlights, you know, to protect all the empty storefronts on this stretch of Canal. We went up to the cops stationed there recently, and we said, ‘We’re curious — why are you here 24/7? It’s quite a lot of resources?’ And they said to us, ‘Girls, I don’t know if you know what’s going on here, but these men here on the street are doing all kinds of things. They’re not just selling bags. They’re barbecuing.’ The threat of the barbecue!”

Christian Diop Shanzhai T-shirt

Photo: Shanzhai Lyric

“This object directly ties with the project out of which Canal Street Research Association was born, which is the Shanzhai Lyric poetry garment archive. Newland Plaza is a mini-mall right where Chinatown begins on Canal Street and it’s basically completely empty, except for a cell phone repair shop. The mall belongs to an Italian marble magnate, allegedly, but was also the site of the 2008 Bloomberg-spearheaded counterfeit bust. He held this amazing press conference in the mall where he was surrounded by bootlegged handbags. But in the one remaining shop on ground level, we found this shirt. Diop is a really common Senegalese surname. So we’re just like: wow, we don’t know what the intentionality behind this adjustment of the ‘Christian Dior’ design was, but it encapsulates this moment demographically of Canal Street. To us, it feels like a Canal Street inside joke. But it’s also one of many synchronicities. One of our collaborators brought to our attention the work of the Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop. We screened one of her films on the window of our space, and it was like an open-air cinema everyone on Canal could enjoy. The ‘Diop’ was central in many ways.”

Canal Street Research Association Key

Photo: Shanzhai Lyric

“We basically experienced a hyper-accelerated pattern of artists coming into a neighborhood, then helping to upscale the neighborhood whether they want to or not, and then contributing to their own displacement. It happened comically fast for us, and was artificially created by the landlord. So Canal Street Research Association was supposed to be a short pop-up, and then was going to be extended, so we thought, but the rug was yanked from beneath us.

“In our final gesture, we decided to take on this idea that any object can become a ready-made work of art, and that art can offer the possibility of some kind of protection. We took the key to the CSRA space and had it plated in gold — a beautiful Canal Street signature move — and then we made it into a necklace with Canal Street charms and pearls as an homage to the street’s oyster history. We made five of these keys and put them up for sale so anyone could have a key to the space. They were our most expensive item because we were selling a piece of Canal Street property, in a way.”

A History of Canal Street, in 7 Objects