New Land Plaza: You Can't Beat a New York Original Canal Street Research Association Storefront for Art and Architecture March 1 - May 27, 2023

An image of a sketch by Ming Fay.

Sketch of “Monumental Fruit” by Ming Fay. All images courtesy of Canal Street Research Association and Storefront for Art and Architecture

“Whoever you are, wherever you are, we are going to shut you down.” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg during the “Counterfeit Triangle” raid press conference, February 2008

Depending on which way you turn as your enter Storefront for Art and Architecture, Bloomberg’s words may be the first you read. The site of the raid, “Counterfeit Triangle,” refers to a triangular shaped block of land in lower Manhattan that’s bound by Canal Street, Walker Street, and Centre Street. In the beginning of 2008, the New York City Office of Special Enforcement raided the block’s main shopping center, New Land Plaza, and evicted all 32 of its vendors for allegedly trafficking in counterfeit goods. The repercussions of the raid and subsequent evictions are still actively unfolding. In the wake of their displacement, the vendors that once might have occupied New Land Plaza continue to set up in new locations– most recently along the sidewalks just below Canal Street down Broadway.

Detail of a framed copy of a city notice that has been turned into a poster.

This poster is a reproduction of the signage found in New Land Plaza following the raid.

This little-known history is the subject of Canal Street Research Association’s latest project. Canal Street Research Association (CSRA) is a collaborative research unit run by Alex Tatarsky and Ming Lin. The title of the exhibition, “New Land Plaza: You Can’t Beat a New York Original” is an homage to a Boar’s Head advertisement that once blocked out the west facing windows of New Land Plaza, the largely vacant mini mall at the center of the show. The installation resembles a special exhibition one might encounter at a museum of history and features the work of artist Ming Fay. The exhibition’s venue, Storefront for Art and Architecture, is positioned atop its own similarly shaped triangle of real estate a few blocks up, on the north side of Kenmare Street. CSRA has thoughtfully arranged a blend of artifacts and other relevant materials to highlight this similarity. The exhibition analogizes the two triangles to tell the story of how New Land Plaza was shut down and transformed into the mostly empty facade it is today.

An Installation view of the show.

Installation view of “New Land Plaza: You Can’t Beat a New York Original”

Across the room from the former Mayor’s statement sits a segment of tan-colored linoleum steps that have been modeled after New Land Plaza’s interior stairwell. The actual stairwell was Bloomberg’s chosen backdrop for the aforementioned ominous press conference held after the raid. The segment is only 5 or 6 steps high and feels more like a set of bleachers than a set of stairs. Whereas the Mayor’s use of the stairwell was a symbolic gesture meant to emphasize inaccessibility and control, CSRA’s recreation is an invitation to gather and a reminder that most stairwells across New York City—a metropolis known for its stoop culture—are as much a space for casual assembly as they are tools for moving bodies and their cargos up and down.

If one happens to look under the staircase, they’ll find a stash of designer bags that, like the staircase, aren’t “real.” These bags are bootlegs. This playful diorama of hidden counterfeit goods is the closest this exhibition gets to employing escape room logic. The moment of discovery feels orchestrated to implicate the viewer in a way that leads them further down their own path of “ah-ha” to hopefully consider what else in their existence might not be readily apparent at first sight. For those who don’t need to be led in this way, this “fun” moment can serve as an indication that others probably do, and that in a brief moment of gamification, CSRA is actually doing the heavy lifting to spoon feed a history that might be hard for some to swallow.

An Installation view of the show.

Installation view of “New Land Plaza: You Can’t Beat a New York Original”

The ironic twist of the exhibition is that the counterfeit bags are arguably the only “real” objects in the show. They’re real bootlegs, purchased from the street vendors of Canal Street. Everything else on view is either a model for a bygone future, a recreation, or a copy of the past. This is true of Ming Fay’s artwork, which is thoughtfully installed at the thinnest most vertex of the triangular-shaped gallery to mirror its proposed placement within the original geography of “Counterfeit Triangle.” The objects are the remnants of “Monumental Fruit” a proposal for a public artwork that was part of the 1988 “Proposals for Public Art in Chinatown” organized by the Asian American Art Centre. The proposal, which would have honored the fruit vendors in the area, never came to fruition.

Monumental Fruit by Ming Fay

“Monumental Fruit” by Ming Fay installed at Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2023.

On the wall opposite “Monumental Fruit”, a floor to ceiling decal of the Boar’s Head logo covers the same wall of the triangle as where the original advertisement blocked out the windows of New Land Plaza. The difference here is that we’re seeing the windows from the inside, looking out. To complete the imitation and to embody the facade-ification of the original billboard, CSRA has designated an area on the exterior of the gallery as ad space that is available for rent. The overall effort to simulate the geography and conditions of New Land Plaza is so present that the exhibition as a whole begins to feel like it’s own kind of bootleg– Counterfeit Triangle’s very own counterfeit triangle.

The outside of Storefront for Art and Architecture

Canal Street Research Association’s billboard on the exterior of Storefront for Art and Architecture, 2023

Even CSRA, the group responsible for the exhibition, self-identifies as fictionalized. The office entity was founded by Shanzhai Lyric, a collaborative roaming research unit run by Alex Tatarsky and Ming Lin. Shanzhai is a Chinese neologism that means “fake.” It was originally coined to describe knock-off cell phones marketed under such names as Nokir and Samsing. Given this “parent company” relationship and the multiple layers of organizational identity responsible for the project, CSRA has the air of a front, and that is the point. Illegitimacy may actually be the essential legitimizing characteristic of CSRA. It keeps their research, which often interrogates the traditional notions of the counterfeit and the ethical questions that surround it, positioned safely outside the realm of voyeurism. As an added bonus, every niche history the organization archives regarding this topic becomes a relevant subplot to its own mythology.

As of the date of this article’s publishing, the Boar’s Head advertisement that once blocked out the windows of New Land Plaza has been replaced with an advertisement for an Italian lingerie brand called Intimissimi. On one hand, Intimissimi is not a New York original. The brand’s name makes it sound like they sell the Shanzhai version of italian intimacy. On the other hand, the ad features Bronx native, Jennifer Lopez. The new billboard sends a mixed message. You can’t beat a New York original, but you can knock one off.