For Alexander Si, an Asian-American entertainer who has spent most of his life in China and Canada, visiting fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen can be a strange experience.
Si, 27, told Gothamist he was surprised by the restaurant’s efficiency and the stark difference between the predominantly white clientele and the people of color serving behind the counters.
“I’ll see customers sitting alone usually with a suit and tie on, and doing this kind of mechanical bowl-to-face, face-to-bowl movement while on the phone at the same time,” Si said. “You think you make so many choices choosing this bowl over this bowl, but in all of this you are just a chess piece in the game.”
Si moved to Chinatown about three years ago and now works on projects inspired by aspects of American popular culture that marked him as an immigrant.
His most recent work is a life-size facsimile of a Sweetgreen franchise, including a replica of the restaurant’s sleek online order pick-up shelf and seating area with a video of a real Sweetgreen embedded in the seats, at the downtown art gallery. Chinatown soup. The familiar “sg” logo displayed outside the gallery attracted many residents and tourists hoping to purchase salad bowls.
Thanks to the hard work he put into creating the exact replica by hand in less than a week, Si said he hopes people who visit his facility will think twice about the craftsmanship. work invisible behind the big chain stores.
On opening day, Si hired five performers to dress up as Sweetgreen employees, with a manager shouting “sweet” and a group of employees shouting “green” in an effort to create excitement in a work environment. of business.
“It’s sort of a metaphor for reality [sweetgreen] employees and how they are treated, and the burnout they face as blue-collar workers in the service industry under this great umbrella brand,” Si said.
The gallery that hosts Si’s installation is in a part of Chinatown that some say has become gentrified. The surrounding area is known as “Dimes Square”, a small triangle between the intersection of Canal and Division streets in the eastern part of Chinatown. It is named after a nearby restaurant, Dimes, and the area has become increasingly whiter and wealthier over the past two years during the pandemic, Si said.
He hopes his installation will raise questions about the effects of corporate chains entering micro-neighbourhoods like Dimes Square.
The most interesting reaction he received, he said, was the pushback from residents who thought his facility was a real Sweetgreen.
“People were like, ‘This is so upsetting, I’m going to start a neighborhood community text group to protest this,'” Si said. “They still think this is invading their neighborhood somehow. . And they’re also mostly white people.”
He hopes aggrieved residents will stop and think about the cost of moving into this neighborhood as the next hip place.
” Who is [the] gentrifies and who gentrifies?” he said.
But Jan Lee, 56, a third-generation Chinatown resident and community activist, said the facility may have missed the mark. In his view, it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing only on “white corporate Americans” moving into communities of color as a sign of gentrification.
“We’ve had a proliferation of very large foreign companies coming into Chinatown and across New York that have overtaken similar family businesses,” Lee said. “It’s a form of gentrification.”
What’s really troubling Chinatown right now, according to Lee, is the proliferation of liquor licenses as other neighborhoods become more restrictive on them. A chain of natural food companies that doesn’t spread through the community will eventually fail and go, Lee said, but there will always be alcohol consumers. And restaurants and bars selling alcohol are changing the sidewalk experience and the neighborhood’s rent structure, according to Lee.
“It’s a threat,” Lee said. “Not salad.”
Alexander Si’s installation Sweetgreen is open until Sunday at Chinatown Soup Gallery.