New York City’s Chinatown is just about the only neighborhood in Manhattan that still retains some of the atmosphere of old New York, a city that was much less gentrified and much more down-to-earth: gritty, noisy, often dirty, a city of immigrants and the working class.

Partly due to its geographical overlap with parts of the Lower East Side, today’s Chinatown makes me think of the immigrant neighborhoods of a century ago, allowing me to imagine what it must have been like on those crowded streets we see in old photographs. It is moving to see how in this part of town, recent immigrants are still making a new home in America—in many of the same buildings that were occupied by generations of past immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. In no other part of today’s New York does the past still feel so alive, but I don’t know how much longer this will last.

I started photographing in Chinatown several years ago, drawn by its history but also by its contemporary chaos and energy. It reminded me, foremost, of the old city center in Athens, from where I originally come. More recently, though, my project has attained an added urgency and poignancy, as it is becoming clear that even Chinatown is, inexorably, succumbing to the forces of modernization and gentrification. Grocery stores are shutting down and old apartment buildings are being demolished in order to make way for fancy new hotels, boutiques, and the like.

In this work, I am trying to capture and preserve the everyday atmosphere and poetry of the streets of Chinatown before the neighborhood becomes unrecognizable and forever lost.

© Dimitri Mellos

These photographs blend a documentary impulse with a street photography aesthetic. I like documenting life unobtrusively as it unfolds, striving for a fly-on-the-wall style as much as possible. My aim is to convey to the viewer the experience of wandering around a place as a curious and interested outsider.

More recently, I have also started photographing a little in the city’s two newer Chinatowns, in Flushing and in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. They don’t have the history of Manhattan’s Chinatown, but they are fast becoming vibrant, bustling communities in their own right. It’s fascinating and touching to witness how the Chinese diaspora manage to quickly create a small-scale version of a typical Chinese town wherever they find themselves.

—Dimitri Mellos

If you’d like to see more work like this, we’d recommend these articles: Emerging from the Dark, a street series shot in the warren-like alleys and avenues of New York City; The Original New Yorkers, a project that gives voice to native New Yorkers who have been affected by gentrification; and an insightful interview with the senior photo editor of the New Yorker.