Taken Down in Chinatown

A Police Department decision to keep a main traffic artery closed unites two unlikely factions in New York’s Chinatown.

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When the New York City Department of Transportation unveiled a redesign of Chinatown’s Chatham Square last December, it seemed like an idea that all of Chinatown could agree on. But in addition to realigning a tangle of seven streets, ten crosswalks and a dozen traffic lights, and adding a large plaza, the plan also called for the closure of Park Row, a two-lane arterial that abuts New York Police Department Headquarters and connects Chinatown with the rest of Lower Manhattan. The NYPD, which first closed the street after September 11, 2001, insists that Police Headquarters represents an ideal target for would-be terrorists, making an reopened Park Row a security risk. Now, with construction on new street alignments and a new, permanent set of barricades set to begin this summer, many Chinatown residents say the NYPD is moving ahead with the project over their continued objections.

In the days and weeks following September 11, the NYPD placed Lower Manhattan on lock down, and few neighborhoods were impacted more severely than Chinatown. For a week after the attack only residents, forced to enter through police checkpoints, were allowed into the area. Subways— Chinatown is served by no fewer than nine subway lines— were closed and electricity was spotty for months.

The attacks and their aftermath devastated Chinatown’s economy. According to a survey by the Asian American Federation of New York, in the first two weeks after September 11, three quarters of Chinatown’s workforce became unemployed. A year later, 65 of the neighborhood’s 246 garment factories had closed (before September 11, Chinatown was still very much a working neighborhood—there were almost as many garment factories as there were restaurants). Eventually, Chinatown’s power, phone and subway services were restored and some access restrictions were relaxed— all but the closure of Park Row.

Chinatown residents have been lobbying for the restoration of Park Row for almost six years. In 2004, a group of residents sued the city, asking the NYPD to reconsider the impact of the closure on the community. In 2006, the NYPD released a court-mandated environmental impact statement on the closure of Park Row, declaring that “these security features are considered necessary to protect terrorist targets and will remain in place as long as a potential terrorist threat exists.” Police efforts to “protect terrorist targets” from “potential terrorist threats” have reshaped New York in the last eight years in ways as subtle as new sidewalk bollards and as invasive as personal searches on the subway, but Park Row would be the largest permanent street closure in the name of security, and after years of fighting, Chinatown residents are frustrated with the police department’s unwillingness to compromise their plan.

Chatham Square divides Chinatown in half: the blocks along East Broadway are home to mostly recent immigrants from China’s Fujian province, while Mott Street is home to an older, largely Cantonese-speaking population. Many of Chinatown’s Cantonese speakers immigrated to the US from Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1950s and 60s and they control most of Chinatown’s wealth and political power. The Fujianese on the other hand only began coming to the US in the late 1970s, often illegally— in cargo holds of ships or sealed inside modular containers. Both Fujianese and Cantonese immigrants have fueled Chinatown’s explosive growth over the last sixty years—in 1950 the neighborhood’s population was just under 15,000, but by the early 1990s it was more than 200,000—but along Mott and East Broadway, animosity between the groups lurks just below the surface. It’s not uncommon to hear even the most respectable Cantonese businessmen privately say that the Fujianese are just peasants and petty criminals, while many Fujianese keep to East Broadway, refusing to mix with the

But the planned Chatham Square redesign, and particularly the permanent closure of Park Row, has galvanized the both sides of the Chinese community. The city recently announced it would go ahead with the redesign regardless of neighborhood opposition. At a public hearing last December, before a packed and angry auditorium of Fujianese and Cantonese residents, Fujianese businessman and community leader Steven Wong commandeered the microphone, yelling over the cheering crowd, “They tell you it’s a public hearing? They forgot this is America!”

Wong, who came to New York 37 years ago in one of the first waves of Fujianese immigration, thinks that the tensions between old and new Chinatown, while still present, are starting to fade, especially as the city continues to marginalize the neighborhood. “Cantonese speakers have planted the seed in the soil, but they should thank the new generation for putting water in the soil to make the tree bigger,” he says, “but any tourist who comes down can’t tell the difference between Cantonese, Toisanese, Fujianese, so why does the difference matter to us?” If the police department and city planners continue to steamroll the neighborhood as they have on the Chatham Square project, the old animosities may disappear even faster.

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Tags: new york city

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