Chinatown in need of more attention

Squeaky wheels do get grease.

The residents and merchants of Chinatown, thankfully, have learned that in order for the powers that be to hear their voices, they have to speak up.

The residents of Chatham Green and Chatham Towers, after living for nearly two years behind police barricades, got some satisfaction this week when Judge Walter Tolub ruled the Police Dept. could no longer use public parkland as a parking lot and would have to leave James Madison Plaza by the end of the year. The judge also ruled that the city would have to do an environmental study of the police closing of Park Row.

The closure, intended to protect One Police Plaza, has been like a noose around the necks of Chatham residents and nearby businesses, and has negative effects on the rest of Chinatown, the Seaport and Civic Center area. It has disrupted bus service throughout Lower Manhattan.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg may not have had a problem with Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly ignoring park and environmental laws to the detriment of Chinatown, but Judge Tolub knows that even police have to obey the law.

The arrogance of the police and the city lawyers paid with precious public money to defend them is shocking. Police did not argue that they took over designated parkland for security reasons. No, the argument went, the plaza is such a barren place, and it is so crucial that Kelly’s staff has places to park their personal cars for free, that parkland can be absconded by fiat as long as we promise to leave by some theoretical date. We’ll move into the Municipal Garage, which we closed to residents two years ago, when we’re good and ready.

As for the closing of Park Row and nearby streets, police do cite security concerns. Judge Tolub properly ruled that the Park Row barriers could remain while the city proceeds with an environmental study. Only the delusional would suggest that the closing of the only direct connection between Chinatown and the Civic Center would not have significant traffic impacts. Any fair study of the closing will show this.

That won’t get the road reopened. If Kelly continues to insist that there is no safe way to reopen Park Row to city buses and pedestrians at least, the street won’t reopen. The environmental study will reveal the precise affects on Downtown and hopefully it will prompt someone at City Hall to figure out a way to open the street or find a fortress-like place somewhere else in the city where the police can move.

Last year, Louis Tomson, then the president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., was willing to say he would “keep banging away” at the city to reopen the rest of the Chinatown streets. No one at the L.M.D.C. is willing to say this anymore, which helps explain in part the icy reception the L.M.D.C. received when they visited Chinatown last week.

The entirety of the problems in Chinatown cannot be blamed on 9/11 or Park Row, but given that the L.M.D.C. has about $1 billion and was formed specifically to help Downtown neighborhoods like Chinatown, it is not unreasonable for neighborhood leaders to expect more to be done quicker. The terror attack was two years ago.

The recession, housing shortage, limited park space and dirty streets were all problems that existed in Chinatown before the attack. But just as it is important to invest 9/11 money on Downtown commuter-airport links to solve problems that existed before the attack, it is also necessary to invest in Chinatown to insure the recovery of Lower Manhattan does not break down on race or class lines.

The neighborhood knows how to communicate its problems. It’s up to the city and L.M.D.C. to show it knows how to respond.

They might take a lesson from Judge Tolub.