Chinatown’s future is diverse group’s single-minded focus


By Lesley Sussman 

Residents, representatives of advocacy groups and social-service organizations, politicians and business owners from throughout the greater Chinatown area packed a community meeting and workshop on Mon., Feb. 1, to help draft a comprehensive, community-based plan for Chinatown’s future.

The meeting was convened by the Chinatown Working Group — a volunteer organization comprised of 43 member organizations and representatives from the three community boards covering the area — whose goal is to help local residents and stakeholders determine the neighborhood’s future. The final plan will be presented to the Department of City Planning after a series of more workshops this spring and a public review.

Since its inception

in 2008, the Chinatown Working Group has tackled issues affecting the greater Chinatown area, such as cultural and historic preservation, affordability, economic development, education and schools, immigration, parks and open space, traffic and zoning.

More than 200 people braved the cold to attend the Monday evening meeting and workshop at P.S. 30, 143 Baxter St. They broke up into smaller working groups based on language preferences — from Mandarin and Cantonese to English, Spanish and Russian. Participants were asked to offer ideas and make suggestions on how to best tackle problems facing Chinatown.

Some of the concerns raised at the workshops included gentrification, skyrocketing rents, businesses closing, loss of jobs, the gradual disappearance of Chinese culture in the neighborhood, traffic congestion, insufficient parking and lack of parks and open space.

At the meeting’s conclusion, each group presented its recommendations on a variety of issues. Suggestions ranged from improving Chinatown’s parks to seeking the city’s help for the neighborhood’s struggling garment industry.

Gerald Yu, a local real estate agent, representing the Mandarin-speaking work group, said, “The garment industry has been the dominant industry in Chinatown for a long, long time, but now it is facing hard times.” He urged that new means of employment and training be found for many of these workers so that they can remain in the neighborhood.

The real estate agent also called for more flexible zoning regulations for Chinatown’s garment industry.

“This would mean cheaper rents for owners of these businesses and would make the garment industry more competitive,” Yu stated.

Yu also asked that measures be taken to rectify the area’s “chaotic” traffic situation.

“Bear in mind that there is a strong relationship between the prosperity of a neighborhood and its traffic,” he said. “We want something to be done.”

Yu cited as an example the large number of tickets police were giving illegally parked shuttle buses that transported people to and from Chinatown. He said this was costly to operators of these bus companies and discouraged them from doing business.

“Something must be done,” Yu said. “Maybe some kind of traffic hub can be created where they can park legally.”

Yet another problem he pointed to was the growing number of “street hawkers and peddlers” along Canal St. and the practice of many merchants of extending their outdoor stands so that they blocked the sidewalks.

“All of this discourages pedestrian traffic and decreases the capacity of people to shop at other stores on the street,” he said. “Something should be done.”

Earlier, at the workshop session for English-speaking residents, some of the top priorities for the area included supporting the artistic and cultural history of the 100-year-old Chinatown community, assisting small businesses, adding more park and recreational space and preserving mixed-use zoning.

Toby Turkel, a Chatham Towers resident, said, “It upsets me that we haven’t gotten the message to government officials that we need improved cultural respect for the people of Chinatown.” That sentiment was supported by another local resident who warned that “Chinatown was in danger of losing its culture.”

On the subject of economic development, David Mulkins, chairperson of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, or BAN, said not only was it important to preserve Chinatown’s culture, “but it’s also very important not to let anything happen to endanger the live-and-work nature of the neighborhood.”

Other recommendations made at this workshop included making certain that Chinatown does not become “another Disneyland,” limiting the number of new luxury high-rises being built in the neighborhood and relocating Police Headquarters so that Park Row could be reopened to vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

The meeting opened with remarks by Borough President Scott Stringer and City Councilmember Margaret Chin, who both expressed strong support for the Chinatown Working Group’s efforts.

“This community has gone through a lot since 9/11, including the closing of Park Row,” Stringer said. “All the other neighborhoods have gotten something, but somehow Chinatown has not been the beneficiary of urban planning. This is going to change starting tonight. This is going to be a neighborhood for everyone to enjoy for generations to come.”

Chin, meanwhile, told the audience, “We want a plan for the future of Chinatown that’s bottom up from the community, and not top down from government.” She added that only by working together with other ethnic groups throughout the area will the neighborhood be strengthened.

Jim Solomon, co-chairperson of the Chinatown Working Group, said he was gratified by the meeting’s large turnout.

“This is an exciting evening for Chinatown,” he said. “It’s a historic meeting because of all the different backgrounds and cultures of the people who are here to demand a say in the future of their community.”