Sunday, March 01, 2009

Chinatown working teams

I've been to three meetings of Chinatown Working Group 'teams' (euphemism for "committee," word that stifles all hope). Pleurisy, the devil's own invention, prevented me from attending a fourth team.

The cultural preservation team and the affordability team devoted their time to discussion, raising important issues and observing the challenges to resolving them. Wisely, no decisions were made. Instead, the teams took their first meeting as an opportunity to gain a sense of the group and a sense of direction.

The zoning team, by contrast, immediately drew up and voted on a list of desiderata without first gaining any sense of group direction. The result was a laundry list of items some of which seem to me to conflict, if not contradict one another.

I noticed that Chinatown residents participated fully at the cultural and especially at the affordability team, where the discussion seemed to me deepest. Chinatown residents participated least in the disappointing zoning team discussion. Perhaps there's a lesson to be learned there.

Full disclosure: I don't live in Chinatown (though I work there) and I did participate in the discussions.

The argument for bringing in outside meddlers seems to rest on the diversity and lack of consensus within Chinatown. Several members of the cultural team cited plans for a Chinatown arch that have gone nowhere although the City Council long ago designated funds for it, the moral being, you can't even get consensus in Chinatown on a free arch.

Hell, I don't know whether this whole enterpise will succeed, but I wouldn't be discouraged by an unbuilt arch! It may seem a paltry and easy task, but building an arch is actually just the kind of project that courts controversy: it's public, symbolic, supplies no need directly yet can favor one area over another and alters the experience of the common space for everyone in a seemingly gratuitous, authoritarian, paternalistic way. Of course it hasn't been built!

Not all projects court controversy. Creating and supporting a space for a cultural center, for example, supplies a need directly and daily, doesn't have to be seen by any but those who use and love it and doesn't force anyone to accept its symbolism, if it has any symbolism; it provides without taking. Where's the controversy?

Ah, Chinatown leaders sound like East Village activists: "it can't be done here, we're too factious." Well, if pessimistic complaints must precede accomplishment, so be it. I have confidence in this process...if only we outsiders can listen more and talk less.

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