Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Post 20: The Chinatown Working Group's first formation

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

I was not present at the first mention and coining of the name "Chinatown Working Group". For the history of that first discussion I rely on the person who proposed it in a meeting of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a public-benefit corporation like an authority, created to syphon funding into projects to revitalize lower Manhattan following the 9/11 attacks. Once floated, the idea of creating a CWG was supported by the then mayor Bloomberg, the then Borough President Scott Stringer and the DCP Deputy Director for Manhattan Edith Hsu-Chen (now the Executive Director of DCP, appointed by our current mayor, Eric Adams). 

Since CB2 already had in place a Chinatown Committee, the CWG was convened by its chair, Jay (I've altered the name). The original attendees included representatives from local Chinatown organizations and Chinatown-related organizations (Asian American Arts Center; Asian American/Asian Research Institute-CUNY; Asian Americans For Equality; CAAAV/Chinatown Tenants Union; CCBA; Chinatown Partnership; Chinese Chamber of Commerce; Chinatown Manpower Project; Confucius Plaza; CREATE in Chinatown;  Two Bridges Community Council) as well as the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, the three CB's that Chinatown is divided into (CB's 1, 2, and 3), the offices of the local Chinatown electeds (the council member and the state senator), the mayor's office, the assembly speaker's, the council speaker's, the city comptroller's, and the borough president's, and Sing Tao Daily, a Chinatown newspaper. 

The first item of business for this group was defining the boundaries of Chinatown. Neither the mayor nor the borough president, nor LMDC had given the group any boundaries, and the CB2 committee covered only the area of Chinatown within CD2.  Eve Baron of the Municipal Arts Society was introduced to make the first presentation to the group, in which she explained that the city's boundaries for Chinatown are not community-driven and are too limiting to be used as definitive of Chinatown. 

For the next few monthly meetings discussion centered around this question of boundaries. In particular, Victor Papa of the Two Bridges Community Council, argued persistently for a broad and radical expansion of the group to include all the adjacent areas that might be affected by a rezoning of Chinatown, including the NYCHA properties along the waterfront and the Two Bridges area where his non profit holds property. This principle, that a community rezoning must include its unintended consequences for adjacent communities, was the essential principle of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, though by then the Two Bridges Community Council had left the Coalition, probably because of the Coalition's frequent tactic of playing the race card aggressively. The Coalition itself was boycotting the very CWG that it had made possible. 

I assumed that the rationale of the Coalition's boycott was their understanding that such a community rezoning process would be a kind of real estate developer's shark-fest. And real estate was represented at the table, most prominently Edison Properties which hired an urban planner consultant, former high-level DCP employee and writer of zoning text, who eventually presented a zoning proposal to the group. 

However, current Coalition members claim that the Coalition boycotted CWG meetings because they refused to participate in a rezoning that would exclude the non ethnic Chinese neighborhoods adjacent to Chinatown. But this rationale makes little sense to me, since the CWG's first action was to expand the boundaries to include all those areas, especially the NYCHA properties all the way north to 14th Street in the East Village, yet the Coalition continued to boycott and protest the CWG long after this expanded definition of the boundaries. It may be that because the Coalition did not attend the meetings it did not know that the boundaries were expanded to include everything the Coalition desired. I have no other coherent explanation for their boycotting, as I was at the time out of favor with the Coalition for a reason I will describe now. 

Just prior to the City Council vote on the EV/LES rezoning, I went with Jenny to the then councilmember Alan Gerson to bring him our criticism of the rezoning. In the meeting, it seemed to me that the CSWA goal was not to get some benefit from the elected but to find a means of rejecting the elected as fuel for protest. The modus operandi was to present demands as an ultimatum with no avenue of negotiation. For me, the goal of going to an elected is to get something whether it be some assistance, inside information, or even a favorable comment that could be used later as a commitment. 

CSWA came away from the meeting accusing Gerson of racism. I stayed to get a commitment from Gerson to submit to the Council the cataloguing of the Bowery that I'd done for BAN. Gerson did fulfill that commitment, not that it did any good for the Bowery or its residents. My expectations of electeds are lower than most people's, I suspect. In any case, Jenny viewed this seeking of a commitment as a betrayal and undermining of the Coalition goals, and I was branded as racist. It wasn't for many years before this rift was healed. 

It seems to me that different organizations and individuals have distinct tactics that work most effectively for them. It would be best if all agents sharing their goals would understand these differences and use them as added resources. Protest, and even the race card, can be most effective for some groups, not for others. Propagandizing the public can be effective, as educating the public can too. Why can't we all respect each other's tactical opportunities if our goals are the same? 

For the 2008 EV/LES rezoning, neither protest nor educating made a difference. What most improved that rezoning from its DCP original plan was Harvey's and Paul's work to get inclusionary housing on the avenues. The benefit was unintended -- it's not the IZ that mattered, since the bonus appears to be too small for developers to take. It was that their base zoning had to be small enough so that the bonus would fit into the contextual envelope. That base zoning was almost as small as the previous zoning, and that was a win for the anti-gentrificationists. Without the criticisms from the community voiced at meetings and hearings, I doubt that Harvey & Paul's 11 point alternative would have been possible, since the CB chair was intent on driving the DCP plan through with no changes, repeatedly asserting the if there's any criticism, DCP would leave the table and turn away from any rezoning effort.  

No comments: