History, Politics and Senior Housing in Chinatown

Gui Chang (left) and Huilian Chang (right) speak with City Council member Margaret Chin (Photo via World Journal)

[Editor’s note: On Aug. 22 it was announced with much fanfare that the waiting list for rentals at Chung Pak, the 88-unit low-income senior housing building at 96 Baxter St., was being re-opened after 25 years. The building, which now has one vacant unit, went up following protests against then-Mayor Edward Koch’s plans to build a jail in Chinatown, protests that were instrumental in encouraging Asian Americans to run for office. Today Chung Pak’s former popularity – it once had a waiting list of 3,000 names – is overshadowed by that of other senior housing complexes in the neighborhood. The supply of housing for aging seniors on the Lower East Side remains inadequate.]

A senior couple who had been on the waiting list for 24 years shared their thoughts and memories with the World Journal reporter Jiaying Gu in a story published on Aug. 23.

Gui Chang and Huilian Chang had been living on the fifth floor in a walk-up building in the East Village. Gui, a nonagenarian, had to use the stairways to go up and down every day. He said it was dangerous for a senior like him. The couple had been on the waiting list of the Chung Pak building since 1992 when the apartments were first open for applications, and only moved into their dream home in the building last June.

(…)

Huilian remembered the protests decades ago when the city’s plan of building a detention center in Chinatown angered the community. More than 20,000 Chinese marched to City Hall and eventually forced the city to agree to build senior housing as a payback. “My husband and I participated in the protests. So the building is the result of our efforts,” said Huilian.

(…)

Council member Margaret Chin, who represents Chinatown, also participated in the protests. She remembers what then-Mayor Ed Koch said about Chinatown’s resistance: “I don’t care. They don’t vote.” It was these words that prompted Chin, former City Comptroller John Liu and Virginia Kee, the founder of the United Democratic Organization, to run for public office.


In a commentary on Aug. 23, April Xu of Sing Tao Daily pointed out that the opening of one unit won’t do much to meet the needs of seniors in Chinatown. But because of the election year, it was made out to be a big deal. 

It is not new that there is a severe shortage of senior housing on the Lower East Side. When the 99 units of senior housing planned to be built close to Chinatown as a part of the Essex Crossing project opened for applications recently, close to a thousand seniors showed up to ask for details on the first day. And 60,000 filed applications. So the opening of one unit in Chung Pak is little more than a drop in the bucket.

But any insignificant event could carry a lot of weight in an election year. Many community members and elected officials showed up at the press conference which lasted for an hour. They reminisced about the building’s history in front the cameras, highlighted the hard-won gains, and emphasized the importance of being united and voting for Chinese. Clearly, ballots were a target at the press conference.

A Chinese saying goes: Anything concerning people’s interests is not insignificant. If every trivial issue, every problem, and every wish of the people could be treated as seriously as this one, not only in an election year but also every day, one unit of a senior apartment may not have had to carry so much weight on its shoulders.

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