Opinion: A Tale of Two Cities, One in Chinatown

(Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Walking across Manhattan from Penn Station to the Hudson River, you’ll see many development sites, one after another. Then, you’ll arrive at the Vessel, the newly opened central structure of the Hudson Yards complex, which looked desolate only a few years ago and is now a hot spot for sightseeing in New York City. Yet, if you walk about two miles southeast to Chinatown, you’ll have quite another view: Residents aging, restaurants pushed out, pharmacies replaced by banks. And now a 45-floor jail is being forced on this neighborhood. To talk about “A Tale of Two Cities,” you don’t have to look beyond downtown Manhattan.

When the Shed, the cultural center beside the Vessel, opened for a media preview on April 3, about 500 local and international journalists swarmed to the site, which is equipped with state-of-the-art multimedia technology. When you stand under the high ceiling of the gallery, surrounded by the sound effects, you can easily feel as if you’re in a historic European cathedral, listening to the messages from heaven. The roof is retractable to turn an indoor space into an outdoor space. Imagine you were here on a midsummer night, watching a show under the stars, with the skyline along the Hudson River as the backdrop.

The Hudson Yards redevelopment started in 2009 when, after a rezoning, the 26-million-square-foot space was slated to be turned into a complex composed of 20,000 apartment units, including 5,000 affordable units, 2 million square feet of retail shops, 3 million square feet of hotel space, and the Vessel and the Shed, the public and cultural spaces.

The Vessel is open to the public and entry is free. But because of the large number of interested visitors, for now they have to reserve entry two weeks in advance. People on the waiting list start to queue outside as early as 8 a.m. to try their luck. Many big companies have moved in. The 7 subway line, which used to be half empty between Times Square and 34th Street, is now packed with prospective visitors.

Not far from there, the post office at the intersection of 34th Street and 8th Avenue is also under redevelopment, a project that will produce a modern train station more grand than Grand Central, with tracks extending from Penn Station. It’s not hard to predict that these projects will bring even more domestic and international visitors to midtown Manhattan.

But then, look at Chinatown, a neighborhood where performance space to demonstrate its cultural heritage is extremely limited. During the downtown redevelopment after 9/11, the problem received some attention. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation allocated more than $300,000 in 2004 to set up the Committee to Revitalize and Enrich the Arts and Tomorrow’s Economy in Chinatown (CREATE), and Amy Chin, the then-director of the New York Chinese Cultural Center, was named the head.

A major job for CREATE was to look for performance space in and around Chinatown. Over two years, the committee convened numerous meetings of community leaders and discovered 12 locations that had the potential to be turned into a performance center, including 80 Centre St., the space under the Manhattan Bridge, and the federal garage at the intersection of Lafayette Street and Grand Street. But eventually, because of disagreements with landlords, government agencies, and environmental concerns, nothing materialized. The money dribbled away. There is still no formal performance space in Chinatown.

The Asian American Arts Centre, founded by Robert Lee, was pushed out from its 26 Bowery St. venue soon after 9/11 because of rising rent. The Chinese American Arts Council founded by Alan Chow is struggling. No one who visits the organization, nestled in a dilapidated building on Broadway, could ever forget the elevator which seems to jump up and down while it moves, and makes you worry that you’ll be treated to a haunted house trick in which the door opens and you find yourself facing a wall. And the Chen Dance Center, founded by award-winning dancer H.T. Chen, can only perform in an elementary school classroom turned theater that at most accommodates 40 people.

The New York Chinese Cultural Center, which offers classes in traditional Chinese dance, has been downsizing during its constant moves. Now it has to rent classroom space by the hour for instruction and rent college auditoriums for performances. The Celestial Love Foundation, a charity that sponsors Cantonese opera performances, used to stage its shows at Lincoln Center or the theater of New York University. Now it has retreated to the auditoriums of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) and Flushing Town Hall.

The only stages in Chinatown are the auditoriums at Murry Bergtraum High School, Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School and the CCBA. These auditoriums may be able to host amateur community performances, but they lack the proper equipment to support professional shows.

In 2008, the Chinatown Working Group was formed to discuss how to support Chinatown revitalization through rezoning. But the members, representing different community organizations and different interests, fought against one another without reaching an agreement. The entity collapsed seven years later.

On the site where 9/11 attacks brought down the Twin Towers, a 1,776 ft. Freedom Tower has been erected. Standing on the top of the tower, you’ll get a bird’s eye view –skyscrapers standing shoulder to shoulder demonstrating Manhattan’s prosperity, except for the area of Chinatown, which looks like a dark hole overshadowed by high-rise buildings. The contrast mars the beauty of Manhattan and reveals a sad history.

Then, you can turn around to look at the Lower East Side, where trendy bars surround the newly opened Target, and welcome the soon-to-be-finished Essex Crossing complex and the soon-to-open Regal Cinemas. The neighborhood is thriving.

In the 17 years since 9/11, Chinatown has lost the opportunities to come up with a land rezoning plan and to build a state-of-the-art performance center. Now the city is trying to persuade us to host a high-rise jail.

On the same island, the contrasts are stark. As Chinatown continues to wither while the rest of Manhattan grows increasingly prosperous around it, are the mayor and elected officials truly fighting the Tale of Two Cities – or creating a new version of it?

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