Chinatown Working Group Charts New Course
In a sometimes tense two-and-a-half hour meeting last night, the Chinatown Working Group (CWG) chose new interim leaders, created a new committee to look at overhauling the organization and scheduled a vote on several “action plans” covering important neighborhood issues.
Members elected two new co-chairs, Gigi Li and Mae Lee, who agreed to head the two-year old community planning group until the end of the year. Thomas Yu and Jim Solomon, the previous chairs, decided not to accept nominations to serve another term. Under the present governance structure, one co-chair represents the three downtown community boards (1, 2 and 3), while the other co-chair represents community-based organizations. Gigi Li, member of Community Board 3, was elected as the community-board representative. She is co-director of the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition. Mae Lee will serve as the community organization representative. She is executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association.
Also last night, the CWG voted to create a committee charged with considering proposed changes to the way the organization governs itself. In the past couple of months, numerous CWG members have expressed misgivings about the current structure, in which two chairs guide the larger group towards the eventual completion of a comprehensive plan for Chinatown and surrounding neighborhoods.
One of the strongest critics of the status quo, Michael Lelan, outlined some of the reasons for reform and presented an alternative to the two-chair model. In a handout, he and other advocates of creating a committee (a sort of board of directors) to run the CWG wrote, “the current co-chair structure is not representative of the many people and interests in our community. The majority of the people in our community are Chinese and Latino working families and small business owners.”
Lelan and Josephine Lee, both members of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown & the Lower East Side, argued for a more robust steering committee. But Lee, in particular, has also advocated for proportional representation on the Chinatown Working Group. Since its inception, the CWG has relied on a “one-organization/one-vote model.” Any legitimate group was allowed to join. Many kinds of interests are represented, including social service organizations, advocacy groups, trade organizations, real estate developers and arts groups.
The coalition refused to join the deliberations until several months ago, calling the process racist. Yesterday Lee, an organizer with the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, said it made no sense that groups like hers (which represent thousands of residents) have no more influence on the CWG than, say, a real estate firm.
As usual, there was no shortage of opinions last night. Jimmy Cheng of the United Fujianese American Association asked, “why are there no Chinese on the Chinatown Working Group?” Arguing that members of the organization should be living in Chinatown, he added, “I don’t want people coming from uptown, from upstate. That’s not right.” Alluding to the fact that the coalition has pushed the CWG to include sections of the LES as well as Chinatown in its plan, Cheng said the process is not about the Lower East Side.
Cheng spoke forcefully about sensitive topics that have dogged the CWG since the beginning and which the new “governance committee” will be trying to address when it convenes. First, most members are, in fact, not residents of Chinatown. And second, there are quite a few non-Chinese people at the table. Some participants make the point that living in the neighborhood or representing a particular ethnic group should not be prerequisites for membership. But at the same time, there seems to be general agreement that the CWG must reach out to residents and organizations who have, so far, chosen not to participate.
On a more hopeful note, the CWG decided last night that members would vote next month on three “action plans” that committees have been working on for many months. These cover education, immigrant affairs, open space and recreation. Previously, the CWG had wanted to vote on all of their proposals at once. But committees working on land use, economic development and preservation issues are deadlocked. So, instead, votes will take places on the other, relatively uncontroversial aspects of the plan.
For the first time since her election last year, City Councilmember Margaret Chin returned to the CWG yesterday. A longtime Chinatown activist, she came to the meeting with words of encouragement and a promise to help the organization accomplish its goals. “An amazing amount of work has been done. You should feel good and you should not become discouraged,” she said. Chin vowed to work with the CWG on “things that we can accomplish.” Chin asserted, “I want o see some action. I want to get something done.”
Her remarks followed a sobering briefing by CWG member Douglas Woodward, an Edison Properties executive with an urban planning background. He estimated, the organization still has two to three years of work ahead of it. Woodward cautioned not to expect the Department of City Planning to act on a 197A Plan (a comprehensive neighborhood development proposal) before the fall of 2014.
Finally last night, CWG co-chair Jim Solomon thanked the group for giving him the opportunity to lead the organization. In an email message sent shortly before the meeting began, he said: “I confess that this has been among the most challenging, demanding, frustrating, infuriating, confusing, inspiring, rewarding and, most certainly, worthwhile experiences of my life.”