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Chinatown Working Group Charts New Course

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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.

Councilmember Margaret Chin

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.”

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  1. i’ll be sad to see the chairs go – they were two first class gentlemen that stayed even-tempered despite some of the outrageous infighting typical of chinatown groups. brave, maybe naive, but at least they tried.

    totally agree with jimmy cheng, bravo. people from chinatown ought to decide their own futures, not by people from elsewhere. this goes for as much the developers as the so-called “neighborhood” groups like Chinese Staff, NMASS and AALDEF, who don’t even have offices in Chinatown and claim followings far beyond actuality. They basically disenfranchised Chinatown by forcing a lower east side issue that’s irrelevant. but with the CWG, hey, you break it, it’s yours.

    never heard of the new co-chairs, but wish them luck. they’ll need it. we’ll see how this new structure works, if it’s as accommodating to dissenting opinion no matter what it is, as it claims. but im with all the other people who say, do something already and quit yapping.

  2. CSWA has its office on Chrystie Street just north of Canal Street, NMASS on Hester Street. Those are very much in Chinatown. AALDEF (Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund) plays a role in CWG not so much as a constitutent, but as a legal defense advocate, serving local constituencies.

  3. Sure, we’ll pretend the Sunset Park office doesn’t exist, nor the folks bused over from there to protest in “community” rallies. Labor in Chinatown is not represented by these groups even if they claim it. There are way more credible orgs out there with much larger memberships. And if an organization is not a constituent as you say, why throw stones when it has glass windows and gripe about non grassroots folks in the process?

    Anyway, seems like outsiders do all the talking regardless.

  4. CSWA also organizes in Sunset Park because Sunset Park has a Chinatown, just as Manhattan has a Chinatown, and CSWA organizes there too. They can’t serve both independently?

    CSWA’s constituency is not as small in Manhattan’s Chinatown as you claim, and the only comparable organization is CAAAV. If there are others, they are invisible to me, since I have been attending CWG regularly for over two years and haven’t seen any other road-based grassroots organizations participating. Please name them so the CWG can get them involved.

    If CSWA uses aggressive tactics, that’s because, as an independent labor organization, maybe they have found that aggressive tactics work best for them.

    I don’t understand the comment about throwing stones and glass windows. AALDEF serves the Chinatown community with legal assistance. How is that throwing stones in glass windows? Would you prefer that there be no such legal defense fund for the Chinatown community?

    I agree that there are many outsiders exerting influence in the CWG process. But I’d distinguish between outsiders who have no relation to Chinatown (like me and most of the CWG leadership until now) and groups which specifically serve Chinatown, whose mission is to serve the Chinatown community, and many of whose members live in Chinatown.

    In every community there are voices of dissent and division. Usually it’s because there are distinctions of interest. The divisions can be aggravated by poor tactics, stubbornness and poor diplomacy. But I don’t see any reason to fuel the flames with tit for tat. I hope that the future of the CWG will be characterized by successful diplomacy and outreach to all groups. Otherwise it has no future.

  5. Thomas Yu was a key leader, a Co-Chair. He works for Asian Americans For Equality, a Chinatown organization for almost 4 decades. John Lo of PS 130 Parents Association represents 2000 parents. Peter Cheng of Indochina Sino-American Community Center is doing unparalleled work on senior abuse, Mae Lee of Chinatown Progressive Association working on environmental health in Chinatown, the American Legion Post (represented by the veteran who sets up the tables and chairs for everyone) the list is long. All represent “real” interests in Chinatown.
    Jim was asked to chair, was voted on, and, when no one else would step up to do it, co-chaired. I agree with CKung, they were admirable, able leaders with tremendous diplomatic skills. The new Co-Chairs deserve our support, our work, and help maintaining a coalition of some competing interests. Meanwhile, parents, children, elders and others are waiting for some results from all the input that they took the trouble to give.

    I would love to have us amplify some of the small but not insignificant moments that have happened: Almost every principal in Chinatown who eagerly added informed thinking to the Education/Schools PAP. And, because we happened to be meeting, prevented a struggling middle school from being overrun by DOE’s attempted installation of a third new school in its building. It is because of the CWG that Senator Squadron asked for our Chinatown principal’s input on State Education issues. Small things that make for a big difference in the everyday lives of children and their parents who are struggling to raise families here. Or what we might have accomplished if we had had this organization a few years ago. Like preventing the condo building that covered the windows of the entire side of a low-income elementary school building. I would love to hear us speak to some of the reasons we are meeting: like having Park signs in relevant languages so that we never repeat what happened to the group of elders who were humiliated, arrested and cuffed for practicing Tai Chi in the Sara Roosevelt Park because they couldn’t read the English signage that forbid them being there. There are important stories from all the members that are worth telling. There are urgent issues that need addressing: rising obesity, asthma, particulates from Canal Street’s overused corridor, small business futures, housing. Let’s take some blog space on these issues. These turf fights are not the main event.

    It is easy to criticize the CWG for faults real or imagined; it’s trying to do something difficult. Much harder to actually build it.

  6. Like you, Kay, I want to see the CWG succeed, so I hesitate to send these comments, but I feel it’s important for members or observers like CKung to know what’s really going on behind the scenes. If people understand the *real* controversies, they can get over the superficial controversies over this or that local group.

    Three of the teams have been working successfully — Education, Parks Immigration — but the CWG, as Victor Papa often reminds the group, began as a response to the EV/LES rezoning; land use is a crucial issue as Michael Levine has made clear, and land use remains the trouble, largely because the Coalition boycotted the meetings for a year, leaving the a vacuum of Chinatown labor in the CWG. That vacuum was filled by outsiders and developer interests. Your perspective from the Education Team doesn’t reflect these crucial issues.

    The Zoning ‘Team’ for over a year was nothing but a dialogue between Jim Solomon, Victor Papa, Michael Levine, Doug Woodward and me. Do you see the problem? This is no mere claim of reverse racism, by the way. In two years, Kay, the ONLY plan that the team produced was an *upzoning* on Canal Street designed by the *developer* representative, employed by Edison Properties.

    One of the team chairs presented it to us as “the Zoning Team’s plan” even though that upzoning development plan was never voted on by the team and was never even fully disclosed to us in any of its details beyond a map and an intention to upzone. When CAPZ finally insisted on seeing the complete plan, the developers flatly refused. That’s the plan the CAPZ chair called “the CAPZ Plan”! In other words, the work of this team has not been in the hands of the community at all. So far, it has been a developer plan.

    Meanwhile, the Economic “Team” ceased to meet entirely while its vice chair, also remote from Chinatown and its residents, without consulting the team, designed plans which prominently featured another upzoning — this time an upzoning of an area in which that same developer, Edison Property, owns property. Then that designer announced that yet another designer would join the CWG zoning design team. That new designer was yet another employee of Edison Properties!

    Some people even thought it was a conspiracy. I don’t think it was conspiracy at all. I thought these were people with genuinely good intentions but, so remote from the community, just didn’t know what to do for Chinatown, and so they planned what they knew best. But I’m naive and trusting. What will the casual observer think?

    That was only one travesty of the Economic team. Coordinated by CPLDC, the “Team” devised a plan that didn’t even mention labor — nothing but business concerns. When I suggested at their meeting that labor surely had to be included in Chinatown’s economic plan especially since the vast majority of Chinatown residents are labor, my comments disappeared from the minutes. Even after I mentioned it at the full CWG, Wellington (who, since CKung has brought up Chinatown constituencies, is located in Queens) still did not include labor in the plan. I asked Solomon to intervene. To his great credit, Solomon did, but the plan still didn’t mention labor. It took another couple of months before finally they recognized that their plan without labor couldn’t be presented without embarrassment. Now the plan contains the labor recommendations, at last.

    The desire to change CWG came from Chinatown residents themselves — nothing would have changed if only CSWA and NMASS alone were objecting. It was the voices of the most active local residents participating in CWG, coming together with CSWA that made the difference. (There are many active groups in Chinatown, Kay, but my point was about grassroots groups that participate IN CWG. Maybe all the grassroots are working on your Education Team.)

    I know that many are frustrated with CSWA tactics. But our union-depleted world has long forgotten what a labor struggle is all about — defending the weakest and least powerful against monied, empowered interests who are utterly indifferent to human concerns outside their market share. It can be a brutal struggle, as you know from American history.

    I learnt long ago that when you negotiate with management, you don’t present your reasons to persuade management — that’s not what management wants to know. Management wants to know a) what your demand is and b) whether you can back it up with numbers, publicity or violence. If you try to persuade management with reason, you waste *their* time. Management wants you to present demands and if you have any threats, they want to know what those are too. Sounds glum, but that’s what management wants to know and that’s all it wants to know.

    It’s not the tactics of community participation. We all are sometimes shocked by Wing Lam, but we should all understand that he is organizing independent labor and his tactics are the only tactics effective in that context. It takes great strength to offend the norms and our sensibilities, but his offense is far less than the human offense of management itself. Even critics like Sing Tao recognize the importance of his work and his organization. Different tactics for different challenges. Sometimes those tactics are not what you’d want to take up yourself. But those aggressive tactics are part of the picture, and they sometimes work, and sometimes they are the only tactics that work.

    The new face of the CWG has great potential for inclusion. If it devolves into angry incriminations against this or that faction or tactic, then it will be a struggle and may fall apart.

    I have tremendous faith in both Mae and Gigi. I’ve come to know them over the last two years and I know them to be brilliant, dedicated and fair. If CWG falls apart, it won’t be their fault. It’s the membership that has to work together — and actively — to make it succeed.

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