Bill Chong has come a long way since the summer of 1973, when it was his job to pick up trash in empty lots along Cherry Street on the Lower East Side. Today he’s commissioner of the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development. Last week, he stopped by a neighborhood community center to reminisce and to talk with young people taking part in the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program.
Chong and City Council member Margaret Chin gathered with the kids in a gymnasium within the Alfred E. Smith Houses. The young people are working with the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council this summer to survey local businesses for a community resource and tourist guide. Turns out the 2016 summer jobs program participants and Chong have something in common. Forty-three years ago, he also worked for the non-profit organization through the Summer Jobs Program.
“My first job was a neighborhood beautification project,” explained Chong, “where there were empty lots along Cherry Street and I spent the summer picking up garbage out of the lot.” [Those lots later housed the Cherry Street Pathmark store, which was torn down to make way for an 80-story luxury condo tower.]
That summer, Chong earned $320, but more important, he said, “It exposed me to a career in public service. I look back now as the commissioner of the agency that oversees this program, I realize that it was one step in my career in public service.” Over the past four decades, Chong has held many government positions, working for four mayors.
During a brief interview, Chong said he’s thankful that the current administration has, for the first time, made funding for the summer jobs program permanent. The city provides $72 million out of the $93 million budgeted for the initiative. It’s bigger than ever this year, employing 60,000 young people at 10,000 work sites.