Volume 78 / Number 10 August 6 - 12, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Talking Point

AAFE: Why it’s wrong to call rezoning plan racist

By Chris Kui

Asian Americans for Equality supports the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning proposal, and joins the overwhelming majority of affordable housing advocates and organizations in the Lower East Side/East Village and Chinatown that feel that this is a positive step in stemming the rampant gentrification and out-of-context, luxury development in our mixed-income neighborhood. This process was conducted in a fair and open manner.

AAFE supports identifying areas where the current E.V./L.E.S. rezoning plan can be modified so we may propose sound and achievable remedies.  

AAFE strongly disagrees with the notion that the E.V./L.E.S. rezoning plan is racist, and we are against the push by certain groups to split and pit two historically allied low-income, immigrant and working-class neighborhoods — the Lower East Side/East Village and Chinatown — against each other. The accusation of racism oversimplifies and throws a smokescreen over the real issues of neighborhood preservation, and polarizes two allied neighborhoods with long historical ties. The loosely substantiated claims of racism amount to dangerous race baiting and are an impediment to the common goal of affordable housing preservation for our low-income residents in Lower Manhattan.

The current E.V./L.E.S. rezoning plan is a collaborative effort by many grassroots groups who represent and fight for the rights of thousands of black, Latino and Asian residents of our community. The public town hall meetings were well publicized in all mainstream and local ethnic press and media for the past three years. It is unreasonable to claim the plan was a secretive and racist process when so many diverse interests were involved.  

The notion that the E.V./L.E.S. rezoning plan only protects white residents is likewise flawed and pits different races against each other when racism as a rezoning issue in this plan is not present. Opponents have circulated maps fanning the flames of racism by showing the rezoning boundaries only protecting “white-inhabited” areas. The fact is that many people of color also live in the rezoning area, and not all whites necessarily have high incomes in the Lower East Side. The thousands of minorities that the detractors show as being “excluded” from the plan, in large part, live in New York City Housing Authority projects, which provide crucial and protected affordable housing to thousands of our community residents. To purposely design a map not clearly identifying all NYCHA properties, which overwhelmingly occupy the largest land area along the East River in our area, and to count that in the number of “excluded” minorities, is grossly misleading.

Another major criticism against the proposed E.V./L.E.S. rezoning plan is based on the flawed argument that protecting the Lower East Side will push gentrification and developers to Chinatown.  

First of all, rampant gentrification, loss of affordable housing, tenant harassment and eviction are serious problems affecting all of New York City’s low-income, working-class neighborhoods. The E.V./L.E.S. rezoning plan is part of a greater movement around the city of local neighborhood residents and working families to fight for a balanced growth of our living spaces and business areas. Instead of preventing each other from the inalienable right to protect one’s own neighborhood in a positive open process, opponents have forced the rezoning into a zero-sum game — where cooperation cannot exist. Gentrification is not a phenomenon unique to Chinatown, and everything should be done to prevent massive displacement and the destruction of our cultural and historical attributes. A success in the East Village and Lower East Side is a success in Chinatown and for the rest of the city. Trying to derail a carefully crafted plan achieved by democratic consensus puts all of New York City backwards.

Second, the rezoning’s detractors charge that it is a developers’ plan. Yet at the same time, the same opponents protest and disrupt all public meetings, crying out that Chinatown should be included in the same “flawed” plan. If the E.V./L.E.S. rezoning does not protect residents, as the opponents claim, then why fight to be included in it? Such illogical and circular arguments underlie much of the detractors’ arguments, to the point that it becomes evident that coordinated progress and dialog seem less important than disruption and the need to gain attention. 

Third, the Lower East Side and East Village have every right to create a consensus plan that protects their neighborhood, just as Chinatown has the right to do the same. When Chinatown achieves its own rezoning plan in the future, it would likewise be unreasonable and unethical to be held hostage by groups from neighboring areas. Chinatown deserves its own rezoning process that is tailored specifically to its needs. The longer that opponents of the E.V./L.E.S. plan throw accusations of racism and polarize the district, the longer it takes for Chinatown to reach its own consensus and come up with a plan to adequately protect our own interests. The rezoning plan’s critics tout their claim to advocate for the people, yet would prefer to have more than 100,000 residents of the Lower East Side and East Village suffer from continued overdevelopment by holding the rezoning hostage. 

Finally, the Lower East Side and East Village are Chinatown’s biggest allies in Chinatown’s future fight to preserve its own neighborhood character. The plan’s opponents promulgate the belief that the Lower East Side and East Village will abandon Chinatown, and that these neighborhoods, in effect, are now conspiring to push developers south to unprotected areas. Unscrupulous developers have targeted both our neighborhoods before, and stopping the E.V./L.E.S. plan does nothing to stop rampant luxury development in Chinatown either. This type of fear mongering only polarizes two historically allied neighborhoods of low-income, working-class and immigrant families. 

A well thought-out plan that is most beneficial to the community should be achieved through consensus building. A reign of silence, imposed by opponents to the plan through physical intimidation, verbal assault, name-calling and other “schoolyard” tactics, has prevented such open dialog from occurring. It is hypocritical for opponents to claim to represent all people and promote democracy, yet then try to silence and drown out any differing opinions and viewpoints. Anyone who disagrees with them is labeled a “sellout.” There is value in disagreeing viewpoints, but physical disruption of the dialog and verbal assaults will only stifle serious efforts for open discussion. 

AAFE supports the creation of a coalition to undertake a rezoning process for Chinatown that takes into consideration all voices in the community. This coalition will be a safe and open forum for discussion, consensus building and education, without intimidation, disruption or the threat of being silenced by those with differing opinions.  

Despite what opponents of the E.V./L.E.S. rezoning plan may say, evidence points to the increasing ability and desire for the Lower East Side and Chinatown to collaborate in the open, public sphere. The actions and race baiting of the current rezoning plan’s opponents, however, risk undermining years of positive social networking, by pitting one community against the other and reversing the gains made by so many responsible residents. 

Chinatown has special needs and deserves its own dedicated rezoning and planning process. Chinatown possesses unique characteristics: the manufacturing job base, the high density of residents in tenement housing, the lifelines of regional transportation hubs for jobs and commerce, the prevalence of small businesses, the need for community facilities and public park spaces and much more. 

AAFE supports the Lower East Side and East Village in their efforts to protect the quality of life for their residents, and asks for support for a similar, open, grassroots process in Chinatown.

Kui is executive director, Asian Americans for Equality

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