By Andrea Pineda-Salgado
In spring 2017, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to closing Rikers Island by building four new jail facilities in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. This $8.3 billion construction would house no more than 3,300 people across the four boroughs.
One of the proposed jails is set to be built in Manhattan’s Chinatown, with construction lasting until at least 2027. The 40-story jail would be the tallest in the world.
Residents and business owners in Chinatown are overwhelmingly opposed to the plan, saying its impact on the community will be devastating. The complex will be located on 124-125 White St. and will close off Centre Street (from White Street to Walker Street) and Baxter street (from Bayard Street to Walker Street) during construction, which started earlier this month with some internal work.
‘If this does come into fruition, it’s the true downfall of Chinatown’
Businesses in Chinatown are not happy with the construction of the jail, and are worried about what it will mean for them.
For more than three decades, Norina Li’s parents have been owners of K.K. Discount, a small store that sells home goods and Asian decor. Their store is located at 78 Mulberry St., a block away from the White Street location of the Manhattan Detention Complex — the site where the proposed jail would be constructed.
“It feels like the city does not care about us because why would they build a jail literally down the block from a park, near a daycare center, near establishments that’ve been out here for a long time? No one has asked us how we feel about having that mega-jail here,” Li says. “Chinatown is not known for the world’s tallest jail, but that’s what they’re planning to do.”
Already, there’s been an impact, says Victoria Lee, the co-founder of Welcome to Chinatown, a nonprofit organization amplifying and addressing the needs of the neighborhood and its entrepreneurs.
“The proposed plan will use both Centre Street and Baxter Street, and there were businesses on Baxter Street that have already been asked to close and relocate to new locations. That’s a huge loss right there that for some of us in our community, their livelihoods are being upended and having to relocate,” she says.
Li believes that the construction of the jail is yet another issue businesses in Chinatown will have to face. “People are going to be more fearful of coming down to Chinatown, and that’s just really sad because I feel like with Covid, we took a hit and we’re still in the recovery mode,” Li says. “We took a couple of steps forward to get back on our feet. But now, with the mega-jail, we are taking 10 steps back.”
Many in the Chinatown community do support the closing of Rikers and understand the city needs to build somewhere. But they say this is a chance to rethink jails entirely and focus on mental-health needs, housing and other forms of rehabilitation. Others fear the health implications of such a large building being erected, citing effects the neighborhood already experienced after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Sun’s Organic Garden, which sells loose leaf teas, herbs and wellness products, is a four-minute walk from the proposed complex. “Chinatown is going to shrink. That’s part of the issue. During the construction period, you’re going to lose some businesses,” says owner Natalie Hsieh. “The footprint of Chinatown will shrink, and that will impact the rest of the community because there will be less of a footprint, less mom and pop stores. There’s less attractive things for people who want to come.”
The closing of Centre Street and Baxter Street is a big blow. “So we’re looking now at a prolonged [for at least five years] of a building period. People are going to have restricted access or difficulty getting into Chinatown, car wise and then also foot traffic,” Hsieh adds. “It’s already a struggle for businesses. I’m hearing that some of the restaurants [on Baxter] have to close. It’s not good.”
Li hopes people continue fighting to stop the construction of the mega-jail before it is too late.
“[Businesses] need support. They need people to speak out about this mega-jail because if this does come into fruition, it’s really the true downfall of Chinatown — I feel. I don’t know how we would ever recover from this,” Li says.
The health impacts are unknown, but dangerous
Another aspect of the proposed jail concerning residents and businesses in Chinatown is the possible health problems that will ensue.
“There are known toxins like asbestos in the current jail structure [the Manhattan Detention Complex],” says Grace Lee, a longtime community advocate who is running for Assemblymember of District 65, which includes Chinatown. “When they demolish the jail to build a new one, a lot of these toxins are going to be in the air and will threaten the health of anyone in the community.”
The lack of green space in Chinatown worries Victoria Lee, who said the proposed demolition of the Manhattan Detention Complex will release asbestos and lead. She is concerned about the air quality in Chinatown and how it will affect the community.
“Chinatown already has a high pulmonary disease rate. So for the jail being within close proximity of Columbus Park, one of the busiest parks in Chinatown and next to Senior Housing Chung Pak, it’s close to schools and it’s just right in a very busy central area of Chinatown and has the potential to destroy the community,” she said.
Grace Lee said that the community suffered from contaminated air that was polluted with asbestos when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001. Chinatown residents are still battling lingering respiratory issues more than 20 years later.
“After 9/11 happened, residents were told to go back to their homes and that the air was safe to breathe and that was not, in fact, true,” she said. “Many in our lower Manhattan community across the district have suffered from serious health issues and diseases as a result of being exposed to toxins in the air after 9/11. This demolition [of the Manhattan Detention Complex] could have a similar impact.”
Chinatown should not be known for the world’s tallest jail
Chinatown draws tourists for its food and culture, and residents worry tourism will decline if the world’s tallest jail is built.
“People make money in Chinatown because Chinatown is a tourist destination. But if you could make a jail in the middle of a tourist destination — that’s going to impact tourism,” Hsieh says. “We don’t want Chinatown to be dominated by the world’s largest jail. What does that say? It’s not a positive landmark. It’s not like the Eiffel Tower or something.”
Victoria Lee agrees, “A tourist is not going to want to come here to see a construction site. We should also not be known for the world’s tallest jail as well,” she said.
Most tourists in Chinatown would be disappointed to see a jail in a community that they enjoyed so much, but will still continue to support the community if the jail were built.
Britnay Smith, 33, a tourist from Griffin, Georgia, was visiting New York City for the first time on Feb. 26. “Chinatown was wonderful. I love the different restaurants they have. I like bubble tea. I like the shopping, the discounts. The feel of it. The people, the generosity,” she says.
However, when asked about the construction of the mega-jail Smith’s face fell.
“Why would they do that? Why would they bring that here? This place is nice. Why would they put it right here,” she asks.
Rikers is a humanitarian crisis
While folks in Chinatown oppose the construction of a mega-jail, they are aware of the reasons why the city wants to build the jail in the first place: to close Rikers Island due to overcrowding, violence and other factors. Even though community members support closing Rikers, they do not want the city to invest in more jails.
“I do believe that we need to close Rikers Island, which has long been a place of systemic injustice and abuse. But I do not believe that the solution is to build the tallest jail in the world in the heart of Chinatown,” Grace Lee says. “ There are other investments that we can be making from incarceration alternatives, to mental health services, to supportive housing, to currently affordable housing that I believe would be a better investment than building the tallest jail in Chinatown.”
Before taking office, Mayor Eric Adams had opposed building the new jail in Chinatown but has remained silent about it since, frustrating people in Chinatown.
“He needs to make good on his campaign promise. This is a platform that he ran on, and this was a very large concern for the community and if he has not publicly spoken about where he stands beyond [when he said he] would talk to our council member and talk to the community. But I have yet to see or hear anything beyond that,” Victoria Lee says.
She wants Adams to be held accountable for the promises he made.
“The Adams administration has an opportunity to look at what was pushed by the de Blasio administration and listen to the residents about how much we do not want this and to consider a better use of the money that can be invested into our community, invested into broader services in New York City,” ” Victoria Lee adds. “Issues such as the mental health crisis right now. How [would the mega-jail] tackle those types of challenges? I think that that’s how a lot of the residents are feeling. We’re feeling very much left out of any solutions,” Victoria Lee said.
How to help:
The debate over the jail comes as Asian Americans in New York City, as well as Chinatown, contend with twin crises: the pandemic and anti-Asian violence.
“It just feels like there’s just constant hurdles that we, as Chinatown natives and as a community are constantly being dealt with and it’s just not fair,” Li says.
There are a number of ways neighbors can support Chinatown, and Victoria Lee says it can start by thanking business owners.
“You can support our small business owners, too, because it has been a really volatile couple of years now. They’re still suffering from the pandemic,” she says. “The emotional support too is really great — hearing customers tell them how much they appreciate them, and what they mean to them in the community. That means a lot, and when possible, you should be able to donate to community-based organizations like Welcome to Chinatown. We operate on donations to be able to fulfill our mission.”