Volume 19 Issue 44 | March 16 - 22, 2007

Photo by Jan Lee

A sight for sore eyes: parking spaces on Mott St. after government-owned vehicles were towed.

Chinatown’s commander tells cops: My way or the tow away

By Josh Rogers

Chinatown’s businesses and residents are cheering the new “sheriff” in town who this week began towing illegally parked cars owned by police and court officers.

“You could just roll into Mott St. and park by a meter — I never realized there was that much space,” said an amazed Jan Lee, 40, who has lived his whole life in Chinatown. “I remember it was that way as a kid.”

Lee owns Sinotique antique shop on Mott and he and other neighborhood leaders have long complained about police officers, court personnel and others taking advantage of government-issued permits to park on Chinatown streets. Drivers with permits often defy meters and time limits or park in front of fire hydrants, sometimes with plates from far away states like California. Often, the permit’s license plate information doesn’t match the vehicle.

Lee said a freedom of information request yielded a city Dept. of Transportation document prohibiting any permit parking on Mott, Bayard and Mulberry Sts. because of traffic congestion. New signs prohibiting permit parking went up on Monday when the first cars were towed. Several other cars were towed on Tuesday. On Wednesday, new paper N.Y.P.D. tow-away zone signs (from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) went up.

“We put ‘em up because it’s a no permit zone and people were beginning to abuse it,” Dep. Inspector Gin Yee, the Fifth Precinct’s new commander, said in a telephone interview. “I think [the problem] started out small, got bigger and then it became the norm.”

He said the second set of signs went up when a driver from a federal agency told him “this is B.S.” Yee took over the precinct last month and told Downtown Express he ordered the crackdown when he noticed 21 complaints to 311 over a two-month period.

He said he has ordered about 15 cars towed and issued 12 warnings. On Wednesday, four out of the five cars towed were owned by N.Y.P.D. officers.

David Eng, who co-owns Fong Inn Too tofu shops on Mott and Division Sts., said he saw Yee confiscate a permit from what he thought was a court employee on Tuesday before ordering the car towed. “I think he instilled fear in him,” Eng said.

Eng and Lee said the streets have been mostly clear for tourists and delivery trucks since Tuesday. Dep. Inspector Yee said he has also noticed the streets have been clearer since the crackdown.

“I’m glad this captain is willing to stick out his neck,” said Eng. “I haven’t met him, but I heard he’s a Chinatown boy — he’s from the neighborhood; he cares about the community.”

Yee, 46, said he grew up in Little Italy but now his old street is part of Chinatown. He went to two neighborhood schools — P.S. 130 and J.H.S. 65, now closed.

Yee’s predecessor, Michael Lao, ordered a few cars towed last summer, but he also announced he would retire by the end of the year. Last year, he hinted privately that the parking crackdown upset top brass a few blocks away at One Police Plaza, forcing him to retire early, according to a source. Lao, who grew up in Chinatown, is in his early 40s and spent less than a year commanding the Fifth. He and police spokespersons declined to comment on his pending departure when Downtown Express inquired about it in December. Police commanders are typically rotated every few years and most of the Fifth’s commanders in recent memory have been Chinese-American.

Yee said the crackdown was his decision but he has the support of Police Plaza. A police spokesperson said he had not heard about Yee’s crackdown. He said it sounded good, before cracking a joke. “He’s towing placards now? Cool,” said the spokesperson, who did not give his name. “How are we going to get to work?”

Neighborhood businesses and residents have been complaining for years about the government parking clogging up the streets and hurting businesses, and after 9/11 they filed lawsuits to reopen a section of Park Row that was closed to protect police headquarters. A state judge ordered police to stop parking their vehicles in a small Chinatown park.

Eng said when Dep. Inspector Lao ordered the crackdown last summer, he noticed more placard cars parked on East Broadway, where placards are allowed, but they soon returned to narrow Mott, which amounts to Main St. in Chinatown.

Lee said he likes “the new sheriff. …I hope he’s able to keep it up.”

Yee said he has been out early in the morning battling the parkers so he was not aware of the praise he has been getting in the neighborhood. “Tell them to come up and tell me what the problem is,” he said. “I’m happy to help if you let me know.”

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