Volume 17 • Issue 4 | June 18 - 24, 2004



Some Chinatown residents charge N.Y.P.D. racism —

New Park Row suit filed on environmental grounds

By Josh Rogers

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

David Cheng, center, president of Chatham Towers, said he thought racism was behind the continued closure of Park Row near police headquarters at a rally Wednesday. Standing behind him were Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Danny Chen, a resident of Chatham Green, and Councilmember Alan Gerson.

Chinatown residents and politicians filed a new lawsuit this week to try and get Park Row and the other streets near police headquarters reopened.

Some neighborhood leaders also accused police brass of racism, saying it was hard to find another explanation for what they see as condescending and intransigent attitudes from police supervisors who have ordered the continued closure of the streets surrounding One Police Plaza.

“I thought racism wasn’t supposed to occur in the 21st century but now I’m not so sure,” said David Cheng, president of Chatham Towers housing complex, which is right near police headquarters. Cheng spoke at a press conference Wednesday to announce the new lawsuit on environmental grounds.

Spokespersons for the New York Police Department did not return two calls seeking comment Thursday. In recent years, N.Y.P.D. spokespersons have declined to comment on any issues related to Park Row, originally citing security concerns, and later pending lawsuits.

Cheng said when he, his neighbors and local elected officials filed the first lawsuit last year, he did not think racism was a factor, but after meeting with police supervisors during settlement negotiations, he came away thinking that his opponents thought he and his neighbors were ignorant.

“Just because some of us do not speak English well does not mean we are stupid,” Cheng said. He said the turning point for him was when he remembers one N.Y.P.D. anti-terrorism official telling him that police need to park private vehicles near headquarters as a buffer against a bazooka attack.

Cheng said he holds a degree in nuclear physics and once had security clearance to design missiles. He said hearing such an absurd explanation made him wonder if the police had any respect for his intelligence.

Another plaintiff who was also at the meeting, Danny Chen, a resident of Chatham Green, says he has a clear recollection of John Colgan, assistant chief of counter-terrorism for police, saying: “Cars along Park Row serve as a deterrent against rocket launchers aimed at police headquarters.”

Colgan, in a telephone interview, said he would never have suggested anything of the sort. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “If asked, I would say that private vehicles in a security zone serve no purpose.”

Colgan declined to answer further questions on the matter, referring them to police spokespersons, but they did not return the two calls.

Jack Lester, Chen’s attorney, does not recall if Colgan made such a statement, but he did remember someone bringing up the subject of bazookas and thinking it was a bizarre thing to talk about. He said police did take a “disrespectful and condescending” attitude during the settlement meetings.

The new lawsuit, filed by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, does not allege racism, but Margaret Fung, executive director of AALDEF, said she wonders why security issues in non-Asian parts of Lower Manhattan are resolved more easily than in Chinatown.

The AALDEF suit alleges that the police department’s court-ordered environmental assessment statement ignores the traffic effects of keeping Park Row closed and the street should be reopened while police conducts a more thorough environmental impact statement.

According to AALDEF’s suit, the police department’s environmental assessment did not include major streets near the street barriers, the closure of an exit ramp near the Brooklyn Bridge, the increased traffic from rerouting buses, the continued closure of a nearby municipal garage.

The city responding in papers June 17, said the plaintiffs “wholly ignore the threat to public safety should such relief [reopening Park Row] be granted.” Janet Siegel, assistant corporation counsel for New York City, prepared the city’s document.

The city argues that the security measures are necessary. They say an E.I.S. is not required because the assessment statement showed no significant impacts from the street closures. The assessment looked at areas within 1,500 – 2,000 feet of the street barriers. The city also argues public transit “will not be significantly impacted” because bus routes are still within a quarter of a mile of Chatham residents.

The litigants will be back before State Supreme Court Judge Walter Tolub June 18. Tolub, in previous statements and rulings, has called police actions near Park Row “heavy-handed” and described it as an “occupation” of the neighborhood. Tolub ordered the environmental assessment and forced the police to move their cars off designated parkland, James Madison Plaza, located near One Police Plaza, but he has also denied previous requests to reopen the street.

AALDEF’s attorney, Ken Kimmerling, said he is confident Tolub will order the street reopened this time. “He sees they’re not operating in good faith,” Kimmerling said. “He’s not afraid to look security in the eye and call it what it is.”

Kimmerling said since cars on the Brooklyn Bridge-side of headquarters can get much closer to the building than cars on the Chatham-building side, the closure serves no security purpose and only acts as a punishment to residents and businesses.

Paul Lee, who last year had to close the Mott St. novelty shop his grandfather opened over 100 years ago, said he joined both lawsuits because the street closures helped put him out of business. “I’m a poster child for failed businesses, not because I did anything wrong but because the N.Y.P.D. won’t let customers come to my door,” Lee said.

Plaintiffs to the AALDEF suit include residents of the Chatham buildings and Southbridge Towers, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Sen. Martin Connor and Councilmember Alan Gerson.

As for race, it is not the first time it has been raised as a possible factor.

Henry Stern, Parks Dept. commissioner in the Koch and Giuliani administrations, said last year that on the one hand he didn’t think race was the motivating force, but on the other, “I have a feeling that if this was Park Ave. instead of Park Row, this would not have been closed.”


Josh@DowntownExpress.com



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