Chinatown Merchants Caught in the Middle of ‘Open Streets’ Fight [OP-ED]

Posted on: September 4th, 2020 at 5:17 am by

Photo: Karlin Chan

It is fairly common knowledge by now that Chinatown businesses have suffered greatly since early January due to declining foot traffic caused by the Covid-19 outbreak and the citywide lockdown ordered two months later.

Many Chinatown restaurant owners felt optimistic when the phased reopening of the city led to the “Open Restaurants” program, which allowed participants to “Self-certify” online to offer curbside seating. But that optimism soon turned to despair when Department of Transportation denied applications due to traffic restrictions; restrictions that seemingly are not uniformly adhered to throughout the city.

Mayor de Blasio allowed the reopening of retail, cultural establishments, and gyms (with capacity restrictions), but admittedly has no such plan for restaurants. Which leaves many owners in limbo and fearful of permanently losing their livelihoods.

In an effort to bolster suffering businesses, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (which is an umbrella of 72 traditional Chinese businesses, family and fraternal organizations) together with community partners and elected party reps, hatched a plan to close the traditional core of Chinatown on weekends for the “Open Streets” program. Canvassing happened last month, and the CCBA announced 95% of its membership was in favor. The plan would allow restaurants on both sides of a street to offer curbside seating, and gift shops to display their products outside of the shop.

What seemed like a no-brainer application wasn’t, and just caused more confusion. We saw Mayor de Blasio visit Chinatown on August 11 with six of his commissioners in a publicity stunt that quickly soured when he turned his back on a local bakery manager instead of listening to his plea for help. Throughout the 90-minute visit, the mayor fielded zero questions from reporters or community stakeholders. Yet we did see Councilwoman Chin’s staffer Ian Chan state her opposition to the plan. A week later, though, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Brian Kavanagh, US Representative Nydia Velazquez, Assemblywoman Yuh-line Niou, State Senator John Liu, and Councilmen Reynoso and Levine visited Chinatown to support the plan.

And in the latest twist, two “members” of a newly formed group going by the acronym MCSRB (The Manhattan Chinatown Small business and Restaurant) circulated their own petition two weeks ago which opposed the “open streets” application by the CCBA. The document opposes the creation of a “night market” and “outside vendors,” neither of which were part of the CCBA initial pitch of closing streets for the benefit of benefit of merchants. Also in a Chinese media Sinovision interview one of them can be heard saying “outsiders” could possibly introduce Covid-19 to residents of the community but in the same breath say Chinatown needs its parking to accomodate people driving into the neighborhood to shop. One could surmise these “shoppers” driving in are not residents and can also introduce the disease to the area.

Several residents have expressed fears of after hours public intoxication on our streets, but Chinatown simply does not have a concentration of bars or clubs to support this fear. In fact, the proposed Mott street closure zone contains six licensed restaurants for beer-wine and one licensed for full liquor; of the six beer-wine, three have yet to re-open. This second petition appears nothing more than a NIMBY argument employing fear mongering tactics to garner signatures.

Chinatown is the largest and fastest growing naturally occuring retirement community in the city, and our businesses need help. It is ridiculous to think a senior citizen can shop at our stores, then eat out three meals a day to support local businesses.

In the meantime, merchants are caught in the middle wondering when some relief will come.

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