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Row Over Street Closure Downtown

By Joshua Brustein

Park Row, which served as the connection between Chinatown and its neighbors to the west until September 11, 2001, is the only major road that remains closed after the attacks. Police say that a terrorist threat makes it necessary, but Chinatown’s residents and business owners say that it’s the closure itself that is threatening them.

The police department created a large security zone around Police headquarters after 9/11. The restricted zone, which is larger than the World Trade Center site, is designed to keep possible attackers too far from headquarters to do any harm.

But closing the streets, especially Park Row, the major East-West artery in downtown Manhattan, is not without consequences in Chinatown, where business owners and residents continue to struggle through hard times after 9/11. The east side of lower Manhattan is now a maze of slow detours as traffic is forced down the narrow side streets that are the only available alternatives.

Traffic is clogged as cars are forced to take alternative routes. City buses have been rerouted. Taxis often refuse to come into the area. Grey Line, a company which runs sightseeing bus tours, has cancelled its Chinatown visits. To visitors from the Wall Street area, who found Chinatown to be a popular lunch destination, the area suddenly seems very far away. These losses have all taken their toll on Chinatown’s economy.

Unless this problem is addressed, says Paul Lee, "Lower Mott Street will die, just fade away. It’s happening now." Lee owns 32 Mott Street General Store, the oldest shop in Chinatown. He points to neighboring stores on Mott Street. that are moving away or closing — China Handicrafts, Chu Shing.

Early one morning in July, a fire on Mott Street destroyed the Cantonese restaurant Sun Lok Kee. When the restaurant re-opened, it did so in Flushing. The spot has been vacant since summer. Even Lee’s store, which has been on Mott Street since the late 1800s, is struggling. "I make no guarantees on how long we’re going to last," he says. "The tourism side is dying."

But it is not only business that is hurting, according to Dr. David Goldschmitt, head of New York University Downtown Medical Center’s Department of Emergency Medicine. With the new traffic patterns in place it is hard to get to the Medical Center, the only hospital for fifty blocks.

"The closure diverts out ambulances, but that is actually the smallest part of the problem," he says, adding that many local patients come to the hospital by private car or taxi, which now get tangled in slow moving traffic. The trip is often more of a headache than a minor health problem, meaning that some people are staying away from the hospital until their health concerns become more severe, and harder to treat.

Citing these concerns, local residents, business owners, and elected officials have been calling for Park Row’s reopening. They have not been completely without success. The area was reopened to pedestrian traffic in August. This allowed Chinatown residents access to the Lexington Avenue subway line, the closest in the area.

But requests to open the area to vehicular traffic have fallen on deaf ears. Local groups have tried to open a dialogue with the police department, but say that they have been told that details of security issues cannot be discussed in today’s dangerous atmosphere. The police department did not send a representative to a hearing on the issue called by Council Member Alan Gerson and Community Board 3 in mid-December.

"When it comes to security they don’t explain anything, they don’t answer anything," says Danny Chen of the Civic Center Residents Coalition, a group of local residents that is mobilizing around the issue. Chen acknowledges that security is an issue, but believes that what the police department really hopes to secure is more parking for its officers.

Where police officers park has long caused tension in the area, and recent events have only aggravated the problem. A new Counter Terrorism Bureau is bringing many new employees to Police headquarters, with over 900 people now working on the terrorism issue. Their cars line the sidewalks of Chinatown, and fill the closed streets of security area. Chen, whose group has quarreled with the police department over parking before, sees the closure as another attempt by the police department to take space that doesn’t belong to them. "As residents directly across from Police headquarters, we have come to see this as a land grab," he says.

The police department did not return calls for comment.

Security threats have not kept other potentially vulnerable targets from operating normally, says Chen. This makes the continued closure of Park Row all the more questionable. "No one wants to throw security out the door," he says.

"But the question everyone is asking is ‘why can the UN operate normally, the Empire State Building area operate normally, and our area cannot?’"

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