By Suzanne Ma
CHINATOWN — Throughout New York City's history, the Chatham Square crossing has been a focal point in the Chinatown community.
Once an open-air market that sold horses up until the early 1800s, it devolved into a seedy corner of the Five Points neighborhood, before becoming a memorial for Chinese-American war veterans.
Now, it is a point of controversy between Chinatown residents and the city's Department of Transportation.
Five major roads converge on this spot. Cars, pedestrians and cyclists cross paths. And Cantonese tongues from Mott Street collide with the Fujanese flavors on East Broadway.
Recently, the city planned a three-year, $50 million project that would essentially flip the pedestrian plaza, from the east side of the Kimlau memorial archway to the west.
This would realign several of the major arteries leading to Chatham Square; connecting Bowery with St. James Place, Division St. with Worth St. and Park Row to Mott St. The reconstruction was set to begin this summer, but the city says the plans have been temporarily shelved.
Residents who oppose the reconstruction say they are concerned that it will not improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety. They also fear that ripping up the streets will hurt small businesses in the area already suffering since the closure of Park Row, a major artery connecting the Brooklyn Bridge to Chinatown that's been blocked off to traffic since 9/11 to protect nearby Police Plaza.
They protested loudly at community board meetings and transportation hearings, saying the agency hadn't properly consulted the community about the plans.
"Even to this day there is still no clear record of when the project is going to start, when the promenade is going into effect," said Triple Edwards, who lives on Park Row. The Department of Transportation still has "no communication with us, which I think is so ludicrous."
Edwards made his comments at a transportation hearing at the City Council on Oct. 8. Chinatown residents were backed by John Liu, the newly nominated Democratic candidate for comptroller, who accused city officials of ramming major construction projects "down the throats of the community."
DOT Deputy Commissioner David Woloch said the department has worked hard to improve community dialogue. He also said any changes to neighborhood streets are necessary to improve safety and reduce congestion.
"This is hard work," he said at the hearing. "It would be much easier, I think, certainly for my job, if we weren't doing any of this, if we took all our marbles and went home and didn't make changes. You wouldn't have some of the disagreements that can arise. [But] the city wouldn't be as well off."
The reconstruction plans would create a more spacious pedestrian square spanning about 22,000 square feet, and have more room for benches, tables, chairs, plants and trees, according to the Department of Transportation. A promenade for bikers and pedestrians would also be built on Park Row.
"The way I look at it the department of transportation is trying every means to burn the money form the taxpayers pocket," said Steven Wong, a Chinatown resident and business owner whose office overlooks Chatham Square.
"Using the construction or reconstruction is trying to tell the people in Chinatown that no matter what you do, no matter how you're going to voice it out, no matter how you protest, 'we're going to close it anyway.' I think they try every means to tell us this is no longer a democratic country."