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Chinatown Second-Graders Push for Local Landmarking

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

CHINATOWN — Call them pint-sized preservationists.

A group of second-graders is pressing the city to landmark a Chinatown housing complex after learning about the area's historic significance during the school year.

The students, from PS 42 at 71 Hester St., are meeting with the Landmarks Preservation Commission's legal counsel Tuesday to make their case for designating Chinatown's Confucius Plaza, located at the intersection of Bowery and Division Street, a city landmark.

Teacher Aaron Eng-Achson — a Chinatown native whose father was instrumental in dedicating the complex in honor of the Chinese philosopher — has for years included the study of local sites in his curriculum for the English as a Second Language class.

"I try to instill in them pride in their own community," he said, noting that Chinatown and the larger Lower East Side have a lot of "unofficial landmarks" like Confucius Plaza, which was built almost exclusively for Chinese immigrants and is the tallest building in Chinatown.

"It's important to their community and their heritage."

Last year, Eng-Achson and his mostly-immigrant students presented a petition to the LPC requesting recognition of the site as an official landmark, given its role through the decades of housing elder and lower-income residents arriving from China.

On Tuesday, his students will have the chance to hand over their findings — including persuasive essays regarding the architectural, social and economic impacts of the complex — to the LPC for possible consideration.

The class also hopes to speak in front of the full commission at an upcoming hearing, he said.

"As an educator, I try to emphasize authentic learning," said Eng-Achson, 50, who has taught at the school for the past 16 year. "It's not just a theory or exercise, but it's a real audience they're addressing and a real issue."

The class has studied other historic sites in the neighborhood, including nearby Kimlau Square, as a way to learn about Chinese contributions to the cultural landscape of New York City, the teacher said.

Confucius offers an especially appropriate example for his pupils, he noted, given the ancient scholar's compassion for more vulnerable populations like the elderly and poor.

"I hope to teach my kids to live that way," Eng-Achson said. "To look up to Confucius as our hero in terms of how we should conduct our lifestyle and treat each other."

Civic involvement also provides a lesson in perseverance that ties directly to the immigrant experience, he added.

"I also want to teach my class, if they work hard as immigrants, they can make a difference in their own community," he said.