Skateboarders, Cyclists Terrorizing Pedestrians in Chinatown

By Patrick Hedlund | November 22, 2010 7:26am

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

CHINATOWN — Rogue skateboarders and cyclists have turned a Chinatown plaza into their own personal playground, using the bustling common area to pull off stunts that endanger local pedestrians, neighbors charge.

Chatham Square, bordered by East Broadway, Worth Street and Oliver Street, has become a magnet for freewheeling skaters and bikers who use the plaza's sloped planters as launching ramps.

The plaza has become so popular that it earned its own nickname, Chinatown Banks, and has been featured in skate videos and listed on websites as a hot spot for roving riders.

Now residents are ramping up their efforts against what they see as an assault on everyday street life.

A cyclists rides on top of a commemorative plaque at the so-called
A cyclists rides on top of a commemorative plaque at the so-called "Chinatown Banks" in Chatham Square.
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Civic Center Residents Coalition

"I finally just had to stop going to the square," said Nancy Linday, 61, who has lived nearby on Park Row since 1993. "You're in more danger going into the square than you are going into traffic."

Linday recently reached out to Community Board 3, where officials say they now plan to reach out to various city agencies and deal with the issue at an upcoming meeting, according to district manager Susan Stetzer.

"This is the first time the board has ever heard of this problem," Stetzer said, adding that the board could make recommendations for adjusting the planters to make them less accessible to riders.

The Civic Center Residents Coalition has also been documenting the scene at Chatham Square since last year. One member complained that neither the Department of Transportation nor the city's Parks Department has done anything to fix the problem.

"The disabled community, the senior community and just residents in general are fed up," said Jan Lee, Chinatown resident and CCRC member. "This is an emergency situation."

The Parks Department, which oversees Chatham Square, did not immediately return a request for comment.

The plaza, which features seating and historical elements like a statue of Chinese official Lin ZeXu and an arch dedicated to Chinese-America war heroes, includes a series of cobblestone planters which trick bikers and skaters see as perfect for riding.

A section of one planter was even covered with concrete — illegally added by a skateboarder, locals claim — to create a smoother surface more inviting to those on four wheels.

"It's the same thing as a car speeding 75 miles per hour — even worse," said Teddy Vasilopoulos, who's owned the Everest Diner on Chatham Square for the past 12 years, regarding riders crisscrossing the square.

Vasilopoulos said runaway skaters and bikers have shattered his diner's glass entryway three times while riding nearby, and that he's seen them hit pedestrians passing through the plaza.

"The old people walking by, they see the bikes coming by, they have a heart attack," Vasilopoulos added, noting he often calls the police, but that the skaters split when security arrives.

"They're scared to go out [into the square]," he said of local residents. "It's very dangerous."

The area was once a quick stopover for skaters and cyclists on their way to the Brooklyn Banks, a legendary skate spot located under the Brooklyn Bridge. But now that the Brooklyn Banks has closed for reconstruction work on the bridge, Chatham Square has become the hottest spot in the area.

"It's world-famous," said cyclist Mike Kuhn, who was recently riding at the Open Road skate park in the East Village.

It's even better suited to cyclists, he noted, who can ride over the cobblestones with ease and launch onto items like a commemorative plaque for Lin ZeXu located in one planter.

A cyclist in Chatham Square.
A cyclist in Chatham Square.
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Civic Center Residents Coalition

"The whole thing is a big playground," Kuhn added.

The fact that cyclists are using the plaza's historical features as props for their sport offends people like Linday, who claimed the city has failed to address the problem.

"It's an absolute desecration of my neighborhood," she said. "It is the epitome of how the power structure feels about those of us who live in Chinatown."

However, some skaters feel that the city has clamped down so much on their sport in public areas that they have nowhere else to go but places like Chatham Square.

"Everything is busted around New York," complained skateboarder Nasim Nasiri, 18, of Queens, adding that the so-called Chinatown Banks are "fun to skate" and that he used to ride there "every day" when he first heard about it.

But without places like the Chatham Square banks, "you're forced to come to places like [Open Road] that are crowded and boring," Nasiri said.

But some skaters and bikers say they can understand why pedestrians might feel threatened.

"It's not hard to see where people are coming from," Kuhn said of the faceoff between pedestrians and riders at Chatham Square. "I can see their point. It definitely gets a little sketchy there sometimes. It's just a hectic corner."

But that won't stop Kuhn from practicing his craft in public places, despite any "obstacles" he may encounter.

"There's always some old person on a bench blocking your way," he said. "Foot traffic is just another obstacle, but that's like riding any other spot in the city."

Linday worries that the situation will have tragic consequences.

"Somebody is going to get killed," she said. "It's amazing that no one has yet."