By Jon Schuppe and Shayna Jacobs
CHINATOWN — In a section of Chinatown known by many locals as "The Hill," Hispanics and Asians have lived, literally, on top of each other for many years.
Most of the time, everyone gets along peacefully, if warily. But every so often there are spasms of violence, like the November 2009 killing of 18-year-old Nelson Pena, stabbed in a street brawl between Hispanic and Asian young men.
Pena’s death, and the subsequent murder trial of Victor Fong, also 18, exposed the neighborhood’s ethnic tensions, residents said. And though few residents followed the case, which ended Tuesday with Fong’s acquittal, they agreed that things aren’t getting better.
Fong, was accused of killing Pena, and slashing another teen during a street fight. Fong said he stabbed the surviving victim, whom he had clashed with earlier that day, in self-defense. On security camera footage shown at the trial, Fong was visibly across the street from Pena at the time of the fatal stabbing.
Fong’s case was helped by the shaky testimony of prosecutors' witnesses, including one of Pena’s friends, who went missing on the day he was supposed to take the stand. Prosecutors said he was scared to testify following purported threats from people in his neighborhood who considered him a "snitch."
The jury deliberated for three hours, then acquitted Fong on all counts.
The next day, at Joselito’s Barbershop and Salon on Henry Street, men talked about how most Asians and Hispanics didn’t interact much with each other socially. They recalled how it used to be popular among non-Asians to pick on Asian kids in school. They talked about how non-Asians were routinely made to feel unwelcome at Asian-owned businesses.
One customer, named Sam, said the neighborhood bred a strange kind of insularity, where people felt too intimidated to mix with people of other races or from other buildings. "This is a big neighborhood, but it’s small," he said. "Everyone sticks to their own."
Sitting atop a slope near the East River, the neighborhood stands in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, dominated by two red-brick high-rise housing projects, Rutgers Houses and LaGuardia Houses. They are surrounded by smaller housing developments. On Madison Street, the nearest commercial strip, Hispanic bodegas and restaurants sit next to Asian salons and grocers. In the lobby of the Cherry Street building where Fong grew up, only a couple of blocks from Pena's home, the residents shop alongside each other in the 265 Cherry Foodmarket.
Most people who stopped to talk on Wednesday said they did not recall Pena’s killing. Those who did said they did not keep up with the trial. In the lobby of a Rutgers Houses building, a woman noted sadly that in a neighborhood with so much violence, a year-old murder tends to lose its significance.
Pena’s relatives, meanwhile, have no closure.
As for Fong, he gathered with friends and family at a Mott Street community center after the acquittal. He noted that his father died on Dec. 7, the first day of his trial. He said he now wanted to become a police officer.
But Fong won’t be going back to his neighborhood. He is staying with friends elsewhere in the city, because, he said, it’s not safe for him to return.