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NYC is Building a ‘Superjail’ in Chinatown and Locals Are Desperately Trying to Stop Them

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    For over a year now, community advocates have lobbied against the construction of a skyscraper prison in New York City’s Chinatown, which studies suggest could endanger the health of senior residents in the area.

    The 295-foot building, to be erected at Manhattan’s 125 White Street, is one of four structures designed to replace the Rikers Island Prison Complex, a 413-acre (167-hectare) facility notorious for grim stories of abuse toward inmates.

    As part of a 10-year plan, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio hopes to build the other jails in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, which would likely see hours upon hours of demolition and construction.

    It is the exposure of elderly residents to air pollution — as well as other major health risks — during such processes that concern and compel community advocates to mobilize against the plan.


    In July, the New York University Center for the Study of Asian American Health (NYU CSAAH) submitted a testimony citing studies that detail the dangers of particulate matter (PM), which can cause and exacerbate conditions such as lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and early-onset dementia, to name a few.

    “The impact of long-term demolition, construction and possible relocation on the health of older adults in Chinatown should be taken into consideration when coming to a decision on the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and plan for the borough-based jail in Manhattan,” the center wrote.

    “Increases in exposure of the elderly to elevated levels of PM from construction sites, even short-term, can not only worsen co-morbidities, including cardiovascular and respiratory disease, but also result in hospitalizations, acute disease episodes, and/or death.”

    The center also highlighted the negative effects of noise pollution, as well as involuntary relocation, which “may reduce environmental access to essential components of healthy aging.”

    Chung Pak, a low-income senior housing, shares a wall with the site of the proposed jail at 125 White Street.

    “The construction of a high-rise detention complex in the heart of historic Chinatown/Tribeca will exacerbate the level of air pollution in the area, which poses a significant risk to older residents living in the area,” a coalition of advocates wrote in a letter addressed to NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson and NYC Councilmember Margaret Chin. “Elderly residents are especially vulnerable to spikes in contaminants and increased exposure regularly results in hospitalizations, acute disease episodes or even death. Evidence also suggests that the noise levels associated with a major construction work such as the proposed jail could have adverse physiological and psychological effects.”

    The coalition that wrote the letter in August is composed of Boroughs United, Neighbors United Below Canal (NUBC), the Lin Sing Association (聯成公所), the Walker Street Block Association and the Chinatown Core Block Association.

    In October, Councilmember Chin, who represents Chinatown, voted to approve de Blasio’s plan despite being informed of the risks ahead, according to the advocates.

    “Despite of all this clear and convincing evidence, Councilmember Chin forges ahead at the will of a failed Mayor desperate to become relevant at any cost while on a hopeless campaign trail for the Presidency,” NUBC said in a statement.

    “With this vote of approval Margaret Chin’s legacy will be the destruction of one of NYC’s oldest ethnic and immigrant enclaves which has been a critical socio-economic and cultural gateway for both its occupants and visitors from all over the country and the world for more than a century.”

    NUBC has since spearheaded a plan to file a lawsuit to counter de Blasio’s construction plans. The group, headed by Jan Lee of the Chinatown Core Block Association, is seeking $130,000 in donations to fund the suit.

    As of this writing, they managed to raise $78,000. Donations can be made here.

    Feature Images via Neighbors United Below Canal / NUBC (left, right)

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