Here’s What It’s Like to Live Behind an NYPD Checkpoint in Chinatown

May 4, 2015 | Bucky Turco

Since September 11th, the NYPD has maintained a security perimeter around its headquarters at One Police Plaza that’s unlike any other building in NYC. It includes the closure of smaller side streets and the occupation of Park Row, a vital 4-lane roadway that used to connect Chinatown to Lower Manhattan. For cops, the underutilized street that stretches for about four city blocks is like having their very own road and parking lot, but for tenants of Chatham Green and Chatham Towers, two residential buildings located inside the security zone, it’s a reccuring dystopian nightmare where IDs must be shown at police-manned checkpoints to gain access. “It’s been 14 years since 9/11 and I’m still living in a police state,” said Chatham Green resident Triple Edwards, who gave ANIMAL exclusive access behind the barrier that surrounds his apartment complex.

In the weeks following 9/11, commerce in Chinatown effectively shut down due to a “frozen zone” south of Canal Street. Street closures and parking restrictions persisted for the next several months, further crippling the neighborhood. Local residents began to seriously question how long Park Row would be off-limits. Its closure was supposed to be a temporary measure and not an impediment that would drastically alter the way of life for the community.

Margaret Fung, Executive Director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), told ANIMAL that the first lawsuit against the city was filed by attorney Jack Lester in 2003. She said it sought “to stop the NYPD from putting up barriers on Park Row without an environmental review,” and the “New York Supreme Court ordered an environmental assessment.” In response, the NYPD issued its not-at-all-biased, inadequate assessment and found that the One Police Plaza Security Plan did not significantly impact the community, a finding the community didn’t agree with. After all, many businesses owners say the lack of foot traffic in the area hurts their bottom line.

That same year though, residents near the security zone, did chalk off some small victories; the NYPD agreed to allow emergency vehicles to pass through the checkpoints without searching them and a judge liberated James Madison Plaza, a public green space that the police cordoned off and were using as a parking lot. In 2005, three bus lines returned to Park Row with help of legislation by the NYC Council.

Due to its impact on the Chinatown community, the AALDEF filed a second lawsuit against the city challenging the police department’s insufficient environmental assessment of Park Row. “We won a ruling from the NY Supreme Court, requiring the NYPD to prepare a full environmental impact statement within 90 days,” said Fung. The City appealed and got more time.

In August 2007, the the NYPD finally published its EIS (PDF doc) and found “significant adverse urban design, traffic, transit and pedestrian, air quality, and noise impacts,” but upheld the security plan as necessary. The NYPD also admitted that it didn’t interview any residents or business within the security zone, claiming they were not relevant to the scope of the study. Testimony from New York Downtown Hospital’s staff regarding emergency response times was cited as “anecdotal information.”

Over the years, elected officials — from NYC Councilmember Margaret Chin to U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler — have sent numerous letters (PDF doc) to then Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg about reopening Park Row. However, throughout the process, Kelly refused to meet with Chinatown residents and dismissed any requests to alter the plan. Some have claimed the NYPD stonewalling of the community constitutes racism. In March, local, state, and federal politicians submitted similar requests to the de Blasio administration, demanding changes to the roadway.

While some Chatham Green residents and local officials would like to see the full dismantling of the security apparatuses on Park Row, others are willing to compromise and have asked for the checkpoint to be pushed back 125 feet, so their entrances to the buildings and its parking lots are no longer located within the security zone. The NYPD, however, remains unwilling to alter the plan.

The police department acknowledged (PDF doc) how its checkpoints isolate residents and makes Chinatown look like Little North Korea in its EIS, but too bad, because terrorism:

The closure of public streets and the addition of the security elements have introduced a forbidding and unaesthetic quality to the area. The action has created a disconnect between the security zone area and the surrounding neighborhood. Despite this negative alteration, these security features are considered necessary to protect potential terrorist targets and will remain in place as long as a potential terrorist threat exists.

So, will it remain in place forever?

That all depends on the Counter Terrorism Bureau. That NYPD unit is solely tasked with making threat assessments and the department has refused to allow for an independent review. The CTB maintains that the measures are necessary to prevent a car bomb, but public comments on the EIS note that One Police Plaza is still vulnerable to an attack from the Brooklyn Bridge exit ramp that sits close to the building or from underground, since several subway lines that pass below it. Comments also state that the police store approximately 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel at the location.

NYC engineer Brian Ketcham told Downtown Express that a car bomb attack on One Police Plaza from Park Row would not destroy the building. “They could contain anything, short of a nuclear bomb,” said Ketcham to the paper.

(Even the Google streetcar was denied access, leaving an incomplete snapshot of the roadway)

Resident Danny Chen thinks the NYPD should move its headquarters, a sentiment echoed by public comments on the NYPD’s draft environmental impact statement. “They have more security than any other building in the city. Do they really belong in a densely populated residential community?” he asked rhetorically to a local paper in 2006.

Trying to figure out how the NYPD was granted such sweeping authority to indefinitely close as many streets as it did isn’t as easy as it sounds. For one, the police have a long tradition of not commenting about anything related to Park Row.

After multiple email requests, a DOT spokesperson offered the following pithy response: “Pursuant to NYC Administrative Code Section 19-107, NYPD can effectuate a street closure for security reasons.” When I informed DOT that the statute only covers temporary closures, they replied, “Please discuss that with NYPD.”

I also asked the DOT if it agreed with the NYPD’s assessment and the agency explained: “Just to clarify, the assessment was prepared by NYPD and ordered by a court. Any question regarding the assessment should be discuss with PD. Remember, NYPD effectuated the street closure for security reasons.”

The NYPD did not return one email related to this matter. New York’s police-emasculated mayor, Bill de Blasio, will not be altering Park Row. Wiley Norvell, Deputy Press Secretary for the mayor, stated, “We have no plans to change the current configuration.”

(Photos: Bucky Turco/ANIMALNewYork)
(Video: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)
(Producer: Ilie Mitaru/ANIMALNewYork)