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Power, and Soon a Train Too, Passing Up N.Y. Chinatown

Politics: Closure of the Green Street stop stirs the long-dormant activism of a growing Asian community.


NEW YORK — There was great celebration among New York's Asian Americans recently when census figures showed they now make up 10% of the city's population. But such dramatic growth--the largest of any ethnic minority in the Big Apple--obviously hasn't translated into political power.

Several weeks before the figures came out, transit officials quietly announced that the main subway stop in New York's bustling Chinatown would be closed for four years while a nearby bridge is repaired. There was no public hearing, no consulting with the community. City officials said that, since the move is only temporary, there was no need for such niceties.

Transit disruptions are common in New York, and most neighborhoods have horror stories about interruptions in service. But to many observers, the planned July 1 shutdown in Chinatown is a slap in the face that underscores Asian Americans' lack of political clout in the nation's largest city. Although New Yorkers have elected a multitude of African Americans and Latinos to office, no Asian American has ever won a local election.

"It all comes down to political influence," said Don Lee, a computer software executive who helped form a coalition to protest the closure of the Grand Street subway station. "Do you think the city would shut down a crucial subway in other parts of town, like Harlem or the upper east side of Manhattan, with no hearings? Of course they wouldn't. They wouldn't dare, unless it was a neighborhood where they thought they could do this."

Asian Americans have been slower than other ethnic groups to flex political muscle, but they have experienced significant success in several communities.

In Los Angeles, Michael Woo served two terms on the City Council and ran against Richard Riordan in the 1993 mayoral runoff campaign. San Francisco's Asian American community has elected several members to the Board of Supervisors and is a powerful force at City Hall. Washington has a Chinese American governor, Gary Locke. In Philadelphia, the community recently defeated a mayoral plan to build a new baseball stadium on the edge of Chinatown.

In all these cases, Asian Americans have been able to unite behind candidates from their own community; they have registered to vote in significant numbers and have built bridges to other political groups.

By contrast, New York's Asian American community--nearly 800,000 strong--has generally failed to do this. The group accounted for 2% of the vote in the 1993 mayoral race and 4% in 1997. The perception has long been that, while pockets of the group are thriving economically--especially in Queens and Brooklyn, they are not organized politically in Chinatown. But now that may be changing.

Some Signs of Political Life

Indeed, the Battle of Grand Street has unified a traditionally factionalized immigrant population on the city's lower east side, and activists are cheered by signs of political life. Groups that have long disagreed ideologically have now joined forces to leaflet the neighborhood and put up notices in Chinese about the impending closure of the station.

Although most doubt that the Metropolitan Transit Authority will back down on its controversial plan, they hope to wring some concessions from the state agency at a City Hall hearing this week. Their new activism has attracted all four Democratic mayoral candidates to rallies protesting the closure, signifying that a community that has felt taken for granted is making some noise.

To be sure, New York's Chinese Americans have historically taken "back door routes" to power--building successful businesses, buying large amounts of real estate in several neighborhoods and making generous political contributions. But unlike other groups, they have been slow to naturalize and play the political game, according to John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York's Graduate Center and an expert on the city's shifting immigration patterns.

"There has never been a large body of citizens in the Chinese community that says to other, newly arrived immigrants: 'Please register to vote, it's important,' " he explained. "That's a crucial political distinction."

The city's Asian American population--about half of which is Chinese--grew 54% in the last 10 years, according to census statistics. It is the largest such enclave in any American city, and no one landmark illustrates this demographic boom better than the Grand Street station.

Day and night, it is jammed with commuters, many of whom pour into Chinatown from heavily Asian neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. The small station, perched on the eastern edge of Chinatown in lower Manhattan, averaged fewer than 5,000 riders a day in 1988, according to city transportation statistics. Now it handles more than 27,000 riders daily.

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