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A Guided Walk Through Chinatown

Yesterday would have been Jane Jacobs’ 101st birthday. Jacobs was an author, a journalist, and most famously, a community organizer who fought to preserve neighborhoods for the people who live in them. This weekend, people in cities all over the world will remember her through Jane’s Walks. Max Hauptman joined a tour through Chinatown.

HAUPTMAN: It’s not the perfect day for a neighborhood tour, but Christy Lau is getting ready to lead a Jane’s Walk. Lau is a children’s librarian at the Chatham Square Library in Chinatown.

LAU: She was a thinker, a writer, she critiques the urban renewal policies of the 1950s because she believed that it destroyed communities. It created isolated and unnatural urban spaces. And so she advocated for density, for walkability, for mixed-use neighborhoods because she believed that those were the elements that were crucial to creating a very livable city and a more vibrant community. And so we walk in her honor.

HAUPTMAN: Chinatown, with its narrow streets and busy commercial rows, is the kind of neighborhood that Jane Jacobs described in her famous  1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In that book, Jacobs wrote about the, “Sidewalk Ballet.” The, “Eyes on the Street,” of commercial buildings mixed with residential ones. The, “Social Capital,” of neighborhoods with longtime residents. Today, outside of a small shop you hear something like this…the hustle and bustle of the street. But it might sound a lot different today if not for Jane Jacobs. For more than a decade, Jacobs led the fight to stop construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway–the LOMEX. Part of city planner Robert Moses’ urban renewal plans. A ten-lane elevated highway linking the Holland Tunnel to the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. There’s no LOMEX today, but there is the social capital that Jacobs wrote about…

LAU: As these immigrants started to cluster together in this area, they expanded into what we now see as Chinatown. They created their own internal structure, they had their own internal government.

HAUPTMAN: At the next stop on the tour, one of Chinatown’s most famous street corners, Doyers Street…

LAU: Law enforcement officials say that more people have died violently at Bloody Angle, the crook at Doyers street, than at any other intersection in America.

HAUPTMAN: That corner’s a lot less violent nowadays. And many other things are different as well. Francesca (Fransisca) Benitez is a neighborhood artist who works with the Chinatown Working Group to oppose re-zoning in the neighborhood.

BENITEZ: Right now we have an influx of luxury skyscrapers in this neighborhood and under the 1961 zoning resolution we don’t have much protection. It’s like, you can almost equate that to what LOMEX could have done here, and this neighborhood is really fighting with our teeth, this thing.

HAUPTMAN: The battles that Jane Jacobs fought aren’t just history, they’re still being fought. Whether it’s protesting an expressway or luxury towers, Benitez says the memory of Jacob’s work is still an inspiration to Chinatown residents today.

Max Hauptman, Columbia Radio News.


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