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Chinatown's 'Jailscraper' Receives Backlash

HOST 1: It’s been five years since the city announced it would open new jails as part of its effort to close Rikers Island. One of the largest will be  built in Manhattan’s Chinatown. 

HOST 2: Local leaders and residents say the jail—which would become the tallest jail in the world—will deter tourists and harm the local economy. And, even now,  just months into demolition of the building that was on the site, people living nearby say the jail is already causing damage. Uptown Radio’s Cristina Macaya reports.

MACAYA 1 The new jail in Chinatown is being built here—in the middle of Baxter Street—at the former site of the Manhattan Detention Center - also known as The Tombs. Demolition is nearly over. 


You wanna take a walk? Come take a walk with me. Let’s take a walk. 

MACAYA 2 Speaking is Edward Cuccia, a lawyer working next door to the jail site. He’s putting his hand on a wall in his office 


The jail is right behind us. This is the back wall and it's just kind of easier to visualize it. So, come on over this way. 

MACAYA 3 Now he’s heading outside.


So, remember that wall I touched? That's here.

MACAYA 4 Cuccia’s pointing to a concrete wall that separates his office and the massive bulldozers and rubble next door. 


The cracks were in this wall. You could see the sky. Like, you could see the sky through the wall. That's not good.

MACAYA 5 The cracks he’s referring to are damages made by the demolition. Cuccia’s firm even had to close for a bit when the demolition started earlier this year - it was just too loud.


There were a good five or six days where it sounded like a jackhammer was next physically like two feet away from you. That's how bad it was. 

MACAYA 6 And for a neighborhood that struggled with bias and hate during COVID…and before that hurricane sandy…and before that 9/11…Cuccia says…. 


It's just mind-numbingly stupid. I blame de Blasio who came up with this nonsense. I blame Eric Adams who when he was campaigning for mayor stood right, right where we were standing right on the corner of 7th Street and said, the demolition of these buildings is an act of anti Asian hate. 

MACAYA 7 Jan Lee remembers those promises too. He’s the co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal and has become known as the “jail guy” for being the jail’s most vocal opponent. And at a meeting about the start of demolition in August…he was there to remind Eric Adams…


Mr. Mayor, you stood with us in Chinatown to talk about our jail when you were a candidate, and you said to us that the building of mega jail in Chinatown is a continuation of institutionalized hate against Asian Americans and against Chinatown. We would like to know if you would commit to us in Chinatown having serious input in the creation of this jail.

MACAYA 8 And in response Eric Adams promised Jan Lee that the city would support Chinatown in developing a different plan…one that doesn't involve demolishing the old jail. 

ADAMS 1Yes, you will be engaged in the conversation. Reach out to the other council persons who don't have a jail in their municipality and those of us who don't want dangerous people back on the street assist us in figuring this problem out with a Plan B. Because there was never a plan B in place and that was a big mistake. 

MACAYA 9 But, it’s been nine months and Jan Lee says Mayor Adams hasn’t brought Chinatown into the discussion. 

LEE 2 

This idea was conceived by people who are not architects. They don't know how to build a jail. 

MACAYA 10 Chinatown knows a thing or two about jails…it’s had one on this site since around 1840…and the history hasn’t been great. Because the area used to be a swampland, previous jails have actually started sinking. The most recent building was from the 1980s… And according to Jan Lee…that last jail..the one that’s now been demolished…it was still usable….


So when we said adaptive reuse, they don't know whether or not that's a good idea or a bad idea because they're just not experts. We’re the neighborhood that has lived with jails for 100 years, so, when we talk about the dangers to our community. The dangers of how it is to build on that site. No one wants to hear about it.

MACAYA 11 The new jail in Chinatown is just one of four that the city has mandated so it can close Rikers Island—which some describe as one of the worst jails in the country… with a terrible record of inmates dying…… the new plan aims to create more humane jails…not on an island in the East…but jails closer to friends and family…and the courts.  


We understand that Rikers Island is absolutely a horrific place that needs to be changed. And we are willing to bear some of that responsibility of making that change happen. 

MACAYA 12 And the Chinatown jail is expected to hold more than a thousand people. It’ll be 40 storeys tall…the tallest in the world. . 

LEE 5 

We have to be able to tell people this is extremely dangerous to build a big jail here. 


The plan B that we had hoped to have was the renovation of the existing towers

MACAYA 13 Alice Blank is the Vice Chair of Community Board One which includes Chinatown. She’s also an architect. In fact, Blank says the community board brought in its own architects to review the city’s plans for the new jail….and the city refused to consider their ideas…


Why not? What changed?  I'm not sure where we go from here. I'm not sure, you know, what the next steps are, but I clearly think there were problems and they haven't been solved.

MACAYA 14 Blank is particularly disappointed in Mayor Adams. 


He did make clear, several times, that he didn't really think this was a good idea. You really thought, as a community, he might actually do something about this, and he might actually stop the work that was being done, but that didn't happen. 

MACAYA 15  So Edward Cuccia…the lawyer whose office is next to the site…says whenever it happens…a new jail is the last thing Chinatown needs. 


We are oversaturated with things like jails. There's right now eight homeless shelters and three methadone clinics in Chinatown. They don't pick up our garbage. We are besieged by rats. Um, it's a. Yeah, this is typical of a minority neighborhood. 

MACAYA 16 Half of Chinatown’s previous jail is gone…and the timeline for building a new one keeps being pushed back. It was supposed to be by 2027…now the city says maybe more like 2029. 

Cristina Macaya, Columbia Radio News. 


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