Chinatown Braces as City Begins Razing, Rebuilding Jail

A pickup truck drove down Chinatown’s Baxter Street, passing restaurants and aging tenements before turning into the plaza of the Manhattan Detention Complex. The construction tools atop the truck signaled the complex’s fate. Inside, preliminary demolition work has already started. Within weeks, workers will begin to raze and rebuild the city’s largest jail outside Rikers Island.

Jan Lee, a local activist and opponent of the jail plan, grimaced as he watched the truck drive past.

“When the completion of this jail happens, eight years from now, you won’t recognize Chinatown,” he said. “It’ll be a vestige, a whisper, of what it was.”

Jan Lee, a neighborhood businessman, activist, and co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal stands in front of the Manhattan Detention Complex in February. Credit: Elizabeth Maline for NY City Lens.

Lee and other local advocates have opposed the project since Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration introduced it in 2018 as part of a program to shutter Rikers Island. Legal challenges, protests, and demands that new Mayor Eric Adams intervene have so far failed to avert construction. Now, the jail’s neighbors are bracing for the project’s years-long impact on an already beleaguered Chinatown.

The new jail would replace the two existing towers of the Manhattan Detention Complex, where for decades roughly 900 prisoners awaited trial in the Criminal Court next door. Those prisoners have been moved to other city jails for the duration of the construction. The complex, known colloquially as the Tombs, has been rebuilt and enlarged three times since 1838.

This latest reconstruction would add only a few dozen beds. Its focus is to modernize the facilities. The new structure may stand about five to ten stories taller than the existing complex. In combination with new so-called “borough-based jails” in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, it would allow the city to close Rikers. The city has said rebuilding the jail is its only avenue for making the jail work as a part of its new borough-based network.

A hundred feet from where Lee stood, the Malaysian restaurant Jaya 888 had already closed its doors. The eatery was one of several businesses on the ground floor of the jail’s north tower. The city leased that floor out as a concession to the community when it finished the building in the 1990s. Businesses there had to close or relocate late last year.

Queenie Kwan, who works at a pharmacy that used to be next door to Jaya 888, said relocating had been onerous. Kwan said the city had helped cover the cost of the move, but she worried about how the project might hurt the business even at its new home. The pharmacy is now located around the block on 123 Walker, in a building that shares a wall with the jail.

“Elderly patients aren’t going to come here as often with all the construction going on,” Kwan said. “It’ll be bad for their health.”

Charlie Lai, the landlord of Kwan’s building, shared his tenants’ concerns. Lai is also the longtime director of the Chung Pak senior center, which sits atop the pharmacy. Lai spent the last two years negotiating concessions from the city to protect his roughly 100 elderly residents during construction. He’s now secured city funding to enclose the center’s rooftop garden, put in sound-proof, dust-proof windows, and install central AC.

Although Lai feels confident about the protections in place for his seniors, he said the project is not without its risks.

“They’re going to make sure that the noise, vibrations, particulates in the air, they’re all going to be super well contained.” Lai said. “That’s the [city’s] presentation. On the other hand, we can see from construction throughout the city of New York that the best laid plans are not necessarily the reality and it can be horrific.”

Lai was more worried for his neighbors opposite the jail, along Baxter street, whom he said the city has not helped enough. “Fifty feet away there’s tenements that barely have single pane windows,” Lai said. “I have some supports. Those other facilities do not.”

Andy Ha’s restaurant Nha Trong One arrived across the street from the Tombs in 1992, two years after work wrapped up on the north tower. Now he fears construction could put an end to his business’ three decades of success.

“The construction, the traffic, the noise, the polluted air: people might not turn this way,” Ha said. “I don’t know how long I will be here.”

Ha said he has not yet received any guidance or support from the city.

Andy Ha, a veteran restaurateur, outside his restaurant opposite the Manhattan Detention Complex in February. Credit: Elizabeth Maline for NY City Lens.

Like others interviewed in February, Ha spoke of the looming construction as the latest in a string of blows to Chinatown. Covid-19 hit the tourism-reliant neighborhood hard and a recent series of high-profile attacks on Asian New Yorkers have set locals on edge.

No New Yorkers interviewed opposed closing Rikers. Instead, they’ve aimed their criticism at the way that the city has handled its plans to construct the replacement.

Lee, the anti-jail activist and co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal, cited testimony from NYU’s Center for the Study of Asian American Health to point out construction presented a new threat to the neighborhood’s mostly elderly population.

“At a time when they’re supposed to be relaxing and enjoying the twilight of their lives, the city is doing this to them. Yet again, another form of sanctioned violence,” Lee said, holding back tears.

A few hundred feet away, dozens of elderly locals played cards, chatted, and sang in nearby Columbus Park.