1,000 Demonstrators in Chinatown March Against City's Mega-Jail Plan

Demonstrators march across Bayard Street, which police decided to open for them because of the size of the crowd. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Oct. 07, 2019

A thousand demonstrators marched through Chinatown’s narrow streets on Sunday, demanding that the City Council reject the de Blasio administration’s plan for replacing Rikers Island jails with a new jail tower in each of the boroughs except Staten Island. 

“Vote No!” they chanted, yelling out the names of the influential Council members representing districts in the boroughs where the towers are proposed. The Council is scheduled to vote on the controversial plan on Oct. 17.

Organized by a number of groups that oppose the massive 450-foot-high structure proposed for 124 and 125 White Street, the march also drew opponents from the other impacted neighborhoods. The large turnout was apparently more than police had expected. 

“At one point due to crowd size, I made the decision to temporarily modify their permit to allow full roadway use of Mott Street and also Bayard Street due to the crowd condition,” Det. Vincent Cheung, the 5th Precinct’s community affairs officer, told the Trib in an email. Cheung said that 1,000 is “a very good estimate” for the peak number of marchers.

The march, led by N.U.B.C. co-founder Christopher Marte, began at Worth and Mulberry Streets, and continued up Baxter Street, past the two buildings of the current Manhattan Detention Complex that are proposed to be demolished and replaced with a 1.27-million-square- foot structure that is 30 percent bigger than zoning now allows.

“Too Big! Too Vertical! Too Expensive! Too De Blasio!” one of the many signs read.

Continuing along Canal Street to Mott, the marchers then took over Bayard Street as they made their way to Confucius Plaza, where a rally was held. 

“I truly believe that [Councilwoman] Margaret Chin, [Council Speaker] Corey Johnson, and the mayor didn’t think that we could unify Chinatown and across the city to bring people together,” said Nancy Kong, co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal. “I always felt that they’d written us off and that we’d go away and they can just continue with the process.”

During the City Council’s hearing last month on the administration’s plan for closing the scandal-plagued Rikers Island, some members expressed dismay over the lack of information on the buildings’ cost (initially projected at $8.7 billion), designs, and construction phasing, among other details. 

Chin, whose district includes the Lower Manhattan site and is a strong proponent for closing Rikers Island, said at the hearing that she was still seeking a number of assurances from the administration, including a plan to reduce the current proposed size.

“We have to get details before we can vote,” Chin said then.

Asked what new assurances, if any, the Councilwoman has received from the administration since the hearing, her spokesman, Rush Perez, would not say. “She is working closely with both the Mayor’s Office and the relevant City agencies to ensure that concerns around construction mitigation, protecting the senior residents at Chung Pak, the bulk and height of the Mayor’s proposed jail and the impact of construction on local small businesses are all addressed,” Perez said in an email statement.

A spokesman from the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice said in an email that since the hearing there have been no changes in the projected height of the building or the $8.7 billion cost of the four-jail project. In response to continuing opposition and the march on Sunday, he called the plan a historic opportunity to build on the City’s decarceration efforts that have fundamentally reshaped our criminal justice system, and will continue working with the Council as we move forward with our plan.

Opponents say that an approval by the Council will not end their fight.

“If the City Council votes this up, the protests and the rallies continue until they hear us,” Arline Parks, an outspoken opponent of the city’s jail plan for the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, told the rally.

Nancy Kong said Neighbors United Below Canal is still considering a suit against the city, claiming it did not go through the proper approval process.

“We have 40 days after the plan is officially approved to file. So were gearing up,” she said. “I wish we didn’t have to do this, but the fact that they don’t care and they’re just pushing through this process, that’s our only alternative.”