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Protesters decry Chinatown ‘megajail’ as Adams goes all in on disruptive project he vowed to oppose

BY DASHIELL ALLEN | Armed with posters, megaphones and boxes of Dunkin doughnuts in hand, community members from across Lower Manhattan gathered at the break of dawn on Monday to protest what they thought was going to be the first day of construction at the Manhattan Detention Complex.

They came to protest the city’s borough-based jail plan, which calls for the construction of four new jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, in order to close Rikers Island. With a projected height of 335 feet, the future Manhattan jail is referred to by opponents as “the tallest jail in the world.”

According to a community advisory sent out by the Department of Design and Construction, construction fencing had been expected to be installed along Centre Street starting at 7 a.m on April 11.

Demonstrators came to protest against the installation of the construction fence, but that didn’t happen Monday. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

As it turned out, though, no work took place Monday, which some protesters attributed to their organizing efforts.

“Obviously, you don’t see the construction vans,” said Jan Lee, a co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal Street, an organization formed in opposition to the construction of a new  more-than-30-story-tall borough-based jail, referred to by its foes as a “megajail.”

“I think we are making a difference right up to this moment,” he said. “We have watched them build jails in Chinatown since 1838. … In Chinatown we have borne witness to 100 years of jail construction.”

Councilmember Christopher Marte, who has held multiple meetings with Mayor Eric Adams’s office, expressed irritation that the new mayor hasn’t lived up to the promises he made while he was campaigning for office, when he attended an anti-jail rally and called the plan institutional “hate” against the Asian-American community.

“It’s been really disappointing,” Marte said. “We’ve presented alternatives to demolishing this jail and building a megajail, and I feel like I haven’t been provided a good explanation of why you can do that.

Councilmember Christopher Marte called City Hall’s refusal to accept the community’s arguments “really disappointing.” (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

“They asked us for alternatives, they asked us for support,” Marte continued. “We did our job as a community. We put our minds together, and told them they could renovate this so they don’t have to build this megajail in our community. That we can achieve the goals that the city wants, that this community wants, so we can have a win-win solution. However, they said no. We’re gonna continue to look at every possible legal option available to make sure that this plan doesn’t happen and that they have us at the table to make sure that our plan is the action that they take.”

In a statement, a Mayor’s Office spokesperson told The Village Sun, “This administration will always follow the law, and the law says the jails on Rikers Island must close on time. To follow the law and protect the safety of the community and all involved in this project, this work is proceeding. We have engaged deeply with the community every step of the way, and we are committed to continuing to work with them to limit the disruption of this project.”

Additionally, the city paused demolition of the current Manhattan Detention Complex for more than a month in an effort to engage with the community and review “multiple proposals” that were offered as alternatives, but has deemed all of these “infeasable.” In addition, in the city’s view, renovating the current structure could lead to a “catastrophic collapse” and loss of life.

In a letter reviewed by The Village Sun, Peter Samton, the architect responsible for last renovating the Manhattan Detention Complex, more commonly referred to as The Tombs, expressed to Mayor Adams that he believes “a renovation to adapt and reuse the existing complex will be a significantly more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable solution which will help expedite the city’s closing of the jail on Rikers Island in 2027.”

Jan Lee, a co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal, said their protests are “making a difference” and may have kept the construction workers away on Monday. Playing behind him on a jumbo screen was a video of Eric Adams promising during his campaign for mayor not to build any more jails if elected. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

The Adams administration disputes those claims, telling The Village Sun that based on the requirements of laws passed in 2019, renovation of the complex’s existing buildings would be structurally unsound.

Additionally, the city said that the renovations would, based on its calculations, potentially come with an even higher price tag than building a new jail. It could also take just as long, and result in a similar level of environmental impacts, according to the administration.

The 2027 deadline to close Rikers was set previously through a City Council vote.

“Mayor Adams said he would stand by us…but he hasn’t,” said Howard Huie, another co-founder of NUBC. “He owes this community an explanation for his support for the borough-based jails. … He should be a man and let us know, meet with us.”

Alice Blank, vice chairperson of Community Board 1, also called on the city to remodel the existing Lower Manhattan jail facilities.

“We have asked for this alternative to be reviewed for years and we have yet to see this done,” Blank said, adding that the city’s current $8.3 billion plan “does not at all address the sustainability goals of New York City.

“If we need additional space,” she said, “there are plenty of city-owned buildings, including across the street, that could be used for this overflow.”

Former judge Doris Ling-Cohan called the Chinatown jail plan “an affront…in times of unprecedented anti-Asian hate.” (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

Also at the protest was retired judge Doris Ling-Cohan, the first Asian American woman judge appointed to the New York State Supreme Court. She called the jail’s construction, “an affront to our community, in times of unprecedented anti-Asian hate, when businesses all over the city and particularly in Chinatown are closing.”

“I don’t understand how the city could miss the compelling reasons why this should not happen,” said Jonathan Hollander, the founder of Battery Dance, a dance company located on Broadway near City Hall.

“The schools desperately need money, and the social services need money. The city should be investing in communities,” he said. “If you don’t change the culture that created Rikers, you haven’t done anything — you’re just moving from one place to another.”

State Senate candidate Vittoria Fariello spoke at the protest as former City Council candidate Susan Lee, center, and Assembly candidate Grace Lee listened. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

Hollander would like to see Rikers Island rehabilitated and contined to be used as a jail, by constructing “green, modern, airy programmatic spaces,” rather than renovating The Tombs as some, including Councilmember Marte, have suggested.

Not everyone at Monday morning’s jail protest agreed that the borough-based jail plan is a bad idea. A man on parole from Rikers Island, who requested to remain anonymous, told the crowd they don’t know what they’re talking about.

“I’ve been on Rikers Island. It’s a f—ing war zone,” he said. “Putting every borough in one jail. … You guys have never been to jail.”

His perspective is shared by others, including Anna Pastoressa, a criminal justice advocate, whose son was detained on Rikers Island for six years.

The protesters massed on Centre Street but the construction workers never arrived to put up the fences as scheduled. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

“The only reason people oppose the plan is that they don’t like the idea of a jail in the neighborhood, while forgetting that one infamous jail has already been existing near the courts for many decades,” she wrote in a recent Village Sun talking point.

“I would love to see a free New York City with no arrests, no incarcerated people, no cells, no criminal courts, no crime… . Unfortunately, that does not yet exist anywhere on the planet. If you know how to resolve these issues, people, let’s discuss your plan. And please stop the ‘megajail’ nonsense without providing a real solution,” she said.

(Several alternative plans have been suggested by community members, including renovating or modestly expanding the current Centre Street jail facility, along with utilizing other sites across Manhattan that previously were detention centers.)

In a separate op-ed for amNY, Victor Herrera, who spent time in the Manhattan Detention Complex in 1996, said he “can’t wait to see it torn down,” adding that The Tombs lives up to its name.

“There’s no true ventilation in that facility,” he wrote. “It contributes to a build-up of mold — I could feel that my health, and that of the other people held there, was at risk. The only natural light barely creeps in from narrow windows that were installed so that people inside can’t see out of them.”

Next to the protest on Centre Street, a large truck sat parked, covered on two sides by massive screens playing on repeat footage of Mayor Adams at a rally in April 2021, speaking out against building a new jail in Chinatown.

“We’re gonna drive this truck around New York,” Jan Lee said. Adams is going to “see it from his bed, because he has COVID right now.”

Determined to keep up the fight against the jail until the very end, Lee and other activists plan to continue showing up to stop the city from proceeding.

14 Comments

  1. Kevin W. Kevin W. April 12, 2022

    Those so-called “activists” who oppose the new jail are plain and simple NIMBYs. The problem is that they fight crime and yet they fight the new jail in their neighborhood. Those “activists” are pure and simple NIMBYs. Those elected officials who support those haters are very deceiving. None of them participated in any hearings regarding this plan. Now they fake their support of Asians just to climb the political ladder. Chris Marte is the NIMBYs leader of Lower Manhattan’s haters. He got voted in by promising his deviated support of Asians. He very well knows that he cannot hide any more behind his deceiving slogan “no new jails.” He is another sleazy politician who wants to climb the ladder at the expense of Asian communities. He knew all along that the jail will be built and that it’s too late for protests. Let construction move forward. Let’s build a humane NYC!

    • Jean l Jean l April 12, 2022

      Let’s see how it will feel to put the megajail NIMFY in your front yard?? Destroying your community? Plus 10 shelters? Will you be OK with it in your community? Do you have family? You hypocrite. I bet you won’t like it!

    • Anna Anna April 12, 2022

      The protestors are not NIMBYs. There is already a jail in that spot. The protest is over a 7-year, $3 billion plan to demolish the existing jail and build one that will be massively larger and will be the tallest jail in the world. Studies have shown that vertical jails do not function well and are dangerous to inmates and corrections staff. And, after spending all that money and time, and despite the jail being bigger…it will only house about the same number of inmates were there before. What a great waste of our tax money. Oh, and during the 7 years needed for this megajail to be built, you know where the current inmates are going? They’re all being moved to Rikers — the place that is so horrid, that it must be closed and replaced.

      Alternative plans have been developed to gut-renovate these jails and other facilities and to build a new jail on Rikers. All of which can be done faster and cheaper than the current plan. So, why isn’t the City looking at these alternatives? I’m guessing some big donors are getting paid off in this deal. $8 billion (estimated budget for the 4 borough-based jails, though, given it’s a City construction job, you know it’ll be way more) is a lot of pork — more than a few palms being greased in this whole boondoggle.

    • East Side Activist East Side Activist April 13, 2022

      How can these protesters be NIMBY when they ALREADY have 2 jails? That is illogical.
      Replacing 2 structurally sound buildings with a jail as tall as the Statue of Liberty is a disservice to inmates as there is no green space even with adding all the additional height and would cost *$2.3 BILLION, to reduce the number of cells by 16 beds.
      A renovation of the existing site would cost far less, as would a renovation of Rikers, as proposed by 2 architects in the Washington Post.
      New Yorkers are asked to recycle every day so they could have a low environmental impact, but the city can inflict great environmental and economic devastation on Lower Manhattan at a cost of $2.3 billion (pre-pandemic cost) and drill 3 floors down into swampland to add a parking garage for 120 cars, along with tearing down an already immense, structurally sound structure?
      How about spending the money on schools, youth programs, working cameras for subways, small business loans, programs for former inmates, more judges and court personnel to speed up time to trial, so people need not languish in jail?
      The city is asking agencies to cut their budget 3 percent across the board. And the deficit in 2024 is expected to exceed $2.3 billion! Maybe instead of the city spending to tear down and rebuild, it should simply renovate.

      • LES3025 LES3025 April 13, 2022

        Come on, everyone knows this protest isn’t about poor allocation of funds or even a bad plan. If the exact same thing was happening in some other neighborhood the vast majority of these protesters wouldn’t care and wouldn’t show up. It’s all about the fact that there’s going to be a major construction project in their neighborhood. Everything else is window dressing to try to get broader support. If it were happening somewhere else there would be a different group of NIMBYs saying the same thing.

        • LES Historian LES Historian April 13, 2022

          LES3025, please tell us where you live? Do you believe in fair share? How about environmental justice? So tell us, do you have 2 jails in your ‘hood and 10 shelters? You were asked this earlier by someone but you have not answered. It is NIMBY when a disenfranchised community complains but ENTITLEMENT where you live, right? You doth protest too much! It would seem that perhaps YOU are benefitting from the multibillion-dollar boondoggle!!! Lol. And you live in Westchester.

          • LES3025 LES3025 April 13, 2022

            I’ve answered all of these things before. I live in the Lower East Side near the border of Chinatown. I believe in fair share but also that we have a need overall and in this community specifically. It’s NIMBY when anybody does it; I said the same things and worse about the rich NIMBYs in SoHo. These aren’t the gotcha questions you seem to think they are.

    • ML ML April 14, 2022

      I disagree with the NIMBY accusation but even if it were true – does that negate any of the legitimate criticisms of the new jail plan? Should the city spend $2.3 billion demolishing instead of renovating a functional 32-year-old building in order to DECREASE bed capacity? Will a new building fix the problems Rikers had or will the problems just be replicated in this new jail? Is spending $2.3 billion on building a new jail better than putting money into mental health and social services, after a pandemic that exacerbated everyone’s mental health issues?

      I’m honestly not sure whether to envy or pity the complete faith you have that the government is an altruistic entity building a new jail to uplift the incarcerated instead of enacting performative nonsense for profit.

      • LES3025 LES3025 April 14, 2022

        I can’t speak for OP, but I support the plan and I have quite little faith in the altruism of government. The city didn’t decide to close Rikers out of the goodness of its heart. There was a successful movement to pressure the city to do so, which I support. Closing Rikers is hugely important and that it is critical that it happens.

        There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of the plan, including the cost as you mention. Even the local disruption and building height that the NIMBYs care about so much is legitimate to some extent. But the thing is there is never going to be a Goldilocks plan that is just right. Every plan is going to have downsides, and some people are going to feel those downsides more than others. Maybe this isn’t the best plan, but I’m not an expert and neither are the people protesting the jail (and I assume neither are you). We elect politicians and appoint bureaucrats to weigh the options and make a decision. We don’t have direct democracy and we don’t (or at least shouldn’t) give the people who live nearby veto power, because if we did, nothing would ever get done and even good policies would be torpedoed by a small number of people who would be negatively affected.

        One of the problems with NIMBY logic is that it ignores how government works and the cost of doing nothing. The borough-based jails plan is something like four years in the making. Even if renovating The Tombs or Rikers is better (which the city considered and rejected, for reasons it has stated), if the borough-based jails plan were defeated tomorrow, it would be back to the drawing board. Rikers doesn’t close, all the political capital that went into closing it evaporates, and two, three, four years from now, if we’re lucky, we’re back having a new fight with a different group of NIMBYs, or budget hawks, or whoever ends up opposing the new plan (because someone certainly will).

        Government is massively dysfunctional, especially in this city. The capacity to enact significant policy and execute major projects is extremely limited. When you get an opportunity to go something good, you don’t let the perfect (or the NIMBYs) get in the way. So that’s why I support it.

  2. LES3025 LES3025 April 12, 2022

    I appreciate the coverage here of the positions of previously incarcerated people and criminal justice reform advocates, which I have found missing from much of the coverage. Thanks for including that important perspective.

  3. JJ JJ April 12, 2022

    Agree, nice to see balanced reporting — well done, TVS. Hard part is all the solutions are bad. Another pol down there was Brian Robinson, running to unseat Congressman Jerrold Nadler — that guy has done zilch for actual city residents.

    • LES3025 LES3025 April 12, 2022

      Makes sense Robinson was there because he opposes bail and criminal justice reform, like the leaders of NUBC.

  4. Mary B. Mary B. April 13, 2022

    All the NIMBYs, including the ones who wrote comments here, are expressing opinions as if they are engineers, land use, financial experts, criminal justice advocates, human rights activists, etc. It is evident that they haven’t done any research, they haven’t participated in the numerous city hearings about the jail topic. They actually have no clue, other than hating the idea of a new jail in their neighborhood, no matter the size.

    • ML ML April 14, 2022

      What are your reasons for supporting the jail plan? You do not list any reasons, you only belittle the people who oppose the new jail.

      It is wasteful to spend $2.3 billion to demolish a functional 32-year-old building (which shares a wall with a low-income senior housing complex!) in order to decrease bed capacity. A new building will not fix Rikers’s problems when there are no changes to policy or staffing. Investing in new jails instead of mental health and social programs is a “solution” that cares about profit, not people. All this while harming a community of color with a 24% poverty rate.

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