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Chinatown protest calls for resident jobs and housing amid construction boom

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  July 18, 2013 09:49 AM

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Jeremy C. Fox for

Near the Ink Block development site on Harrison Avenue, longtime community activist Mel King declared, “We want our rights back to this neighborhood.” Mark Liu, deputy director of the Chinese Progressive Association, held the megaphone.

Amid a boom of new residential and mixed-use development in Chinatown and across downtown Boston, community members and their supporters marched Wednesday to demand jobs and affordable housing for neighborhood residents.

The protesters, led by the Chinese Progressive Association and the Chinatown Resident Association, ranged across the neighborhood in the intense midday heat to visit four sites of strategic significance to local residents.

Near the former Boston Herald site on Harrison Avenue, where the Ink Block project is under construction, Mark Liu, deputy director of the Chinese Progressive Association, said the project is creating hundreds of new jobs but does little to directly benefit its neighbors.

“How many Asian-American faces, how many people do we see on these jobs that we know?” Liu asked the crowd, which swelled to about 100 at the height of the protest.

Protesters called for 51 percent of construction jobs to go to Boston residents, and 51 percent to people of color, with at least 15 percent going to women. For permanent jobs, they set the same goals for city residents and people of color, but called for half the jobs to go to women.

Longtime activist Mel King, 84, said he had lived as a child in the area now under construction.

“Welcome to the Ink Blot development,” King said to the crowd. “Why do I call it the Ink Blot? Because they blotted out the entire community.”

King said that when he had lived there, on Seneca Street, he considered it “one of the best neighborhoods on Earth.”

“I got a copy of the Herald-Traveler,” King said, referring to a predecessor newspaper to the modern Boston Herald. “It said I lived in a slum. I lived on Skid Row. I did not believe it, because I called it home.”

King held up a photocopy of an old map of the neighborhood when it was known as the New York Streets area, a neighborhood where tenement apartment buildings lined streets named for towns along the Erie Canal in New York State.

That area became the first in the city decimated amid the urban renewal craze of the 1950s.

King said when he was growing up, this was a neighborhood of Italian, Irish, and Chinese immigrants, as well as African-Americans.

“We want our rights back to this neighborhood,” King said. “We are here today to change the direction of this development, to bring it back to the people, where they can have the jobs, where they can have the housing.”

King and Hakim Cunningham, director of organizing for the Boston Workers Alliance, called for disparate communities of city residents to unite in opposition to the developers.

“Residents should get to enjoy the wealth coming to the neighborhoods around them. Tell Cranshaw Construction and National Development we need construction jobs and permanent jobs,” Cunningham said, referring to the general contractor and the developer for the project.

From the Ink Block site, protesters marched through the city streets to another site originally cleared for redevelopment in the 1950s.

Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, led marchers in a chant, “Hey people, I’ve got a story. Let’s tell the whole damn world this is people’s territory.”

On the narrow sliver of land between Hudson and Albany streets, below Kneeland Street, Karen Chen, organizing director for the Chinese Progressive Association, said construction for a new housing development being built by the Asian Community Development Corporation would begin in the fall.

Chen said the project would include jobs for community residents and affordable housing because the community had fought for those things.

Teen speakers took to the megaphone to call for the inclusion of a community library at the site, an amenity that Chinatown has lacked since 1956.

“Every other community in Boston has a library, so why don’t we have one?” asked Adam Chin, 17.

The protest then moved to 21 Edinboro St., where Chen said government subsidies that make the building affordable to tenants are set to expire next year.

Two of the building’s tenants described their plights.

“I live here with my kids,” Ping Huang said through a translator. “They all go to school here locally, and it’s really important for us to stay here. We would like to keep this building affordable.”

Another tenant, Yan Zhu, said through a translator that she has lived at 21 Edinboro for a decade, speaks no English, and might be unable to keep her job in a nearby restaurant if she had to move.

At 25 Harrison Ave., where residents were forced to flee in May 2012 because of unsafe living conditions, protesters said that a developer’s plan to buy the building and build luxury micro-units had been called off.

But, they said, the community still must work to ensure the building is used as affordable housing for Chinatown residents.

Henry Yee, co-chair of the Chinatown Resident Association, said developers came into the community to take advantage of what residents had created.

“It is what it is today because the community built it,” he said through a translator. “We made it better. We made it what it is today. Because we made our community so nice for developers, they all want to take our land.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at
Follow him on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
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Henry Yee and protestors.jpg

Jeremy C. Fox for

Henry Yee, co-chair of the Chinatown Resident Association, marched with other protestors.

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