The 9/11 Trial: Will It Destroy Chinatown?

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    People look at shirts in the tourist heavy district of Chinatown.

    It’s becoming the on-again, off-again terrorist trial.

    Thanks to the latest statement from President Barack Obama, the business people and residents of Chinatown don’t know where they’re at. They’re worried and confused about what exactly the federal administration is going to do.

    To them, the life and death of their neighborhood is at stake.

    On January 29, the White House apparently gave up on its plan to try the alleged 9/11 terrorists at the federal courthouse in Foley Square. The Mayor, the Governor, Police Commissioner Kelly and other New York officials had warned that the cost and disruption to the city would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

    "I think I can acknowledge the obvious," an administration official said. "We’re considering other options."

    But now ---an apparent reversal. President Obama told CBS, on having the trial here: "I have not ruled it out but I think it is important for us to take into account the practical logistical issues involved.

    "If you have a city that is saying no, and a police department that is saying no and a mayor that is saying no, that makes it difficult." But then, he added: "We have not ruled out anything---we will make a definitive judgment based on consultations with all the relevant authorities."

    The headlines on Google point up the contrasting White House positions: first, January 30, "U.S. Drops Plan for a 9/11 Trial in New York City." Then, on February 7: "Obama Does Not Rule Out 9/11 Trial."

    So what’s going on? Jan Lee, whose family has lived in Chinatown for three generations, had to move his furniture business to Brooklyn because of the street closings and disruption after 9/11. Lee is part of the Chinatown Residents Coalition that’s protesting holding the trial here. He told me:

    "This trial would absolutely destroy the neighborhood. The lockdown of key streets would force more businesses to close and residents to leave. "

    Lee gave credit to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for warning community leaders that the trial might still be held here. "He told us, when we met with him after the first story appeared, that we shouldn’t celebrate yet," Lee said. "Mr. Silver said the plan to hold the trial here isn’t dead yet."

    Silver, a son of the lower east side, knows his neighborhood and knows the ways of politicians in Albany and Washington.

    It would seem the people in the White House are paying no attention to the lives of the people who live in this dense neighborhood of narrow streets and heavy traffic.

    It would be ironic indeed if, in trying the men accused of carrying out the 9/11 plot, we steamrollered over the lives and livelihoods of many of the 250,000 people who live in the area from Canal Street to Brooklyn Bridge, from Broadway to Madison Street. This is what the police call the "soft zone" -- and it’s most vulnerable to new disruption.

    A prolonged trial here, says Lee, would "absolutely kill this neighborhood and leave a shell. Developers would take over eventually and build luxury housing and big box stores."

    Anna Goldstein, who has lived with her family in Chatham Towers near the courthouse for 25 years, told me: "President Obama and Attorney General Holder seem to have blinders on."

    The neighborhood’s new councilwoman, Margaret Chin, says: "We’re very upset. If a trial is held, it’s going to be like living in a prison."

    It would be tragic if, in the name of justice, we do a monumental injustice to the people of Chinatown, and this entire city.