Solving urban ‘riddles’

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Wellington Chen of the Chinatown Partnership focuses on the challenges facing his community


  • Photo: Anne Kristoff

Wellington Chen sits on the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s the recipient of the New York Post’s Liberty Medal for Freedom. And he has worked with revered architect I.M. Pei. So you may be surprised at what he feels is his biggest accomplishment as Executive Director of the Chinatown Partnership, a position he’s held for the past decade.

“Believe it or not, it’s something very small,” he said. “During one of our Weekend Walks — you take away the cars for a few hours, you put carpeting, chairs, tables, tents, and you hand out goodies, you have raffle prizes, showcases — a little girl from Chinatown learned to ride a bike. So, little things like that. That girl will never forget that she learned to ride a bike in an alley of Chinatown.”

Chinatown Partnership was created by the 9/11 Fund and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to help have accountability and transparency in making sure the funds meant for Chinatown are properly spent. Chen was the first employee and help build it from the ground up using a combination of education, information outreach, and relationship-building with everyone from the American Legion to the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and its “unofficial mayor of Chinatown” and non-Asian members of the community. The Chinatown Partnership handles issues including clean streets, graffiti removal and infrastructure.

Chen specializes in rescuing or resuscitating troubled towns or centers. Solving the riddle of how to fix things is his passion. “It’s like the Egyptian Sphinx,” he said. “There’s a riddle in front of you. To get past me you have to solve the riddle. If not, you die. So, I hope before I die I will solve the riddle.”

The riddle of Flushing is what first got his attention. During his last year of architecture school his neighborhood started sputtering (homelessness, panhandling, methadone clinics, prostitution, high vacancy). So he got involved and helped create the Flushing BID.

Manhattan’s Chinatown hardly seems to be sputtering, but the community is vulnerable and faces the same problems as the 16 other Chinatowns across the country — aging population, less relevance, the need to adapt to change and the question of how to get children to return.

“It’s not a failure story,” Chen said. “No one thinks that after you get your college degree you’re coming back to take over the pasta store or the noodle shop. That has never been the gold bar standard.”

So all of those challenges make up the riddle. The answer lies in adaptability and inclusion. Chen is grateful to neighboring ethnic groups — like the Little Italy Restoration Association, which went through similar struggles — that generously share insights and information.

“Thank God we have a little bit of ingredients here that are slightly different and we have a fighting chance,” he said. “Chinatown will be here because of the nature of some of its structure. But it’s a tough fight.”

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