Chefs and restaurant owners have joined local Chinatown residents to demand that the city abandon plans to build the world’s tallest jail in the heart of the neighborhood — saying it threatens to become a “death knell” for local businesses, Side Dish has learned.
“The city needs to completely rethink the size and scale of the jail. We don’t want a repeat of Rikers Island. We want it small and controllable,” said Jan Lee, a third-generation local and co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal.
Lee – whose family is the landlord for Hop Kee, the 55-year-old, late-night Cantonese restaurant at 21 Mott that the late Anthony Bourdain called one of the city’s hidden gems – believes many restaurants will not survive the construction of the jail.
Indeed, Bo Ky and Jaya 888 – two eateries near the construction site where the Manhattan Detention Complex is being demolished to make way for the new mega-jail — have already closed.
Restaurants around Baxter Street are also seeing business impacted by noise and dust from the demolition site, Lee said, adding that “many of them are also reconsidering their future.”
As of June 2022, there were 168 full-service restaurants in Chinatown. Twenty-three of them are in a one block radius around the jail site at 124-125 White St.
“We are at this point at risk of losing Chinatown thanks to reduced foot traffic and tourism, and dramatically less business at night,” said wok whisperer Grace Young, a James Beard award-winning Chinese American cookbook author who recently hosted a dinner at Chinatown’s Hakka Cuisine to raise awareness of the issue.
“Since the pandemic, everything has been thrown at these poor small businesses in Chinatown,” Young said. “South of 96th St., this is the only neighborhood that still has 98% of all its businesses run as mom-and-pops.
More than a third of Chinatown’s 300 restaurants closed during the pandemic, said Wellington Chen, head of the Chinatown BID/Partnership. About 50 new restaurants have popped up since then, but many more may close because they still owe rent that they couldn’t pay during COVID lockdowns that hit Chinatown restaurants particularly hard.
The comeback also has been slow, he added, partly because of a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and, now, the demolition.
The 45-story, $2.3 billion “jailscraper” would be 350 feet high. Residents fear it would lead to an increased police presence and that other towers would follow.
Pot Luck Club chef/partner Zhan Chen, who grew up in the neighborhood and currently lives across the street from the Manhattan Detention Center, griped, “The quality of life has already been impacted by the demolition.”
Former Mayor Bill de Blasio approved plans to demolish Rikers Island jail in 2017 because of violence there and replace it with four borough based jails, including the world’s tallest — in Chinatown.
But the estimated $8.3 billion project is already significantly bigger in size and over budget. And building bigger jails, not smaller ones, defeats the purpose, activists say.
As a mayoral candidate, Eric Adams said he was against the Chinatown mega-jail but now he supports it. At a Town Hall meeting in Chinatown earlier this month, Lee asked Adams if the community could have a ‘seat at the table’ to determine the jail’s design. Adams agreed.
“I know of at least 20 businesses that have opened very bravely since COVID. These are families who have invested in everything from bubble tea to food and other businesses,” Lee said. “We need to give them a chance before throwing this jail into the mix, which is like cutting them off at the knees.”
Grace Lee, Assembly Member NY District 65, says Chinatown needs transparency from the city.
“We need to close Rikers Island which has long been a place of systemic injustice and abuse,” Grace Lee tells Side Dish. “We also ask the city to recognize and acknowledge the significant potential health and commercial impact that the jail will have on the surrounding Chinatown community, particularly during the demolition and construction.”
Montauk’s wellness obsessed Surf Lodge is known for its epic collaborations, from swag bags in each room to, this season, new Land Rover Defenders available to guests, with room for surfboards. Now there’s a vegan food collab with Hellmann’s and The Surf Lodge. Chef de Cuisine Jermain Edwards and the culinary experts at The Surf Lodge created vegan “lobster” rolls, made with Hellmann’s vegan, heart of palm, and horseradish, served with fries and Hellmann’s Garlic Aioli.
A zero-proof cocktail, Pep Step (Seedlip Grove 42, Mandari, Cardamon, Lime, and Orange Garnish) is recommended to pair with The Surf Lodge Vegan Lobster Roll. The rolls are served free on Sunday.
“Lobster rolls are a summer classic and one of our most popular menu items, said Jayma Cardoso, founder and creative director of The Surf Lodge. “As many of our guests are increasingly exploring plant-based options, we set out to re-imagine the lobster roll with a vegan twist.”
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