November 4, 2012 | Mandarin
Chinatown, Day Two
Brandt and I did more volunteering in Chinatown.
Yesterday Brandt and I volunteered through the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) for an afternoon shift of supplies distribution at Confucius Plaza, which is, according to Wikipedia, “the first major public-funded housing project built for almost exclusively Chinese Americans.”
The building is in Chinatown in Manhattan, and it is stark and tall.
When we arrived, there were probably a couple dozen volunteers, some National Guard troops, police trucks, and general chaos. We did not see anyone from NYCHA, but we did find people from the non-profit New York Cares, so we worked with them instead.
Confucius Plaza in the Distance
Supplies and Volunteers Arriving at Confucius Plaza
A woman was assigning volunteers to blocks in the area where they wanted residents to be checked on. By that I mean door-to-door visits, where you would knock on each apartment door in each apartment building, ask the people home if they were okay, if they had water, power, heat, food, etc., and then record any needs to be addressed later.
We went in a group of eight to an area bounded by Rutgers Street, Henry Street, the Manhattan Bridge, and East Broadway. This was an area I don’t remember ever seeing before, and I was amazed to realize Chinatown reached so far into this part of Manhattan. Chinatown is much bigger than I knew!
Henry Street, Where We Began
Volunteers in a Henry Street Building
We went four to a building, divvying up the floors, knocking on apartments one by one, always working in pairs.
Getting into buildings was not always easy. Sometimes we had to wait on the sidewalk for a tenant to show up and open the front door, and then we would trail into the building after him or her. Originally I was going to pair up with Brandt, but then someone in our group suggested that maybe we should have a Chinese speaker in each pair.
Questions to Ask Residents
As it turned out, we had in our group four people who didn’t speak Chinese and four people who did. I paired up with a guy named Wayne, and Brandt paired up with Wayne’s girlfriend, Sandy (yep, that was her name). If Brandt and I hadn’t done this, I realized, we would have been very ineffective.
Brandt is 6’6”. Although he looks—and is—friendly, I just don’t know that he is the ideal guy to have going door to door in New York City if you want people to actually open the door.
And two white people, not able to speak Chinese, knocking on mostly Chinese strangers’ doors: not a good strategy to get information about basic needs.
By yesterday, all I had going for me Chinese-wise was a couple of Chinese Pimsleur lessons. To be honest, all I really had was the same 30-minute lesson done twice. This had not been a good few days for studying. Fortunately, though, I had Wayne.
View Under Manhattan Bridge
Wayne, who came to the U.S. as a small child, speaks Cantonese. At each apartment where an adult tenant answered the door, Wayne would start out speaking in Cantonese, but if a child answered, he would automatically opt for English.
This worked most of the time, but sometimes when he tried Cantonese with the adults, he would be met with confusion. In such cases, he would call for Sandy, who speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin, to come help.
Between Wayne and Sandy, all language situations were covered.
I am not used to being the person with no language skills. It is not a position I enjoy being in. It was humbling. I felt impotent.
A Hallway in a Chinatown Apartment Building
There were many apartments where heat was still off. People opened their doors wearing coats. Quite a few apartments also had no phone service.
However, very few people still needed water or food. I wrote all of the needs down on a list that I later gave to the volunteer organizer, and the idea was that someone would go back and fill those needs later.
Most of the buildings we entered were five- or six-floor walkups. The public spaces were not clean, though I couldn’t tell how much of this was standard and how much was because services had come to a halt because of the storm and the power outage.
The buildings often had very narrow hallways, with poor lighting, and some were among the more run-down buildings I’ve been in during my 22 years in New York. A few of the apartments were absolutely crammed full of stuff. I noticed rows of spam in one. But there were also cheerful-looking decorations on quite a few of the apartments’ front doors.
Residents ranged from perplexed about our presence to appreciative to frightened. On the whole they seemed very happy to have power. I didn’t see one apartment without electricity.
I am not in the end sure our efforts were useful. We were a little late—power had gone on the night before—and a little low on actual resources.
For example, they actually ran out of food back at the distribution area at Confucius Plaza. They still had water, though, so after we returned to hand in our list of tenants in need, Brandt and I tried to go back to two apartments in two different buildings on Henry Street to bring residents the water they had requested. One of them had been elderly and walked with difficulty.
A Chinatown Street
P.S. 124, the Yung Wing Public School
Low Mortgage Rates, in Chinese
Meat Market, 57 Bayard Street
Window of a Chinatown Restaurant
A Large Häagen-Dazs Shop, with Chinese
Another Street View, Forgot Which (Sorry)
The problem was, it was by then around 5 p.m., and there was less traffic going in and out of the buildings, and thus, we found, there was no way for us to get in.
Like, really no way. I realized that there were not even buzzers with an intercom on either of these buildings. No possibility of reaching the residents inside.
On our way to the Brooklyn Bridge subway station, where the number 6 trains had just started running again, we passed through a park whose name I failed to note. We observed multiple groups of men crowded around multiple tables, and I thought I saw what resembled checkers pieces.
The attention being directed at whatever was in the middle of the crowds was intense.
A Chinatown Park
What Are They Doing?
What was so riveting?
In the end, the volunteering situation was chaotic, as such things often are after a disaster. There was duplication of efforts, a shortage of information, a shortage of printed materials—and it appears that the NYCHA person never showed up during our shift. The National Guard, we were told, left after multiple people went through the line for emergency supplies more than once.
There was, however, a lot of good will, and I hope something of what we did yesterday was actually helpful. I can say that I found Chinatown amazing and surprising, and I can’t wait to spend more time there.