Wellington Chen

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Chinatown was hurt during Hurricane Sandy, with many non-English speaking elderly stranded in high rises without water, lights, heat, or elevators. A Bloomberg News photo essay provides a glimpse of the days right after the storm. Because so many city workers were themselves stranded in their own neighborhoods, it took more time for outside relief to reach some buildings; volunteer organizations and local officials became first responders. Among those helping to coordinate the response was Wellington Chen, Executive Director of Chinatown Partnership, a nonprofit that serves the people and businesses in Chinatown. 

In May of 2016, City Atlas led an MAS Jane’s Walk on sea level, and a few dozen very engaged and thoughtful New Yorkers found the tour through the walk listings, including Mr. Chen. Recently, Angie Koo followed up to interview Wellington at his office in the center of Chinatown, to hear more about his experiences during Sandy and his thoughts on what to do next, as projections for the city become more challenging.

What motivated you to come to City Atlas’s sea level Jane’s Walk?

During Sandy, [our office] was like a command center for our local Council Member, Margaret Chin, and as well as the state. The state insurance department was here and the governor’s office had the relief center. SBA (Small Business Administration) was in our basement where they took applications for their emergency relief fund. 

I’m very proud to say that before this, in 2010, we had multiple workshops and we gave away 300 Red Cross Go Bags. This was two years before Sandy. When I started here, one of the first things I did was ask, “Where is our emergency evacuation center?” That was out of instinct because I knew that the storm that Long Island had in 1938 comes in 70-year cycles. So by 2009, it’s getting close. I reached out to Red Cross and I said let’s do an emergency workshop.

We planned for 2010, and right on 2010—you see this glass window, it turned frosted white. It was a horizontal rain. You know how architects have this glass you can flick on a switch, and it becomes totally frosted like in bathrooms that are totally transparent? I thought I was seeing things.

That was the week where the storm ripped off a roof off of Queens’ College, and ripped up a lot of trees in Flushing. Since then you have had a series of fires. This corner building burned, this corner building burned, that burned. We had an earthquake in Virginia that we felt all the way up here; the ceiling was shaking. All my staff went out the door.

From the Red Cross emergency workshop, the great takeaways were two things: One was that there are a quarter million incidences a year and guess what the most common problem is? What happened in the news in Texas?


Yes, the most common emergency out of the quarter million around the world, not just here, is flooding. That’s why I started looking at OEM (Office of Emergency Management), emergency evacuation routes, and where the nearest evacuation center is. They said Seward Park High School. I asked, “How many people can you accommodate?” They said 7000. Seward Park High School cannot accommodate 7000 but even if it could, it is not adequate for Lower Manhattan. The nearest one is Baruch College, on 23rd street. That’s very far from here and any time it rains—within four inches—the MTA shuts down. I look at them and say, “We’ve got to be kidding.”

People don’t respect history. In 1832, the Hudson River met up with the East River south of Canal Street. Also, my interest is because I was involved in the Blue Way, which is the sea shoreway workshop. We were talking about how we used to have a million oysters here to buffer the storm. All the environmental pollution and all of that—we’re very good at messing up the ability of the Earth. Mother Nature has no mercy. She’ll reclaim what is hers. This is something that we should be very careful about.

Also on top of that, I’m part of the committee on New York Rising, which is asking, post-Sandy, how are you going to help evacuate people, what are the mitigation plans you should plan for the future, and that type of thing.

So all of these things contributed to why I went to the weekend Jane’s Walk. I was surprised to see that many people.

What happened to Chinatown during Sandy?

Chinatown, I always say, is a walking wounded patient. Almost like someone who has internal bleeding that you couldn’t tell on the outside. He looks fine, there’s no outward sign of problem: He’s not bleeding on the outside, but he’s bleeding on the inside. That’s the most dangerous. Chinatown is further in, so we don’t have the debris, we don’t have the water flood line directly into Chinatown, but the damage was done. The seafood stores lost all their lobsters, all their shrimp, all their clams, and all the conch. We lost power. The command center I was talking about, we were operating in the dark without electricity, without heat. We helped to go up to the National Guard to get water on 23rd Street at the Armory. We helped to pass out meals. We raised almost $80,000 and immediately gave it out to 80 merchants, within a matter of 2 weeks. That was very meaningful. But the paperwork was so arduous that to this day many people never got any help.

[Terse descriptions of the storm’s impact in Chinatown are listed in a local Community Board report: “Sandy: Lessons Learned“]

Is there still ongoing work being done, whether it’s recovery or support for damages?

This is the part that people will appreciate: The infrastructure is much more important than the one-time gift. We gave you a one-time gift, it didn’t even cover the rent. It was more of a psychological boost that we are in solidarity with you, together with Councilwoman Margaret Chin. Margaret was operating in the dark, even during Sandy, she slid into a police and cruiser and there’s a famous photograph of her talking on the radio.

I was standing next to her at the time. Margaret basically spoke in bilingual languages, reassuring the public that help is coming, the food is on its way, the water is on its way, just stay in line. People were extremely well-behaved. They formed an inverted L on both sides, 600 people in the dark and there was no sound. People were just standing quietly in line. It is a credit to everyone involved—the public, the housing tenants that believed in us, the National Guard, the elected officials like Margaret Chin. One thing good about Sandy is it showed how much we are in it together. If Mother Nature wants to reclaim what is rightfully hers…

You mentioned evacuation routes and emergency management during Sandy. Since then, have these measures improved four years after Sandy?

I think the city has made improvements and so has the state because it has raised the level of awareness much higher than when I gave the Red Cross Go bags in 2010.

Back then, I had people come in from Brooklyn, Queens and I think the Bronx, as well, because that week [in 2010] was the hail storm. People were hit and were for the first time, aware. Not too long after that, the earthquake from Virginia rumbled up here. Then you have tropical storm Irene, which was basically a hurricane that turned into a tropical storm the minute it hit the shore. So we were involved in Irene, going door to door at the Smith Houses, the public houses, knocking on doors of the tenants. The trilingual team—Spanish, Chinese, English—knocked on every door.

That’s when you realize this is not going to be adequate. There are seniors, there are people on wheelchairs, and there are people that are handicapped that cannot leave their apartment because even if you have a shelter, it is worse than what they have at home. So they will prepare to shelter in place in spite of all the pleading from us. We said, “There will be no power tonight, you know that right?” They said, “We know.” Just like in Louisiana with Katrina and everyplace else, there are always people that are not able to leave psychologically or physically.

So to answer whether it got better: yes. Just the amount of Go bags that got distributed by the state and the city in the last few years is quite a sign. We also recognize now it is not just a one entity effort. Now it is about how we can collaborate, how we can share resources, and how we can share information. That is a work in progress for us as the Jane’s Walk on sea water rise demonstrates, it is a massive area and it is not just a localized problem. It is a regional and global problem.

The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance released their analysis of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC this past April. In reference to the evacuation routes and zones, they said that there is a lack of specificity and preparedness on the local level. What are your thoughts on that?

Right. That’s something that we have to work on and obviously, it’s not that people don’t know. People know Seward Park. It just needs to be more in-depth. You cannot have all the blood flow to one clot, one area. You cannot expect a quarter million people or more to fit into a few thousand room shelters. It becomes very clear to me that it is about sharing, building up an infrastructure of support. That is the key for the future.

Similar to the radioactive bomb shelter plans of the 1950s and 1960s, you could scatter storage of food, emergency supplies, and water throughout the city so that there’s enough rationing to share. You need local community to coordinate because not one organization has all the resources. It is also not just a government issue. It is about public/private partnership because the government doesn’t have that kind of budget.

Sea level rise is inevitable. We can debate about how many meters it is going to be but it is going to happen. In light of that and where Lower Manhattan is, does it make sense for people to keep developing here and staying here? There are people like Klaus Jacob who are fans of strategic relocation, instead.

There’s no right way or wrong way. It really depends on the situation and the location. It is easy for us to say, “do strategic relocation,” but it is really difficult for people that are either emotionally attached, financially attached, or physically attached to that place. You just have to look at the past. How many storms have hit Long Island beaches and how many houses keep on rebuilding along the shore? For some of those along the beaches, it makes sense for them to do a strategic retreat. If you know the water is going to come to this level, you might start building to the back, start going away from the water. But for the people that are already enjoying the sea shore view, as long as their insurance policy and their federal emergency keeps allowing them to rebuild, they will.

In terms of Lower Manhattan, it is harder because you have such rich history down here.

Humankind has tended to fill in the harbors. We like to fill them in and gradually each city now is becoming like Kobe in Japan. They [city planners in Japan] recognize that it is a no-no because when an earthquake happens, there is liquefaction. The landfilled areas turn into mud and your first level becomes your basement because the building literally sinks into the mud. But in the meantime, with the rising water, limited land, and growing urban migration—you should look at the UN report of 2014, it talks about the urban migration and urbanization. In the 1950s, 30% of the world’s population lived in urban centers like this. Now it is more than half. In the future, it will be almost 70%. From 30% to 66%, almost 70%, in such a short time, there is intense competition for resources and for the land. So it is not as easy to say.

However, here is the question I throw back at you: During Sandy, most of Lower Manhattan flooded to pre-landfilled zone which is mostly whatever was filled in by man along to Pearl Street here. If you look up the original shoreline of New York City, mother nature reclaimed. There is one area that didn’t get reclaimed. Guess what that is? Battery Park City sea wall. 

[During the downtown blackout after Sandy] …People accused us of trying to cater to the wealthy. They asked why they have their lights on [in Battery Park City]. It is laughable.

They said, “You’re favoring the rich.”

“I only cover Chinatown. I don’t cover all of Lower Manhattan.”

“How come Wall Street had their lights on?”

What they meant was Battery Park City. The only reason their had lights on was because they have their own generators, they had a backup system. This is the partial answer to your question which is to say that Battery Park City is built on landfill and it had a seawall so it held during Sandy. So the question is do you prefer a strategic retreat or do you build it out to meet it? Battery Park City is built on landfill from the World Trade Center excavation, over one million cubic yards of land from digging the foundation for the Twin Towers, and they filled in the Hudson to create Battery Park City, and then they build a seawall around it.

It held. It has its own backup generator, it has its own infrastructure, it has its own master framework guidelines. All the naysayers at the time were saying “You will pollute the Hudson, you will kill the fish, you will destroy the environment.” Then 40 years after that, they gave a gold medal to the regional designer that conceived the idea because that million cubic yards of debris would have gone to the landfill and instead it got put to use in that location and it held during one of the greatest storms in the last 100 years. There’s no right answer. There’s no wrong answer. It’s really specific locale. Do I encourage you to rebuild Sandy beaches of Long Island? No, you can easily retreat further back and you can avoid the costs. But you incentivize them to keep building because you have the view, the federal government keeps on wanting to pay for it, so you will rebuild your house a couple of times.

The past few years have been relatively quiet for New York City in terms of extreme weather. How have residents and business owners in Chinatown talked to you about climate change? Has that ever come up? Or do they consider Sandy more as a one time event?

It’s an interesting question. I must say, you know how people adjust to a blow? They think it’s a storm of the century and it passes, and it’s back to business as usual.They go back to their old ways. Occasionally one or two of my volunteers will talk about how during Sandy, how we used to do things. But there has not been any discussion other than the work that I mentioned in New York Rising with a couple of leaders from Lower Manhattan and the Councilman’s Office about how we should prepare for the future. There were some elected officials like Gale Brewer that talk about where the emergency center should be located—like this building [Chinatown Partnership] should be a perfect communication center; we are on the second floor now so water level will have to be even higher to reach us.

During Sandy, was there mention of climate change or again, did people see it as an individual event?

In the last few years it has become very clear that something is wrong with the climate, at least for us. To the average folks on the ground, I don’t think it’s very prominent in their minds unless you happen to go to Alaska and you gawk at the glaciers that are now melting en masse. What is more alarming is the underneath melting that you don’t see, the melting internally. That’s why the water pattern is changing around the world.

People do not realize the magnitude of and how rapidly this melting is occurring. It is quite alarming.. I thought the same way too even though I’m keeping an eye on this, “Oh what’s the big deal? Sea rises only an inch a decade. It will take many years to get to that.” I know Upper Manhattan and Bronx have cliffs and bluffs so you’re fine. But in Lower Manhattan, you face the Atlantic and especially, Staten Island and Brooklyn and the south shore of Long Island, you face the full brunt of the Atlantic. [The rate of sea level rise is accelerating as the oceans warm. See more detailed information for New York in a talk from Klaus Jacob.] 

NYC Council Member Margaret Chin provided Chinese language info on food and water (Ph: K Heinemann/Bloomberg)

As a result of that, what can we do and what needs to be done to make people aware of the situation and take action, both in New York City as a whole and in Chinatown?

This is where we really need to take a much higher view. This is the time that you have to think strategically about a multi-prong approach—a short-term plan and a gradual, incremental plan over the years and decades to come. How much are we prepared to invest in this long-term infrastructure? It is clear there needs to be a new infrastructure support, both at where you meet the sea as well as inland because the water is going to continue to come in—what happens to your power grid, what happens to your emergency response system, your communication system, your food supply system, your water system, your transportation network? All of this has to be looked at in a very holistic way, but you have to do it in a realistic manner. On the local level for us, it is very clear. We have to start equipping the local centers with communication capabilities.

I want to get back to your question about the criticism about localized response. The thing that struck us was during post-Sandy when Red Cross sent in their teams from the West Coast, they don’t even know which way Mulberry Street is. I had to give them directions.

Historically, we’ve been going about it wrong. What happened locally in Katrina? You found volunteers from outside to go into Louisiana who do not know how to deal with the local conditions and who you’re trying to help. Whereas the guy that has been there—the local block-watcher that has been dealing with the people for ages—those are the resources we should tap into. They can best direct us and say so-and-so lives up on the third floor and she needs water right away, she’s diabetic, you guys better get out there. That’s one thing.

The other thing is, to this day with Katrina, there are certain people that never got any help. [The bureaucracy] has got to change because if you’re going to continue to create this red tape monster and not recognize time is of the essence and there’s a sense of urgency to it, that is to me the glaring fault. If you look at all the emergencies that we’ve had, the number one thing is I filed all the paperwork. People came in here and filed their paperwork. How many of them got their grants? How many people got their loans? Very few. That’s why they’re now ramping up and saying we have money to give away. Why did you reject them in the first place? Why do we need to raise the 80,000 dollars if you are fast enough? Because when people are needing the most, you [messed up].

So it’s not just about the physical infrastructure, it’s really that the process needs to be looked at. Which is to say, FEMA, is this how you are going to handle the future storm? Is this how you are going to coordinate with the emergency responders? To say you are going to have to wait, wait, wait? Who says you have to wait?

Is it important to engage the people who live here to inform and make them aware about climate change? Is education needed?

There’s no question that massive education is needed. [As discussed on the sea level walk], if 300 million people in India have no electricity and they want their iPads, iPhones, they’re going to build their power plants based on coal like China because that’s plentiful and easy.

The rest of the world now knows this. We keep on burning. In the US, we’re 320 million people of the six billion on earth. [5% of the world’s population.] We use up 25% of the world’s resources. We need to make people understand that you cannot keep on doing this.

Gradually we need to go back to the old design that is not all these sealed windows and relying on air conditioning like we’re doing now. In the old days, you had high ceilings, you had transoms that pop open and the air can circulate, you had high porches because the air circulates underneath your house, or you do it like in the Middle East where you have very light materials and have marble and stone material that can deflect the heat and keep you cool. Design techniques that minimize our dependency on fossil fuels.

To follow that, how can New York City be a leader in moving towards ideally a zero carbon economy, not just from government action, but from choices as individuals?

Not being doom-and-gloom. This city should be very proud that it has residences on the island of Manhattan where 76% of people do not own cars. It is one of the greenest footprints in North America.

That comes back to the infrastructure support. Why should we depend on fossil fuel to drive a few miles when in fact the subway system demonstrated very well during Sandy how critical it was? After Sandy when the subway was not running, they were trying to block cars from coming in. Why? Because this island can only absorb one million cars coming in and there’s already massive gridlock. Now, what the subway carries every day is five or six million. That’s a good example of why this island is ahead of its time.

We have our water from upstate and it comes not mechanically but with just a quarter-inch of a pitch to every foot. It is carried by gravity and is one of the freshest water supplies. We learned from the Romans, the infrastructure we use to bring water all the way from upstate down to New York City to feed the millions. That’s why the third water tunnel is so important to us.

The balance of Central Park, having the lungs of the city, so we can have a breathing space and fresh air and oxygen—in a way, Battery Park City does that too. Imagine everyone in Battery Park City has to drive a car. Imagine everyone in Battery Park City lives on the seashore with an individual house and has to rebuild each one of them. You may want to vertically stack them up and preserve the ocean, preserve the oysters, and preserve the marshes so you don’t have to keep on destroying your buffer zone.

This country is blessed with vast territory and we are spoiled. The European and Asian countries don’t have this kind of luxury. They deal with much smaller footprints. They deal with much higher density. Even Detroit now is finding out they cannot support the logistical line. If your house catches on fire [in Detroit], they don’t have a fire truck to go out three miles to put out your fire. You better move into the city ring.

That is why I talked about urbanization, besides the water crisis and climate change, it is one of the looming issues that we have to deal with: can we get along?

You’ve worked as an architect and a developer, and now run a business district and serve on boards of New York institutions. How did you come to be involved in civic leadership?

When I went to school, the school was called the School of Environmental Studies and Architecture. We were raised to be aware that buildings should not be designed with four identical facades because North versus South should have different fenestration patterns. You can have passive solar, you can have thermal walls, you can have all kinds of techniques just addressing the local issues. That was before the oil prices, that was before all of these things. It was a very progressive school with teachers teaching at both Columbia University and City College.

So it’s not so much that I’m a developer as I have been in the trenches all these years. I tried to advocate for public policy and realized that public policy matters to the greatest extent because to design individual buildings, at the end of the day, it is only one address. Whereas a greater understanding, a white paper that can influence public policy, has much greater impact than anything else you can ask for. Also I came to realize the real consequences of what not to do.

Architecture is extremely good training, it shows you how to analyze the problem and assemble an arsenal of tools and possible solutions in response. You then can come up with 15 different options. We benefited from people’s past models that did not deliver their full potential and therefore, we can adjust to a new way of designing and preparing for things.

There are benefits to urbanization, but at the same time, people often criticize the MTA and other aspects of city life. Is there a way to change that narrative?

Here are a couple of facts you can consider. I get on the subway every morning. I transfer in the packed cars. I bring my reading materials or my laptop to work on the subway. That productivity gained is not something I can get from driving in my car. Also, my footprint is a lot smaller. I’m sitting in a massive car with thousands and thousands of people. Whereas if I drive with fossil fuel, that’s three or four thousand pounds of material only transporting one or two individuals even if I get somebody to carpool with me, which often does not happen. From a carbon footprint point-of-view, you have a choice.

The incentives are in the wrong place then.

Right, that’s why I say that people are not even aware of their choices. They think that, “Hey, I have the birthright to drive in a four-by-four that gets 10 miles to the gallon, or if it’s a Humvee it’s eight miles to the gallon.” That’s dinosaur fuel and you’re only paying $2.50 for it? If I go to the Museum of Natural History and say this belongs to the dinosaur and I’m selling it for $2.50 a gallon…you can also see our pricing structure is also wrong.

By the way, that’s a one-time deal. After you use it, it doesn’t regenerate by itself unless you want to grow another breed of dinosaurs and have them turn into fossil fuel. Or you want to cause earthquakes? Sure, do fracking. Go and cause all kinds of earthquakes that never happened before. You’re really shaking things up. Have your car and have some rumbling on the ground. For those who want to drive, go into the rumbling ground. We’ll do fracking in your backyard. That’s why cities [around the world] subsidize a transit system.

There are consequences to our choices; don’t forget that automobiles didn’t exist too long ago. Just the plastic bag came into wide use in the late 1980s. When I was growing up there were no plastic bags and now people say they cannot live without them.

Photo of NYC Council Member Chin providing Chinese language information on food distribution, via a police car loudspeaker, taken by K Heinemann/Bloomberg