STRIVING TO UNITE CHINATOWN

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For decades, community organizations have flourished in Chinatown but rarely presented a united front. Now, there is a new attempt to remove the divisions. Although local residents are not sure it will work, the plan has been well received by government agencies and private foundations.

The new entity, known as the Chinatown Local Development Corporation, was set up by Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) as part of its post-9/11 Rebuilding Chinatown Initiative. The LDC is designed to obtain government funds for efforts like sidewalk renovation and tourism promotion. In the past six months, AAFE has recruited representatives from roughly two dozen community groups and businesses to participate in the LDC, though board members have yet to be chosen, explained Robert Weber, director of policy development of AAFE, who is overseeing the initiative.

The idea excites many who have worked in the area. “Chinatown is particularly in need of a centralized entity which has the knowledge and the authority to represent the community,” said Carol Kellermann, executive director of the September 11th Fund. Kellermann said similar coalitions, such as the Downtown Alliance and the Harlem Empowerment Zone, exist in other neighborhoods, but in Chinatown, the lack of unity has made it hard to determine the community’s priorities.

Last year, for example, Kellerman’s group and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation jointly allocated a $2 million grant to help to promote tourism in Chinatown. While the grant makers hoped Chinatown groups would come together and make one request, they actually received 20 from different organizations and had to create an advisory committee to deal with the situation.

Inside Chinatown, few people question the need for greater coordination. But many still remember the failures of previous attempts to unite the community, including the defeat of all three Chinese candidates in the district’s 2001 city council elections and the stillborn attempts to get a Business Improvement District in Chinatown. “A unique aspect of the Chinese community is that people are from different parts of China, Taiwan, as well as other Asian countries. They all have different opinions,” said Tony Liu, the president of TORO Associates, whose work includes writing grant proposals for nonprofits in Chinatown. “As far as I can tell, there is no one organization with the power or charisma to pull everybody together.”

Some major nonprofits, including the Chinese-American Planning Council and Asian American Federation, have yet to join the LDC, prompting questions about its future. “It is important that different groups work cooperatively. But the situation of Chinatown politics make it difficult,” said Cao O, executive director of the Asian American Federation, who said he was invited to join the board of the LDC, but hasn’t decided if he will accept.

“There are big challenges to bringing people together. But there is also the strong desire. We are confident,” said Weber of AAFE. The LDC, which is still working out its governance structure, expects to be able to receive funding as a registered nonprofit organization by the end of the year.