Saving the Ping Yuen for Chinatown!

By Rev. Norman Fong

November 27, 2017

As a little kid, I remember going to the West Ping Yuen almost every day since most of my friends lived there. The Pings were Chinatown’s public housing. While in most other neighborhoods, growing up in public housing was looked down upon it was different back then in Chinatown. My family wasn’t so lucky to get in but we lived two blocks away with our extended family in a jammed packed apartment. . I was a bit envious of my friends who lived at the Pings because so many of them had their own bedrooms. The Ping’s are the best family housing in Chinatown with 1, 2, 3 & even 4 bedrooms and rents are subsidized!

It was kind of cool to grow up in an all Chinese American neighborhood. However, if you turned on your black and white TV at night, you knew that the world was different. It was because of “segregation” that the Chinese had to live concentrated together in and around Chinatown.

As a teenager, I hung out with my friends at 880 Pacific which was right next to the North Ping Yuen. It was a martial arts club, but also a “hang out” place for us. We called ourselves “The 880 Boys”. When the area got rough in the ‘60’s and racist fights often took place, the 880 Boys had to fight to protect our friends in the community (but that’s another story).

The Ping Yuen projects were federally-funded government housing created in the early 1950s. which the community fought for better housing back in the 1940’s. Living conditions in Chinatown were so bad then that Eleanor Roosevelt, after taking a tour of the community, helped push her husband – President Roosevelt to give Chinatown the Pings but it had to be “segregated for the Chinese” with preference to Chinese American Veterans.

Over the decades the conditions at the Pings deteriorated. Years of budget cuts and neglectful management left the buildings in horrible conditions. In response, tenants like George and Chang Jok Lee organized leading to the famous 1978 rent strike which led to basic improvements. Without the tireless all volunteer efforts of the Ping Yuen Resident Improvement Association, conditions would have been far worse. But the failure of Washington DC over the past twenty years to adequately reinvest in public housing meant all public housing inevitably began to fall apart.

ping yuen

ping yuen

In recent years, the Pings elevators regularly failed, forcing elderly people to climb four, five, and even eight stories of stairs to get to their apartment. My friend & school mate died in an elevator in the Pings because he tried to climb out when it got stuck. Parts of the plumbing was literally held together by duct tape. Leaking roofs left apartments abandoned.

It was because of those conditions that in 2014, Mayor Ed Lee asked nonprofit housing organizations to step forward to take over responsibility for upgrading and maintaining over half of the public housing in the City. Along with many others at CCDC, I felt a personal responsibility to step forward and make the Pings a safe place for families and seniors.

Today, Chinatown Community Development Center is midway in our effort to renovating the Pings and two nearby senior projects... It has been a massive project for CCDC. Conditions were worse than anyone anticipated. Two buildings were at risk of total collapse in the next earthquake. In one building there was no operating fire alarm system. As a result of the size of what the work has meant, we have to temporarily move the residents out (and finding relocation sites is not easy in San Francisco)!

In the long run, as difficult as the project is, CCDC has chosen to “save the Ping Yuen housing“ for the Chinatown community. Most of Chinatown’s housing is tiny SRO rooms and some small apartments. The Ping Yuen buildings however have 2, 3 & 4 bedroom apartments! Great for families! We plan to keep them affordable forever. It’s going to take us a couple more years to fully complete the renovations of all the Pings, but the West Ping Yuen, 895 Pacific, is practically finished. I plan to bring my friends who grew up in the old Ping Yuen to come down to Chinatown to see what we’ve done.

It takes a lot of work to rebuild “old Housing” and some of the residents may not be happy with all the changes and the inconveniences, but for Chinatown’s future, this work is priceless. We have also raised funds to build a “New Community Center” inside the Pings where we hope to build positive relationships in the Pings. We want all the diverse residents of the Pings to live up to the name of the “Ping Yuen” which means “Peaceful Gardens”. We want to build what Dr. King called: “The Beloved Community” (where all people can get along).

ping yuen

Thanks goes also to the Ping Yuen Residents Improvement Association (PYRIA) who have supported Chinatown CDC through these difficult “construction” times, but by the end of it all Chinatown will be a stronger, more resilient neighborhood.

The late Phil Choy (historian) has said: “Chinatown would not be Chinatown without the people living there”. We are preserving a great housing development that will allow the people to continue to live in Chinatown for generations to come.

Originally published in Sing Tao Daily on November 26, 2017

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