Wellington Chen knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.
BY TRONE DOWD
The architect turned executive director of the Chinatown Partnership told the Queens Tribune that his upbringing gave him a unique insight into the fears that people have concerning the changes coming to development-heavy neighborhoods such as Flushing and Jamaica.
Born in Taiwan, Chen had a mobile childhood. His father traveled to numerous places for work and typically took his family along with him. Chen said that he moved to various locations all over the world.
“I was always the perpetual outsider,” Chen said. “I went to Brazil, South Africa, Hong Kong and, finally, the U.S.”
Chen recalled that as a kid and teenager, the constant change in environment wasn’t easy, but it helped him to see past the kind of comfort zone that often limits people. When he and his family finally settled in New York in the 1970s, 16-year-old Chen was surprised to see what had become of the historic neighborhood of Flushing.
“Flushing was in trouble. There were a series of issues,” Chen said. “Methadone clinics, vacancies on the northern end of Main Street and Northern Blvd, there was a flight to the suburbChen said that seeing the despair in Flushing turned his interest toward civic work. Although he would pursue a career in architecture and environmental studies after graduating from City College, his investment in his community pulled him towards public service.
Joining Community Board 7 in 1976, Chen became the first Asian-American to serve on the community board, working to better the environment, when so many had walked away from that task. As part of his work with the community board, he was among the many people behind the founding of the Flushing Fantastic. With the group, Chen helped to organize the successful Flushing Fantastic Street Fair of 1979, which was a gathering of like-minded people who hoped to change Flushing for the better by focusing on its diverse cultures and people.
“We closed down Main Street, from Stanford Avenue all the way to Northern Boulevard,” he recalled. “It was a sea of humanity. A quarter-million people showed up.”
This kind of engagement with the community taught him at an early age that Flushing was a place where things could change for the better.
He said that he is one of the guards of Flushing who ensures that development is done properly and not at the expense of the residents who have stuck it out in the neighborhood for years.
Having spent 13 years with the community board, Chen looks back on the period with great fondness.
“Being on the ground, being in the trenches taught me more than any school could teach me,” he said.
“Because you’re actually in the battlefield.”
Chen didn’t let that knowledge go to waste. In the years that followed, Chen accomplished numerous feats. He became the first Chinese-American to serve as a commissioner on the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals. He helped preserve and restore Flushing Town Hall. He co-founded Tri Plus Construction Corporation in 1989, a company dedicated to creating affordable housing in New York City. He has also been recognized for his work all over the city, winning many civic and community service awards, including the Freedom Medal, Vision and Planning Award to improve downtown Flushing and many others.
“I have spent many years wearing many hats as a designer, as a community person, an advocate, as a person who has put up buildings,” he said, calling the experience a blessing. “It’s a good exposure to how everybody thinks.”
He told the Queens Tribune he hopes that those who are opposed to the further development of Flushing change their opinion, as there are people who have the neighborhood’s best interests at heart.
“When you look around, we are all in this together,” he said. “Whether you’re Chinese, Korean, Japanese, doesn’t matter. I believe that’s what makes this such a great city. Everyone gets along.”