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Living with 9/11: The politician

Margaret Chin remembers the morning of 11 September 2001 vividly. It was election day and she was standing for nomination as the Democratic candidate to represent Lower Manhattan on the city council.

She awoke at 5am and went to vote for herself at the polling station around the corner from her apartment, in Trinity Street close to the World Trade Centre. Then she took a cab to Chinatown, passing the twin towers. Shortly after she arrived at the polling station in Chinatown where she was on duty, there was a loud boom. The first plane had struck. “We thought a big truck had blown a tyre. Then people started walking up from Ground Zero and arriving where we were, covered in white dust.”

Later, she managed to find a way back to her apartment, only to find it covered in that same white dust. “We had left the windows open that morning — it was such a beautiful day. It was just surreal. What had happened?”

For the past 10 years, Chin has tried hard to answer that question, working on a local level in Chinatown and around the vicinity of the World Trade Centre to try and help the area and its residents recover as quickly as possible. Through her eyes, you see 9/11 not so much as an international catastrophe as a catastrophe for neighbourhood people, of jobs lost, homes destroyed, lives disrupted.

“In Chinatown a lot of jobs were lost because for months they were blocked off in the frozen zone. You couldn’t get supplies in and out.” Tourism to Chinatown also vanished overnight. Everyday life became a toil, because the streets were blockaded and tightened security made movement almost impossible.

Chin came to New York from China when she was nine, and grew up in Chinatown before moving to Hanover Square, a short walk from Ground Zero, where she still lives, overlooking the memorial gardens for the Britons who died on 9/11.

The primary election due to take place that day was postponed amid the chaos, then restaged two weeks later. She lost, though she still wonders whether the confusion that engulfed the city in those early post-9/11 moments may have cost her the race.

Ground Zero mosque
Instead, she used her energies for the next eight years working at Asian Americans For Equality — the charity where she was a director — trying to rebuild the community and ensure that people did not get forced out of their homes as developers moved in. It was not until 2009 that she finally succeeded at being elected to represent Lower Manhattan on the city council. Her work continues to be influenced heavily by 9/11. When the furore broke over the proposal to build a Muslim community centre a couple of blocks away from Ground Zero — the provocatively dubbed “Ground Zero mosque” — she supported it. “There was a mosque in the area already, and the project was for a cultural centre to bring the community together. Sad to see people pick on something they don’t want and blow it up.”

The health of local residents has been a preoccupation, her own included. She has suffered skin allergies and breathing difficulties. She has helped others to get federal funds for proper healthcare, though she is still fighting to have cancer recognised among the list of illnesses induced by 9/11. Chin says she comes across people every day who are still hurting in some form — physical or mental. But some positive elements have emerged from the disaster. There are now 56 000 people living in Lower Manhattan — twice as many as in 2001. “Now our biggest headache is that we need more schools,” she says, smiling. “Who would have thought that possible 10 years ago?” –

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