Writing

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Friends Work on Plan for RKO Future

Text and Photos by Weilun Soon.

An assignment for the Reporting and Writing class at the Columbia University Journalism School. This piece was later picked up by the Queens Tribune on December 3, 2009.

Recent news of investment firm Venator Capital attempting to take ownership of the RKO Keith Theater in Flushing is making preservation group Friends of the RKO Keith sit upright and swing into action to get the entire building landmarked.

“We want to preserve it, keep it in landmark status and try to make it into a performing arts center,” said Rick Gallo, co-organizer of the group. “Building a performing arts center would help preserve what’s there.”

Currently, only the lobby and the foyer in the building are landmarked, a designation granted in 1984 by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Friends of the RKO Keith is the latest group formed in response to a two decade-long impasse over the building’s future. Formed in March, the group now has close to 2,300 interested Facebook users on its page on the social networking site.

The group follows in the footsteps of Jerry Rotondi, a long-time Flushing resident who started fighting to preserve the theater 23 years ago. He managed to get the lobby landmarked. Rotondi had to cease his efforts prematurely, however.

“He had a lot of obstacles with Tommy Huang and some other people,” Gallo said, referring to the first developer to acquire the building in 1986.

If Friends of the RKO Keith succeed in getting the city to landmark the entire theater, any developer would have to adhere to the landmark commission’s guidelines on renovating the building.

The developer “is not going to have the freedom to tear it down and start building high-rise buildings,” said Gallo. “That’s not going to happen.”

Built in the 1920s, the theatre was used for movie screenings and was at times a high school graduation venue for Flushing High School, oftentimes a meeting venue for Flushing residents. Demand from moviegoers dropped by the 1970s, in part due to the changing demographic profile in Flushing.

Shortly after achieving landmark status in 1984, the theatre closed its doors, and has been plagued with troubles ever since. After acquiring the building, Huang let the building fall into disrepair for 15 years after his plans to build a mall in place of the building were rejected.

In 2002, Boymelgreen Developers purchased the building from Huang for $15 million. Through its land use review process, the city approved Community Board 7’s plans for several facilities to be built on-site. But to date Boymelgreen reportedly has incurred over $20 million in debt on the property.

In late October, it was reported that Venator Capital was trying to purchase the $20 million mortgage on the building from Doral Bank so that it could buy it from Boymelgreen.

When contacted, Venator CEO Sam Suzuki did not refute these reports, and said that he would not discuss his company’s plans for the building until a deal is reached.

But Venator’s move has ruffled Friends of the RKO Keith and its members.

“They refused to state what they may use the building for; that is causing much skepticism,” said Michael Perlman, Queens vice-president of the Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance Foundation, a nonprofit organization helping Friends of the RKO Keith in publicity and outreach. “The public does not want to see a repeat performance of Tommy Huang.”

Community Board 7 shares these concerns.

“We’re not involved in the negotiation process, but we hope whoever takes over the building will adhere to whatever we’ve approved,” said Marilyn Bitterman, district manager for the board.

These plans included 230 parking spots, a senior center and condominium apartments.

As for the Friends of the RKO Keith’s plans, Gallo said that his ground has been conducting a feasibility study to create a solid proposal to landmark the theater.

“We know one of the stairs is down, we want to build that back up,” said Gallo. “We definitely could do a performing arts center, the stage is still there. The seats are all gone, but I believe that could be easily replaced.”

The group hopes to publish the study by next April.

The group is also pursuing nonprofit status so it can fundraise for its efforts.

“If it’s feasible, then we’ll try to see if the community can buy it, so it’ll be owned and run by, basically, Flushing,” said Gallo.

To achieve this end, the group also hopes to receive grants from the National Register of Historic Places, which the theater has been under since 1982.

Where Rotondi has failed, Gallo believes his group will prevail. Nostalgia still lives in the hearts of those who frequented the theater, he said.

“With the way technology’s progressed over the past 20 years, it’s much simpler to call somebody in California and say, ‘Hey, remember the RKO? You want to donate 20 bucks?’” said Gallo. “20 years ago, you couldn’t do that; you couldn’t find anybody.”

The link to the class website can be found here.

The published article can be found here.


Monday, June 29th, 2009

Op-ed: Iran – a country they call home

In March 2008, I traveled to Iran with some Iranian-American friends. After news of electoral fraud broke in the summer of 2008, I felt compelled to write this op-ed piece that was published, unedited, in The Straits Times, Singapore’s flagship English daily on June 29, 2009, page B8.

View my photography portfolio on Iran here.

I WONDER if Reza was part of the massive turnout that took to Teheran’s streets, angered by what they thought was to be electoral fraud during the presidential elections in Iran two weekends ago.

‘So many things are wrong with this country,’ Reza, a man in his early 20s, said in his Farsi-accented English. ‘Where are the petrol dollars that Ahmadinejad promised to put on our dinner tables?’

This was in March, when 22 of us embarked on a spring trip to Iran. Our Iranian-American friends wanted to show us a more comprehensive Iran, a country their parents still call home.

Who better to target than students from Columbia University, ground zero of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s public disgrace in 2007? Highlighting that incident, our Iranian guide, Peyman, said to us: ‘Iranians are a proud people. Ahmadinejad said there were no gays in Iran, because homosexuality is a disgrace here.’

From bountiful natural resources to a millennia-old Persian civilisation, Iranians have a lot to be proud of.

Iranian youths wear this pride. Seeing that we come from America, they would often engage us, at times asking why the United States intervened in Iranian domestic affairs during the Cold War, indirectly precipitating the Islamic Revolution, and brought into power a theocratic regime.

‘Let us be,’ they argued cordially.

Iran is not an Orwellian state. As restrictive as laws go in Iran, satellite dishes, though illegal to own, dot Teheran’s rooftops, beaming foreign news channels into middle-class households.

This post-Revolution generation is free from the shackles of history; to them, Iran has multiple symbols to crystallise its identity to: mosques, Farsi, headscarves, ghelyoons (water pipes), Zoroastrianism, nuclear bombs.

I found all of these (save the bomb) in a conversation with an Iranian in her mid-twenties, on a rooftop cafe overlooking some of the most beautiful mosques in the world, in Isfahan, a city located in Iran’s conservative heartland.

She donned a colourful headscarf that betrayed her dyed-brown hair; she sported an Ahura pendant, the deity that Zoroastrians pray to.

‘The hejob (headscarf) and chador (veil) are the least of our worries, we cannot focus on mere symbols,’ she said in a low voice that only I could hear. I was smoking a ghelyoon I could not offer her – Iranians could not smoke in public, more so if you’re a woman.
Reza and I never exchanged contacts, but I wouldn’t be surprised to spot him in one of the countless videos of rallies in Teheran that have been flooding websites. In the videos, I hear Reza’s grudge, and in his disappointment, I see the passion in those young faces.

Soon Weilun, 26, is a second-year student in a Master of International Affairs and Master of Science in Journalism dual degree at Columbia University. He and his schoolmates spent 12 days in Iran in March, visiting Teheran, Shiraz, Isfahan and Persepolis, and ushered in the Persian new year, Nowruz, with some Iranian friends


Friday, August 22nd, 2008

As Liu Xiang Tumbles Out of Hurdles, Ticket Prices Fall

Translated from the Chinese that was published on page 24 of Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore’s flagship Chinese daily, on August 22, 2008.

As the news of Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang not participating in the 110-meter hurdles event at the Beijing Olympics Games broke, black-market ticket prices for the event’s finals tumbled correspondingly.

Prices of what used to be the most sought-after ticket on the black market now cost 75 percent less than what they used to cost.

A ticket scalper outside the Beijing National Stadium on Thursday night said that before Liu Xiang fell out from the competition, an 800-yuan (about US$107) could fetch prices up to ten times its current worth.

When it was announced that Liu would no longer compete in the race, one scalper was willing to part with a ticket for 2,500 yuan two days ago. As of Thursday night, 2,000 yuan the maximum price scalpers were willing to sell the tickets for.

However, some last-minute buyers who arrived at the stadium said that even without Liu, having a chance to be inside of the stadium was worth the exorbitant ticket price in itself.

Krass, an information systems consultant from Germany, began his bicycling trip around the world from his hometown of Frankfurt in March, and deliberately planned his schedule so that he could be in Beijing in August. Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, he was found negotiating with scalpers to buy a ticket into the stadium.

“2,000 yuan, it’s worth it. There are so many people in China, so there’s no fear of having no buyers for these tickets,” said Krass.

The original in Chinese

少了流翔跨栏决赛票价大跌

文:孙伟伦

刘翔推出比赛以后,21日奥运男子110米跨栏决赛的门票价格也像下滑的过山车般急挫。这个原本是奥运黄牛票市场上炒得最火热的门票,到了昨晚开赛是黄牛价格足足跌了75%。

根据本报昨晚在国家体育场(俗称”鸟巢”)外了解到的”市场行情”,在刘翔退赛前,一张票面价格800元(人民币,下同,约160新币)的门票当时是被抄高了10倍。握有刘翔决赛门票的黄牛党还”牛”劲十足地坚持一口价,非8000元以上不卖。

结果在周一刘翔宣布退赛后,票价一路滑跌,两天前听说有人愿意以2500元脱手。到了昨晚,个别黄牛”档口”的出价只剩2000元。

不过,仍有一些在最后一分钟赶来买票的受访者告诉本报说,虽然没有刘翔,能够一睹”鸟巢”的建筑风采以及领略在其中看比赛的滋味,买高价票还是值得的。

德国游客库拉斯(42岁,资讯系统顾问)今年3月开始从法兰克福骑脚踏车环游世界,他特地安排行程让自己能在奥运期间来到北京。为了能到鸟巢看一场比赛,他认为花2000元买张票进场,还是值得。他还说:”中国人口那么多,这样的价格应该很多人出得起。”


Monday, July 28th, 2008

Fog in Beijing Sparks Concerns

The following article focuses on Beijing’s pollution woes in the run up to the Olympics. With the organizing committee and municipal government enforcing policies to ensure clear skies and clean air in a bid to stage a successful Olympics, four continuous days of fog in the Chinese capital was ringing alarm bells.

The article, written while on an internship with the Beijing bureau of Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore’s Chinese language flagship daily, was published July 28, 2008.

Text and photos by Weilun Soon.

空气污染指数连续四天超标,雾锁北京令人忧

距离北京奥运会开幕式还有12天,昨天北京被一片浓雾笼罩着,引起中国国内外关注。随着北京奥运的临近,北京的空气质量依旧令人担忧,让绿色奥运的目标蒙上阴影。

北京近日的市内空气能见度每况愈下,更有数据显示自24日起,北京的空气污染指数连续四天超标。北京环保局24日至26日所监测到的平均空气污染指数指数分别是113、110、115,而昨日的空气污染指数至截稿时,预计会达到125的上限,是四天来污染指数最高的一天。

日前国际媒体对北京空气质量的质疑声浪四起,近日由舆论转向国际社会的实际行动。美国奥组委已经向美国代表团发放了刚研制的口罩,以确保运动员不受北京污浊的空气侵蚀。澳洲运动委员会更表明因为担心北京空气质量,决定不让其田径运动员参加开幕式。

美国总统布什把抵制北京奥运联系到了“羞辱”中国的高度,昨天的空气污染指数对宣传“绿色奥运”且重视面子的北京奥运东道主,多少造成一定的尴尬。

北京市环保局副局长杜少中26日在北京奥运会主新闻中心关于“北京市近期空气质量情况”的新闻发布会上许诺,北京是“可以保证奥运期间空气质量良好,为运动员提供良好环境。”

今年7月20日成了北京实现“绿色奥运”的标志性日期之一。北京在当天实行车辆单双号限行,有学者估计,这能给北京市减少汽车尾气排放50%。同日,北京施工工地的土石方工程和混凝土浇注工程必须全部停工。

杜少中表示:“各项主要污染物,比去年同期分别下降20个百分点以上。”

虽然北京为绿色奥运的设想不遗余力地投入工作,但至北京奥运会开幕式还有12天的昨天,烟雾覆盖中国首都的情景,已经引起中国民众的关注。

从事媒体业的林先生(28岁)说:“北京市应该加强管理措施,这样的空气质量怎么见得了人啊?”

北京在控制空气质量的努力,很大程度上还得依赖天时地利。北京市气象局气象台台长郭虎26日指出:“近日公众感觉天气闷热,能见度差主要是由于空气中水汽含量较大造成的。”

郭虎的解释获得昨天在天安门广场游玩的王小姐(36岁,信息科技行业)的认同。在北京工作已有6年之久的王小姐觉得,昨天空气能见度差,纯属偶然。她说:“北京夏天就是这样闷热,今天的雾气应该是由水汽造成的。”

反复强调污染指数明显下降的杜少中指出,雾气不代表空气污染。他表示这样的雾气使得能见度下降,“就像在浴室里洗澡也可能看不见对面的人。”

刘先生(30岁,化工业)理解地表示,虽然实行了那么多措施,污染问题“不是一天内就可以解决的”。他昨天与父母在天安门广场观光,指着国家博物馆周围的吊车说:“当然,你看那些小工程还在进行,多少都会影响空气质量。”

空气质量的争论并没有影响到有些人对于奥运的期待与热忱。来自江西的张臻云(17岁,学生)承认北京的环境的确不太好,但是北京近来对环境作出了不少努力,这些作法应该持续下去。他说:“奥运是我们全国的骄傲,所以不论污染或者其它的问题,我们都应该热忱地迎接奥运。”

太平洋彼岸的美国人雷德(Rad,36岁,从事建筑业)来北京出差不下五次。他觉得今天虽然起雾,但说道:“北京为奥运会所进行的筹备是有目共睹的,我也觉得类似今天的天气将不成问题。”

English translation:

With less than twelve days left to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games, the thick fog that blanketed the Chinese capital yesterday sparked international concerns. Beijing’s poor air quality recently has shrouded the promise of a “Green Olympics” in a thick fog of uncertainty.

Visibility in Beijing dropped drastically in recent days. Figures released by the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau reveal that since last Thursday, air pollution exceeded healthy levels four days in a row. Indices from Thursday to Saturday reached levels of 113, 110 and 115 respectively. Sunday’s index at press time is projected to hit an alarming 125, the highest of the four days.

Previous concerns about Beijing’s pollution levels have now turned into action. The U.S. Olympic Committee dealt out special face masks to its Olympic delegation so as to protect its athletes from Beijing’s pollution. Australia has announced that her delegates, due to concerns about air quality, would not attend the Opening Ceremony.

To a host who prides itself on “Green Olympics”, coupled with the great significance it attaches to the Games of the 29th Olympiad, such international backlash have caused Beijing diplomatic embarrassment.

Environmental Protection Bureau chief Du Shaozhong expressed Saturday that “air quality will certainly improve during the Games. This would provide athletes a conducive environment to participate in.”

Added Du, “I think there’s no need for masks. If you insist upon that, it just adds weight to your luggage. I really think there’s no need for them.”

July 20 was a milestone in Beijing’s “Green Olympics” campaign. Thousands of cars were taken off roads in Beijing with the enforcement of a directive limiting private car usage. On the same day, all construction work in the city must be suspended.

“Our policies have seen success – pollution levels have dropped by over 20 percent over the year,” said Du.

Yet, given Beijing’s efforts, Beijing’s thick haze yesterday has ignited concerns.

“The city should strengthen air quality controls. How can we invite guests to Beijing if it keeps going on like this?” questioned Lin, 28, a resident of Beijing who works in the media industry.

The success of the pollution-reducing policies still has to depend on geographic factors. Guo Hu, bureau chief of the Beijing Meteorological Bureau said that in recent days humidity levels were high.

Miss Wang, who has been working in Beijing for six years, agrees with Guo.

“It’s not uncommon to be this humid in Beijing during summer. The fog is caused by the humidity,” she said. Despite the haze, Wang was out on Tiananmen Square sight-seeing yesterday.

Wang believes that it was by pure coincidence that Beijing experienced low visibility yesterday.

Du, who often reiterates that pollution levels have dropped, said that the fog does not equate to high levels of pollution. “It’s like how you cannot see across the bathroom when you’re in the shower,” he added.

Liu, 30, who works in the chemical engineering industry, was also at Tiananmen Square with his parents, said that pollution isn’t something that can be resolved immediately, upon the implementation of pollution-reducing directives.

“Small construction works are still ongoing,” he said, pointing to cranes that were atop the National Museum right next to Tiananmen Square. “These works will definitely affect air pollution levels.”

The debate over air pollution has not diminished the excitement some have for the upcoming Games, however. Student Zhang Zhenyun, 17, who was visiting the city said that though Beijing’s air quality still leaves much to be desired, authorities have worked hard in pollution-control, and that these efforts should continue.

He said, “To be able to host the Olympics is a pride all Chinese should enjoy. The debate on pollution should not stop us from taking part in this pride together.”

Rad, 36, an American who works in the construction industry, has been in Beijing five times. In noticing the fog, he commented, “Beijing has done a lot to lower pollution levels. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem when the Games start.”



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