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








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.

















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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