Area Drug Activity
Scares Center's Seniors

Boston Globe
May 5, 1996

By Robert O'Malley

Chinatown - Chun Gum Mui seldom leaves home these days. It's not because he's in poor health or because he doesn't enjoy taking a walk outside on a nice day.

"I'm afraid to go out, especially at night," says the 87-year-old Mui, a resident of Hong Lok House at 25-31 Essex St. on the Chinatown-Combat Zone border. "I had a bad experience; plus, I see a lot of drunk people around. I don't feel comfortable."

About two years ago, Mui was walking on the street outside Hong Lok House when he was suddenly surrounded by a group of men who asked him for the time. As he lifted his arm to take a look at his watch, one of the men reached inside his shirt pocket and grabbed his money.

For the 38 elderly residents of Hong Lok House and other users of its services, venturing outside has often involved navigating a sea of drug dealers, public drinkers, prostitutes and thieves who may view them as easy prey.

It's worst than before, especially at night," said Liang Kun Ying, 73, who was accosted last year during the day by a man who tried to grab her bag not far from her Hong Lok House residence. Liang recently protested the Naked I club's effort to relocate in the Combat Zone because she believes adult entertainment attracts criminal activities to Chinatown.

In recent years, Boston police have made numerous arrests in the Essex Street area for prostitution, drug dealing and other violations, but problems there persist. Moreover, few of those arrested are Chinatown residents.

"I really feel it's just like living in a prison for the people living here," said Kun Chang, assistant executive director of the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center, which developed and manages the elderly residence.

"They're really afraid to go out," he said. "So they sacrifice a certain quality of life in exchange for a sense of belonging." Chang said Chinese elderly enjoy living at Hong Lok House because it is close to Chinatown and has residents who share a common language and culture.

"During the daytime we can still see prostitutes, drug dealers, sometimes in front of our building," said Chang. "There are a lot of drunk people moving around, even during the daytime. Nighttime is worse."

Chang said the elderly are often forced off the narrow sidewalk and onto busy Essex Street by people congregating between Washington Street and Harrison Avenue. "They are so frustrated at the situation happening in this neighborhood," said Chang.

Chang said several factors contribute to Hon Lok House's troubles, including its proximity to Harry's Bar and the Playland Cafe. It's also on the edge of the Combat Zone, the city's only adult entertainment zone, which Chang believes attracts criminal activities and should be rezoned. "As long as they have zoning protection. I don't see any way to get rid of them," he said.

Boston police have met with Hong Lok House residents in the past to address the problem, but a permanent solution has yet to be found. Chang said conditions in the area tend to improve when the police crack down, but problems resurface when they become less visible. The police have suggested that Hong Lok House should hire a security guard, but Chang points out that the problems are on the street, not in the building.

Lt. Robert E. O'Toole, director of informational services for the Boston Police Department, said illegal street activity in the Combat Zone is hard to control because police need to be present when drug dealing or prostitution takes place to make an arrest. He said the police regularly mount sting operations to arrest prostitutes and johns in the area.

'The drug problem down there is very fluid," he said. "If there's a large police presence they move on." He believes the ongoing demolition of a row of Combat Zone buildings will improve conditions in the area.

Boston Police Capt. Ronald X. Conway said patrols in the Chinatown area have been increased over the last year and that at night officers patrol the district on foot. "I try to raise the level of coverage to make them [the elderly] feel as comfortable as they can," said Conway. "It's a gritty, gritty area."

Nancy Lo, an advisor to the mayor, said the high-illumination street lights on Essex Street and ones planned for Washington Street are meant to serve as a deterrent. "Of course the lights are not going to stop the activity going on," she said.

Ruth Moy, the Golden Age Center's executive director, said the installation of new street lights last year seemed to improve conditions on Essex Street for a while, but she believes the situation is again worsening.

In addition to conditions on the street, Moy is also concerned about the effect the planned demolition of a row of Combat Zone buildings and a new parking lot will have on the health and safety of the elderly residents.

The Golden Age Center sued to stop the demolition of the buildings, which abut Hong Lok House. The demolition of the Pilgrim Theater and former Naked I started after a judge rejected an injunction. The suits is till pending.

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