Around 8:30 p.m., a fat gray bus bound for Atlantic City pulls up on Division Street in Chinatown. Its doors wheeze open, and a line of riders shuffle into formation, clutching pink tickets and plastic shopping bags, and sucking a few final drags from their cigarettes before flicking them away.
The ritual takes no more than 15 minutes, but it happens dozens of times a day as buses headed to Trump Plaza, Foxwoods or other casinos load and unload passengers in the V formed by the Bowery and Division Street.
Now, citing pollution and noise, neighbors say they want the buses to find a new home.
“You can feel a toxic film in our yard,” said Justin Yu, vice president of the co-op board at Confucius Plaza, a 44-story complex that overlooks the site. “It’s very unhealthy.”
Five masked young men robbed a Chinatown bus company’s office at gunpoint on Sunday afternoon, binding five people with duct tape and fleeing with thousands of dollars in cash, the police and the company’s president said.
The robbery occurred at 15 Division Street, at the offices of Golden Express Company, one of several low-cost bus lines in Chinatown that take passengers to and from Atlantic City.
The president of the company, May Chow, said the five men burst into the third-floor office shortly after 12:30 p.m.
“There were these five guys, five young fellows wearing ski masks,” Mrs. Chow said. “One of them jumped over the counter and said: ‘This is a holdup, I’m not kidding. Where is the safe?’ I told him there is no safe in the office. He said, ‘Where is the money?’ I went back and got money from my bag.”
Mrs. Chow said the robbers spotted envelopes with the weekend’s earnings and took them. “They took our sales,” she said. “Three days’ worth. We haven’t really gotten the total yet, but it’s more than $27,000.”
Chinatown bus chaos
Chinatown's private bus business is booming. That this industry has grown to its current level in a little under 10 years is amazing. The rates are cheap and if one is not too fussy these rides are just the ticket.
Yet, while the busy bus business is good news for Chinatown's economy over all, it also has brought a host of problems that are affecting Chinatown as well as the Lower East Side.
The buses increase traffic, pollution, noise, garbage and even violence, due to the fights that sometimes flare between rival operators in their competition for passengers. Police say it's hard to oversee these problems because the buses are so spread out. And the buses' picking up at the curb at scattered locations means traffic is being impacted in a haphazard, irrational way. Residents, in particular, are feeling the bus invasion's effects.
As The Villager reported last week, the city recently proposed a 30-day pilot program under which all the Chinatown interstate buses would be shunted toward the end of Pike St., with no more than seven dropping off or picking up at any one time. However, neighbors at Knickerbocker Village and the Rutgers Houses opposed the idea and so did Community Board 3.
What's drives the Chinatown van drivers?
By Loretta Chao
As convenient as the service is for riders however, drivers say the work is extremely difficult and unrewarding. Each driver has to buy, insure, and sign their buses up with a company, which then gets a cut of their daily earnings. Zhou, for example, makes seven round trips everyday during the winter and gets to save less than $100.
"I have worked 365 days for four years now," said Zhou, who lives in Flushing with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. "Just think - I've never taken a vacation, not even for one day. I haven't even had time to get sick.
"It's just unbearably hard. I don't know English. When I go out I feel like I'm mute. Everything I learned in school is useless," he said.
And while customers are plentiful, the increasing number of vans has led to bitter and sometimes violent rivalry over the past six years. Police arrested the drivers involved in a string of murders as part of what they called a "bus war" in January 2003, but investigators said minor offenses like tire slashing and window breaking often went unreported. With some drivers working until 11 o'clock at night, they face other dangers as well.