The saga of the blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng is one brimming with tragedy, drama and intrigue. But upon his sudden arrival in New York City this Saturday, it got introduced to a dose of irony.
Chen, whose passage to the U.S. was brokered in part by officials from New York University, is now housed in NYU’s major faculty residential complex, Washington Square Village — a set of 17-story slabs comprising nearly 1,300 units. Of all the places for the want-away dissident to end up in New York’s tony Greenwich Village, Chen’s new home is lower Manhattan’s closest approximation of a Soviet-style (or, indeed, Beijing) housing estate.
That will hardly trouble Chen, who was at the center of an international diplomatic flare-up between China and the U.S. after he fled house arrest in China’s Shandong province and made his way to the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Following weeks of tense negotiations, Chinese authorities acquiesced to allowing the blind Chen — whose opposition to forced sterilizations and abortions in his home province landed him in trouble — to pursue his legal studies abroad in the U.S. He arrived Saturday with his wife and two children and will join NYU’s Law School as a visiting scholar.
At a brief press conference (see video here) held beneath the driveway to Building No. 4, Washington Square Village, Chen expressed his profound relief:
“For the past seven years, I have never had a day’s rest,” he said through a translator, “so I have come here for a bit of recuperation for body and in spirit.”
“I will say a few simple words to everyone here. After much turbulence, I have come out … thanks to the assistance of many friends. The embassy has given me partial citizenship here. I’m very grateful to the U.S. and to the Chinese government for my protection over the long term. Very grateful to other friends like France, who have called in their support. I am gratified the Chinese government dealt with situation with restraint and calm.”
Further details of his stay are sketchy. But at the moment, he does appear to have been afforded an iota of calm. At 11 p.m. on Saturday, as downtown partygoers whooped and hollered down Bleecker Street, there was little indication of any special security presence, save for one extra NYU security guard posted by the door alongside the building’s regular doorman. An empty NYU security van was parked outside; there was no immediate sign of New York police-department officials or those from other U.S. security agencies.
Chen is believed to be housed on the ninth floor. According to one resident, NYU has allocated two side-by-side apartments, one for him and his family and another for a security detail of unknown background. She expressed concern for the potential presence of guards bearing firearms in the building, but there were none on view at nighttime either in the lobby or on the ninth floor.
Whatever the case, Chen and his family now live in a complex with a leafy courtyard, playgrounds for his children, a vast subterranean parking lot and, importantly, an array of options by which he can exit and enter the building.
Washington Square Village is a legacy of Robert Moses, New York’s controversial mid–20th century urban planner. Moses sought to transform the area around historic Washington Square Park and all of Greenwich Village — with its narrow, cobbled streets and low-lying old houses — into a revamped modern zone of broad boulevards and monolithic high-modernist structures.
As with a number of other Moses projects, his overall plan was stymied by local residents. But the complex did emerge, and in subsequent years its apartments were steadily bought up by NYU to rent to staff and faculty. Now the university uses its real estate there — in one of the hottest locations in Manhattan — as a lure to attract star faculty. Nouriel Roubini, the eminent economist and geostrategic forecaster, lived there for a time.
Most recently, the complex has been in the news for its part in a new, ambitious NYU megaproject slated for 2031. In the face of some vehement neighborhood opposition, the university intends to knock down stretches of buildings adjacent to Washington Square Village and construct a whole new set of towering edifices, a project that has many locals already seething about the inevitable chaos and disruption it will cause.