Walking up to Charles and Synthia Lin’s place of business is like kneeling before an ancient Chinese temple—the lilting, three-story roof made entirely of concrete; the massive entrance guarded above by a writhing golden dragon; the two lions greeting patrons as they head toward that looming draconic door, which is open most of the year. Maybe it’s because, to the Lins, the Chinese Cultural Center is more than a place to earn a living; it’s a tangible model of Chinese philosophy, culture and tradition. And until last Friday, they feared it might all come to an end.
When I pass through that noteworthy door and am greeted by the Lins—Charles rises from sitting lotus-style at the entrance to a large practice room where the couple teaches kung fu, tai chi and chi gung, and Synthia comes out from behind a counter in the entry room, filled with books, Oriental trinkets and jewelry for sale—they take me on a tour of the space.
Old photographs of students from their 18 years in the building line the walls amid cloth lions and a massive sequined dragon used in Chinese New Year celebrations. Punching bags and monk spades are moved to the side. Synthia points out the different textures and brushstrokes used on the walls, made entirely of cement, a consequence of the place being built by hand, one section of wall at a time, by the students the Lins have been training in Albuquerque for more than 30 years.
The last month has been an interesting time for the Lins, as they discovered mid-May that their neighbor, Bryan Arndt, who owns Highland Conversions to the north of the center, had leased the vacant building across the street to Charlie Finegan, owner of New Mexico Mortuary Service and Riverside Funeral Home. Finegan wished to open a crematorium (a facility that cremates corpses) in the space. The news did not sit well with the Lins.
In Asian philosophy, Synthia explains, the living and the dead should be separate. “We’re not against cremation,” she says. “They’ve practiced it in China for years, but they always do it outside city limits.”
The Chinese Cultural Center, 427 Adams SE, and the building which was to become a crematorium, 422 Adams SE, are tucked in a small commercial district adjacent to the Parkland Hills residential neighborhood.
For the Lins, having a crematorium facing their building is about more than the unease of knowing dead bodies are being burned 100 feet away. It’s about feng shui, the Asian art of placement that aims to create positive, flowing energy, promoting health and balance. Having the energy of death from the crematorium flowing into their space would wreak havoc on the positive energy they’ve spent years producing, they say. They worried that students, especially those who are familiar with the Asian philosophy, would stop coming to the center when they discovered the crematorium was opening. Indeed, many people told the Lins they would no longer be able to attend the large Chinese New Year celebrations the Lins put on every year if the business came in. “[But] we can’t relocate,” Synthia says. “There’s nowhere to move.”
Yet the case of the Chinese Cultural Center vs. the crematorium has become the perfect model of community involvement. Upon hearing about what was happening in the neighborhood, dozens of students from the center and members from the local Parkland Hills Neighborhood Association (PHNA) called, e-mailed and wrote to the city in hopes of preventing the crematorium from moving in. Several people had also started gathering signatures on a petition to prevent the crematorium and had already acquired more than 200.
They got results. On May 31, City Council President Martin Heinrich, councilor for the neighborhood, called upon the city planning department to reconsider its approval for allowing the crematorium on the site. Soon after, Mayor Martin Chavez followed suit. The two politicians argued that the site, zoned for commercial use as C-2, wasn’t zoned properly for a crematorium, which would require a zoning change to SU-1. Additionally, Heinrich says, the business would have needed to apply for a permit under air quality regulations, which it hadn’t done.
Fortunately for the Lins and their students, a press conference was held last Friday, June 9, by Chavez in front of the center, announcing that the city planning department had revoked their approval for the crematorium to go into the site and that it did not, in fact, meet zoning requirements. Applause broke out through the crowd, filled with students and PHNA members, and the Lins thanked the mayor for the city’s help.
Heinrich is also pleased with the outcome of the issue. “The crux of it is this: It’s not an appropriate location [for a crematorium], even if the center weren’t there,” he says. “It’s not a location where you would typically think about locating a crematorium. Zoning was created to prevent conflicts like this. I think, in the end, the zoning code was well written.”
Yet not all were as pleased with the issue’s resolution. Finegan, the entrepreneur who wanted to open the crematorium, says he’s vexed with the way the situation was handled. He says he was already looking for a different place to take his business before the city got involved. “The day I found out [the Lins] were opposed to [the crematorium], I said I would find a new place,” says Finegan. “I assured them I would.” Yet, he says, a couple days later the local TV news was at his door.
“None of this even needed to happen,” he says. “The next thing you know, I’m in the newspaper, every crazy in the world is calling me.”
Luckily for Finegan, he has found a space to move into that is actually a better deal for him financially, he says, and the city has agreed to work with him to make sure all the zoning is proper. At this time, Finegan chooses not to reveal the location of the new property.
Still, Finegan, who has owned his two other businesses for 14 years, says he feels alienated by the whole process. “No one in the community has come through to help me out. I employ people. I pay taxes, I’ve been a good business owner, and nobody’s addressed any of that. I’m automatically the ‘mean funeral home guy,’” he says. “I provide a much-needed service to the community in Albuquerque. I’m not like Joe Millionaire; I’m just trying to make a simple living and provide a simple service.”
Finegan is also concerned about Arndt, the owner of the vacant property. “Who’s going to reimburse him?” he says.
Indeed, Arndt also feels a bit shafted by the way things turned out. “I lost tens of thousands of dollars,” he says, explaining that Finegan had agreed to sign a seven-year lease at $900 per month.
“The building’s been empty for about a year,” says Arndt. “I had someone lined up, I was being a good neighbor and mentioned it to the guy next door. Now I feel like I shouldn’t have. I just should have let the crematorium come in.”
Arndt is looking to rent the space again, but says next time he won’t tell the Cultural Center what’s coming in. “If they don’t like it, too bad.”
With regard to how the neighborhood views the situation, Tracy Franke, secretary of PHNA, says, “It’s unfortunate that the person who [leased the space] wasn’t aware of the situation. It’s an unusual circumstance, but we need to support those who’ve been here longer, and respect the cultural issues.”
But the general sentiment of those involved in the issue is now one of solace. Gail Rubin, who’s been a student at the center along with her husband Dave for two years, is comforted with the resolution. She says the neighborhood has struggled in past years, “but is coming back with growth, lofts, a farmer’s market. A crematorium—with death energy—would have been [horrible],” she says. “I’m very happy now.”
Cheryl Harris, PHNA zoning and environmental committee chair, is also satisfied with the results. “This was a community effort—everyone did their part. [This outcome] feels wonderful.”