Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprising electoral victory unleashed a wave of optimistic expectations among immigrants in northwestern Queens. While our newest New Yorkers are deeply concerned about federal immigration policy, they are also invested in confronting the gentrification Goliath that is destroying neighborhood stability. In brief, gentrification matters because people and neighborhoods matter.
As Ocasio-Cortez addresses the issue of neighborhood stability in northwestern Queens, it’s useful to map the growth and character of gentrification. Her bottom-up analytics and political practices, which rejects a one size fits all formula, adds value when substantive differences are acknowledged. Different circumstance requires different strategies. This is particularly applicable, within the 14th Congressional District, where the Queens and Bronx landscapes are marked by social, economic, and political differences.
Gentrification is a defining process that fast-tracks neighborhood destabilization and significant residential and commercial expulsions in northwestern Queens. Triangulation and convergence are complementary strategies that lubricate corporate spatial economic integration and geographical homogenization which: upend existing social and cultural arrangements; destabilizes land values; increases speculative real estate ventures; and triggers massive expulsions. The end results are a few winners, many losers, and surging inequality.
These processes are playing out in disturbing ways in Queens. For example, Flushing, Willets Point, and Long Island City (LIC) physically encase the immigrant dense neighborhoods of Corona, East Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights. These corporatized growth clusters are strategic sites for speculative capital intensive mega construction projects that rely on massive public subsidies that target a private, global, high-end real estate market.
The government’s economic participation, in what Ocasio-Cortez calls the “real estate machine,” is key. Public sector engagement – under certain circumstances, in the past – played an important role in identifying and supporting the common good. This is not the case under the current neo-liberal market-based growth model that drives New York’s so-called development strategy.
A representative example is the $8 billion capital improvements for the modernization/expansion LaGuardia Airport complex. Add to the economic brew, $2 billion for the proposed construction of the AirTrain transportation system. These integrated transportation projects will seamlessly connect LaGuardia Airport, Willets Point, Flushing, LIC, and the 7-subway line with mid-town’s business district and gentrified lower Manhattan. Thus, deepening a converging complex of large-scale investment patterns that favor upscale Manhattan, while physically encroaching working- and middle-class neighborhoods.
The secondary effects of large-scale corporate convergence are sprouting throughout northwestern Queens. Astoria Boulevard – located adjacent to East Elmhurst and LaGuardia Airport – is being fortified as a growing tourist/business travel complex. Northern Boulevard, which abuts the three neighborhoods and connects the Flushing and LIC investment clusters, is dotted – between 94th Street and 113 Street – with for sale signs and recent construction. While the Roosevelt Avenue commercial immigrant corridor – running parallel to Northern Boulevard and viewed as ripe for “development” by speculators – successfully resisted the creation of the Roosevelt Avenue Business Improvement District via concerted grassroots organizing.
Clearly the noxious oil slick of gentrification is spreading aggressively throughout northwestern Queens. Nonetheless, distinct forms of neighborhood response are emerging. The range of responses are framed by placed-based bottom-up circumstance such as: political and class interests; citizenship; ethnicity/race; and intra-neighborhood animosities and alliances.
How these factors, in the face of gentrification, coalesce or diverge in and among Queens’ heterogenous neighborhoods is crucial. Geographically, Corona’s ethnically diverse working-class population; East Elmhurst’s middle-class African-American homeowners; and Jackson Heights recently arrived liberal gentry are encased by different social-political histories and short- and long-term interests. Unpacking and grasping these distinct realities is a prerequisite for confronting gentrification.
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez will face many political tribulations as she crafts a policy agenda that meets the needs of Queens’ diverse population. And in doing so, it’s crucial to assemble a linguistically and culturally diverse team with a nuanced grasp of Queens’ complex neighborhood realities. The stakes are high. Let’s see how things work out.
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is an urban planner and the former chairperson of the “Newest New Yorker Committee” of Community Board 3, Queens. He has taught at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, Pratt Institute, and various Latin American universities