The arrival of Amazon to Long Island City (L.I.C.) is a transformative event for Queens County. As a global technological goliath, it will turbo-charge gentrification and fundamentally alter the borough’s current economic, geographical, and demographic profile.
Amazon’s corporate incursion will rip through and uproot the borough’s ethnically diverse immigrant neighborhoods. Politically this techno-growth scheme was aggressively courted, unequivocally embraced, and subsidized by the real estate driven administrations of mayor DeBlasio and governor Cuomo.
Geographically, Amazon will build upon the pre-existing swath of speculative gentrification that has erupted along the L.I.C./Flushing corridor. This will result in a rise in land values, massive immigrant expulsions, and the obliteration of an organic network of small family-owned firms that define the character of local neighborhoods. In short, Amazon will heighten the growing economic divide between the have and have nots that mark and undermine the Big Apple’s landscape.
These initial and highly generalized observations merely scratch the surface. A more detailed critical discussion will be fleshed out in a series of upcoming columns. For now, I am concerned with addressing the political elephant in the room. In effect, its important to ask where our neighborhood-based elected officials stand – from a social justice perspective – on the Amazonian initiative?
The social justice approach is not a mere ideological add-on. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the bottom-up resistance to the Trumpian juggernaut the quest for social justice has erupted – across the nation – as a significant political thread.
Global New York and Queens County have not been immune from the arch of social justice. The rise of anti-gentrification, immigrant, women, and youth movements have melded with liberal elected officials in contesting the growing levels of inequality and marginalization in New York City. And it’s precisely this political backdrop that informs the potential for a concerted effort in confronting the unequitable Amazonian urban growth model.
Early on Queens/Bronx congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – a Democratic Socialist – voiced obvious, if not standard, concerns regarding the corporate subsidies to Amazon, and how municipal give a-ways divert economic resources away from pressing social and infrastructural needs. For now, this initial foray makes political sense. Yet, if she adheres to her social justice political agenda the evolving critique of Amazon will, by definition, expand and deepen from a left perspective. Consequently, this will reframe the political response in northwestern Queens by shifting the analytics away from procedural issue to the larger issue(s) of social and distributive justice. And in a global city dominated by speculative real estate interests and unmitigated growth this will scale-up the political stakes.
Which brings us to two recently elected local officials – NY State Senator Jessica Ramos and NY State Assemblyperson Catalina Cruz – who both represent residents within the immigrant corridor of northwestern Queens.
Ramos has a labor background, worked for mayor DeBlasio, and has deep and long-standing roots in Jackson Heights. While Cruz who is new to the local political scene, is a product of the Democratic machine apparatus, and has demonstrated a profound allegiance to councilperson Danny Dromm – who represents gentrified Jackson Heights. Unshackling these political tentacles and significantly confronting the negative outcomes associated with the Amazon project will not be an easy task for either politician. Nonetheless, how they handle this contentious issue will mark, for their constituents, their political debut.
As self-proclaimed progressives, these pre-existing personal trajectories complicate their respective political autonomy via the Amazonian growth problematic. In short, as they say in the world of bull fighting, their eventual position on the Amazon initiative will be their proverbial “moment of truth.”
Ramos, in effect, will have to renegotiate her close political ties to mayor DeBlasio, who aggressively supports the Amazonian tecno-growth scheme. Another difficult and contentious factor is organized labor – especially the building trades – which will clearly benefit from the eventual spike in construction jobs linked to the speculative construction boom. Nonetheless, Ramos is on the record opposing the Amazon deal. This bodes well.
Cruz is a creature of the Queens Democratic Party. Consequently, she is caught between a rock and a hard place. Her assumed loyalty to the political machine and her immigrant-based rhetoric are clearly at odds. Be that as it may, as a junior member of the local political apparatus she has demonstrated the moral certitude and requisite chutzpah to buck her patrons on the Amazon debacle. Kudos are in order.
Which closes the circle and brings the discussion back to Ocasio-Cortez. It’s my sense, that the congresswoman – who has a national profile – will play a strategic role in how the emerging critique is eventually formulated, and how the bottom-up political mobilization is assembled and activated. A move by Ocasio-Cortes towards a critical position that explicitly addresses an overarching immigrant and working-class political-economic social justice position, will establish the requisite political momentum.
Taking into account New York’s political-economic geometry, it is more than unlikely that the Amazon initiative will be discarded. Nonetheless, concerted and strategic opposition could lead, under more favorable bottom-up political circumstance, to a range of novel initiatives that will mitigate the project’s most noxious elements. Clearly, an inclusionary and democratic opposition can open the door to a set of populist approaches and political and community practices that will change how the common good is ultimately defined. In a time of increasing inequality and systemic crisis this would be a step in the right direction.
The time has come to take on the difficult task of organizing politically and speaking truth to embedded power. The political moment has arrived when everyday folks of good will along with “awoke” elected officials are positioned to question the received conventional wisdom of a narrow form of technological progress and growth that favors the few over the multitudes.
Appropriating and paraphrasing the words of the famous economist, Joseph Schumpeter: Economic progress, in market economies, brings turmoil. Lest we ignore economic realities, turmoil is precisely what New Yorkers are currently facing. So now is the time to stand tall, firm, and seize the historical moment.
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.