Councilperson Julissa Ferreras and NYS Senator Jose Peralta claim that the establishment of the Roosevelt Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) will foster ethnic diversity and neighborhood sustainability. These are laudable policy objectives that fit well with a so-called “progressive” agenda. Nonetheless, our elected officials have failed to explain how these policy outcomes will be programmatically achieved, thus reducing the proposed objectives to empty rhetoric, opportunistic political posturing, and magical thinking.
At a minimum, the crafting of a sound and socially equitable public policy, along Roosevelt Avenue’s economically complex and ethnically diverse social ecology, requires detailed analysis on how to proceed from current circumstances to proposed outcomes. In this sense, the BID’s proposal to maintain ethnic business diversity requires detailed knowledge of the diverse ethnic landscapes that foster different forms of entrepreneurial activity. This basic information, which is necessary for meeting planning outcomes, has not been placed on the table by Ferreras, Peralta, or BID bureaucrats.
A standard overview of local immigrant businesses ecology would include but not be limited to: the number of family-based firms by business type; business ownership patterns by ethnicity and gender; percentage of “unbanked” enterprises relying on “informal” sources of start-up and working capital; market share by firm type; and the use, organization, and integration of “formal” and “informal” labor at the level of the firm.
Basic business information is glaringly absent from the top-down one size fits all BID narrative. Simply put, the pro BID position revolves around simplistic non-data driven subjective claims that a “secure and safe” street environment and a real estate driven marketplace will lead to a rising economic tide that lifts all ships. This is not community development, it is magical thinking.
Most analysts agree that the benefits and costs associated with economic growth are unevenly distributed. A simple illustrative example will do. Because of high commercial rents and low profit margins, many small family firms, with legal certificates of occupancy, are forced by stressful economic circumstances to sublet a portion of their business locale to “informal” entrepreneurs. These so-called “informal backfills” – which are a common phenomenon along Roosevelt Avenue – will eventually be regulated out of existence and/or expelled by a landlord dominated BID structure that favors higher rates of profit on commercial rents. This places “formal” and “informal” immigrant firms at economic risk, undermines ethnic diversity, and destabilizes local neighborhoods. In this scenario, the economic benefits associated with real estate-driven growth are captured by the powerful few, while the economic and social costs are passed on to the struggling many.
The claim that the BID will generate neighborhood sustainability is equally questionable. Because the term is never defined, it is reduced to a fashionable buzz word. As many researchers have pointed out, the term sustainability is associated with a complex system’s diverse bottom-up ability in successfully adopting to disruptive changes. In this sense, an economic system’s adoptability in managing risk is directly linked to the bottom-up diversity of its component parts.
Standardization, which is the opposite of diversity, undermines neighborhood sustainability. In this respect, the BID’s top-down standardization of business and residential landscapes uproots Roosevelt Avenue’s economic and social ecology, disrupts its complex bottom-up business diversity, and diminishes the nimble adoptable capabilities that foster neighborhood sustainability. Another way of putting it is that risk can be reasonably managed and minimized by not “placing all your eggs in one basket.” Diversity and sustainability, in short, are the ying and yang of robust immigrant communities. To not recognize this simple reality is to engage in magical thinking.
In the final analysis, the design and implementation of a long-term economic development initiative, that fosters ethnic diversity and neighborhood sustainability along the Roosevelt Avenue corridor, must move beyond the peddling of simplistic anecdotal claims. Democratic economic and social development – that goes beyond magical thinking – requires detailed empirical knowledge, genuine bottom-up neighborhood engagement, and a deep commitment to participatory and distributive justice. The BID, in this regard, falls short on all counts.
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is chairperson of the Newest New Yorkers Committee of Queens Community Board 3. He has also taught courses on immigration and entrepreneurship at Barnard College, The City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, and New York University.