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Planned Amazon Headquarters in Queens Enrages Residents as Art Organizations Stay Mostly Quiet

Nearly 250 people gathered today, November 14, in Long Island City to protest the controversial announcement as arts organizations held their breath to see what financial fortunes might come their way from Amazon’s touchdown in Queens.

Protesters gather at a rally near the proposed new headquarters of Amazon in Queens’ Long Island City neighborhood (all photos by author)

Backlash against Amazon’s decision to build one of its new corporate headquarters in New York City is already gaining momentum with the energized and incensed residents of Long Island City (LIC), Queens.

Approximately 250 people gathered on Wednesday, November 14 at the corner of Vernon Boulevard and 44th Drive near the site of Amazon’s newly announced office. Protesters assembled an ad hoc press conference led by New York State Senator Michael Gianaris and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, both Queens government representatives. Joining them was recently-elected State Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz and members of Local 338 RWDSU (Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union).

“Strap yourself in and get ready,” warned Gianaris as he began his speech.

On Monday, November 12, news broke that the Seattle-based company would open two major outposts — one in LIC and another in Arlington, Virginia — that would require at least 25,000 employees each and $5 billion in construction and other investments combined. (Amazon also announced the joint development of a smaller site in Nashville focused on operations and logistics, which will create 5,000 jobs in Tennessee.)

One day later, Amazon detailed its decision in a blog post, which said that the company would receive $1.525 billion in performance-based direct incentives for its LIC project from state tax credits. The company says that the average employee wage there will be $150,000 and that the headquarters will provide an estimated incremental tax revenue of more than $10 billion over the next 20 years.

The announcement comes after a 14-month competition between cities across North America for the favor of the world’s third-largest retailer, which critics have denounced as a scheme designed to accumulate valuable data from cities to expand Amazon’s market power and sideline competitors in the future.

New York City is about to get tens of thousands of new, good paying jobs and Amazon is about to meet the most talented work force in the world in one of the most diverse places on the planet,” tweeted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Since the Amazon announcement, the mayor has come under significant criticism for his bilateral agreement with Governor Andrew Cuomo (typically De Blasio’s political nemesis) to sidestep City Council and public review by greenlighting the project through Empire State Development, a corporation under the governor’s control. The seemingly undemocratic maneuver has enraged City Council members, some of whom attended today’s rally. The mayor’s office has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

For Queens residents, their worries hit home in LIC, a neighborhood that has already seen rapid gentrification over the last ten years. Many believe that Amazon’s presence will have a ripple effect across the borough, inflating rent prices and ejecting low- and middle-income renters from the area. Investors have already begun rapidly buying property sometimes via text message.

The new Amazon headquarters is projected to create 4 million square feet of new office space on the East River’s coast, with an opportunity to expand to 8 million square feet, which would be approximately as big as their current Seattle office. The deal also includes a promise that taxpayers will help secure a helipad for Amazon executives.

Protesters holding their sign asking Amazon to “STAY THE HELIPAD OUT!”

At the rally, three men representing a local barbershop called Otis & Finn arrived with a large protest sign that demanded school funding, infrastructure reform, and aid to local businesses. The sign noted that if Amazon could not support the LIC community, the company could “STAY THE HELIPAD OUT!”

(In its statement, Amazon notes that a portion of its property taxes will fund community infrastructure improvement projects developed through input from residents during the planning process.)

Prior to the rally, Senator Gianaris and Council Member Van Bramer released a joint statement expressing their fury for the governor and mayor’s bilateral move. “New Yorkers have real unmet needs from their government,” the statement reads. “Our subways are crumbling, our children lack school seats, and too many of our neighbors lack adequate health care. It is unfathomable that we would sign a $3 billion check to Amazon in the face of these challenges.”

The Washington Post calculates that state and municipal governments will fork over a total of $2.8 billion in incentives for Amazon’s expansion plans. At the rally, government officials indicated that those numbers may be higher than originally thought. Here is a list of New York officials who signed in support of New York’s Amazon bid.

View of the rally from afar

Queens residents at the rally also expressed dismay that Amazon, a company that has previously attempted to pitch its facial recognition to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), would have its home in a neighborhood known for its immigrant and union roots. The company’s agreement with Virginia even includes a clause allowing the commonwealth to give Amazon written notice about any FOIA requests “to allow the Company to seek a protective order or other appropriate remedy.”

Tania Mattos, outreach director for Queens Neighborhoods United (QNU) tells Hyperallergic that Amazon’s presence in the borough is wholly unwanted because of the company’s track record of abusing workers, relying on short-term employees without benefits, and using bullying tactics to push small businesses out of the market.

“Most recently,” Mattos says, “Amazon colluded with ICE and police departments across the country to create a bug-ridden, racially-biased facial recognition software that puts our communities in danger. Amazon holds the largest share of government contracts to maintain databases about detainees and undocumented people.

“We have to remember that these politicians and these corporate behemoths are afraid of people coming together to fight for community self-determination. They will say Amazon is too powerful to take on, and that we should make concessions, but as we look back to our beloved NYC history those who conceded never make history.”

Museums, nonprofits, and galleries are taking a very cautious approach to the Amazon news, waiting to see what fundraising opportunities the tech behemoth might bring to their groups.

Mary Ceruti, the recently-announced outgoing director of SculptureCenter notes that Amazon’s effect on artists in the area will likely be minimal because the neighborhood has not been affordable for many years.

“I don’t think we serve ourselves by thinking of these things as a zero-sum game,” she tells Hyperallergic via email. “We need to be pushing the city to address affordability and, if they are smart, they will recognize that a vibrant cultural community is part of what drew Amazon to the neighborhood and make investments to make sure that community survives the development.”

Ceruti does not believe Amazon’s presence would affect her organization’s programming, “but we will certainly be asking Amazon to support us and the cultural life.”

The Socrates Sculpture Park offered a similarly diplomatic response, noting that LIC’s growth will only progress with Amazon’s arrival. In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, the organization says:

For more than thirty years Socrates Sculpture Park has staunchly supported our Long Island City community, beginning with transforming a derelict waterfront parcel of land into a thriving artistic venue, community hub and public park. LIC is rapidly changing and today’s announcement of Amazon’s move will advance its growth even further. We will continue to work with our community, NYCHA residents, local elected officials, and business leaders to ensure the cultural and civic life here in LIC remains vibrant for both longstanding residents and newcomers.

MoMA PS1, which is situated a few blocks away from the Amazon HQ2 site, did not respond to Hyperallergic’s multiple requests for comment before the publication of this article.

Flux Factory, a nonprofit LIC gallery known for its community programming, also did not respond to requests submitted over email and Twitter.

The Noguchi Museum told Hyperallergic that it was not prepared at this moment to deliver a response to the Amazon HQ2 proposal.

One member of the arts community who would speak about the recent news was Gonzalo Casals, executive director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in SoHo. A longtime resident of the nearby Jackson Heights neighborhood, he says that LIC’s rapid gentrification has already reached more remote areas like Kew Gardens and Flushing.

“The concern of fellow Queens residents in the face of the Amazon invasion of LIC is that job creation is a euphemism for job relocation. The thousands of jobs will bring new people to the area and displace thousands of long-term residents to the fringes of the city,” Casals explains. “We lost the battle for the souls of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Please, stay away from Queens.”

Amazon, New York state, and the City have pledged $5 million each for workforce development initiatives, including technology training programs targeted at local public housing residents and high school students, to prepare the Queens community for jobs at the retail behemoth. But that program is unlikely to produce graduates ready for high-level jobs at the headquarters in time for the office’s opening.

One counter-demonstrator at the rally spoke to reporters about his opinion on the controversial Amazon headquarters. The man, who did not give his name to Hyperallergic, said that he has lived in LIC for 65 years. “I’m a working-class guy. I’m interested in who is the janitor and who is the security officer. Those are still decent jobs that can be filled by people from the neighborhood.” While he sympathized with those objecting to the politics behind the decision, he still thought Amazon would be a net benefit to his community.

As he spoke, Assemblyman Ron Kim delivered a speech to the crowd. “It’s our money [Governor Cuomo] is giving away. Are we an oligarchy or a democracy?” The crowd cheered their response, a resounding call for democracy.

UPDATE, Friday, November 16, 2018, 8:10am EDT: After this article’s publication, Flux Factory reached out with the following comment against the proposed Amazon headquarters:

“Post-industrial mixed-use spaces have been vital to emerging artists for many decades. There’s a different kind of freedom artists exercise there. LIC and Hunters Point is still full of scabby little brick buildings where weirdo artists experiment, and it’s sad that many of these places are doomed unless some sort of commercial rent control were implemented, such as the SBJSA. As renters of 25 years, Flux has been fighting to stay in place and keep LIC weird, and this Amazon debacle makes us more determined to serve our neighborhood than ever before.”

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