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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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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

9 replies on “Planned Amazon Headquarters in Queens Enrages Residents as Art Organizations Stay Mostly Quiet”

  1. The Governor and the Mayor will promise a lot, but estimates of the value of proposals like Amazon’s are often overstated and what is promised to be delivered is rarely contractually obligated by government in a way that attaches penalties. Take a look at ESD’s role overseeing Atlantic Yards / Pacific Park. The original promised completion date was 2016. Now it is 2035 — without any real penalties besides losing the project if important features are never completed. The community benefits agreement promoted by then Mayor Bloomberg on the front page of tabloids is unenforceable and the required independent compliance monitor was never hired. Instead of the community, a few individuals, groups and elected officials benefited. The value of required mitigations to environmental costs is likewise devalued by lack of penalties and a compromised oversight structure.

    The problem is that our elected officials — most particularly the Mayor and the Governor — have a disincentive to draw attention to failures they are at least partially responsible for. Both the Mayor and Governor will market this as a success and promote trumped up claims of benefits. They are counting on being promoted by voters out of their current positions before any true accounting can be taken. What I’d suggest to the community is that it demand from the Governor and Mayor that any agreement include claw backs for the public/community from Amazon if it fails to deliver what is promised in terms of both benefits and mitigations to any costs. I wonder if Amazon would stick around with terms like that?

    1. You’re Hired !
      Excellent ideas , well stated and I’d vote for you if you run, swim or fly ….
      A pleasure and hopeful feeling reading your comment, very best sir, thank you
      for commenting .

    2. I think the power of negotiating and deciding was transferred up to state level precisely in order to disempower the community. We (I live in LIC) are probably facing the ‘resistance is futile, you will be assimilated’ moment. However, a realistic consideration of things would recognize that LIC has been for several years the site of an unparalleled gentrification blitzkrieg that has been transforming it (as everything the rich touch) into a glossy but sterile desert. Amazon’s invasion is just icing on the cake.

      1. You are right that shifting the approval of the project to ESD is intended to minimize the opportunities of both the public and community to find leverage within the deal, or against the deal. And the sense that resistance if futile is exactly the atmosphere the Mayor and Governor will try to create.

        The ESD board is controlled by the Governor and by and large the decision-making of employees and the board of ESD is directed by the political interests of the Governor. So in my opinion arguing vociferously for transparency, and especially accountability and enforceability is a good place to start. What are Cuomo and de Blasio going to say?

        1. They will say something soothing, or talk about non-existent jobs.

          Meanwhile, among other things, they will pay off local leaders, organizations, and institutions to support them, or at least shut up. Same as the Atlantic Yards. They are doing it already.

          I suppose the cruel irony of taxing people of modest income in order to kick them out of their dwellings, businesses, and neighborhoods, so that the richest man in the world can become richer, while the victims continue to vote for the people who do it, has to be appreciated as some kind of cosmic joke.

  2. I’m no expert on dealings like these, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the mayor has offered (comparatively minuscule small) grants in support of the LIC based arts organizations on the condition that they stay out of this debate. I mean, DbB *must* have expected a backlash.

  3. Wouldn’t the students of Socrates and Plato think democracy as ‘mob rule’.

    I actually prefer Plato’s Republic in these times and cry over ‘government’ throughout history.

    The ‘people’ are like children who need educated loving parents to guide them into adulthood.

    Of course the children are going to elect Santa Claws for President, but adults know he should only be allowed to present one day a year …..

  4. update – I’d like to see wealthy artists and patrons solving this ‘problem’, seriously , multi-millions made in art and they don’t ‘give back’ directly to ‘artists’ ? Why shacks, when there are those ( and this includes artists from music and movies ) who could frickin buy a neighborhood and make it a nonprofit living “nuewseum “. And I wonder if Bezos likes art ? Richest finger in the world could solve this problem with one of his hairs ….
Meanwhile across the country artists lifetime works are being tossed in the garbage cos it’s not worth the cost of storage ..

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