As a longtime resident of Long Island City, I’ve had a ringside view to the gentrification that has been re-creating this part of Queens at an accelerated pace. Eight years ago, this was still a neighborhood of industrial ghosts, its streets lined with taxi depots, small warehouses, strip clubs, and bodegas. Now it’s transforming into a grid of glass condos, formulaic in their design, and filled with amenities that guarantee the residents will never have to leave them: Why venture outside when the gym and grocery store are available on the first floor, and a shuttle takes you to the nearest subway stop?
This week, of course, we learned that more changes are coming. After a 14-month search, Amazon has officially picked this neighborhood—my neighborhood—for one of its new headquarters, a massive undertaking that will alter the area beyond recognition.
Granted, Long Island City’s old grit came with its share of trouble—there’s something quintessentially New York about stomping out of your building at 2 a.m. to tell the guys in the chop shop next door to stop spray painting that cab because the paint fumes are drifting into your bedroom. But at least the infrastructure could support the population. As the condos keep rising, Amazon says it plans to cram another 25,000 workers onto the waterfront, a move that will further overburden the overpacked and crumbling subways that serve as the community’s lifeblood.
No matter which subway line I choose for my daily commute into Midtown Manhattan (usually the E train, although if I’m feeling masochistic I might give the 7 line a try), I already find myself squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder, if not cheek-by-jowl, with my fellow commuters. On a good day, I can make it to work in 15 minutes, unless my 7 train experiences one of its frequent delays. (Fun fact: The on-time rate for the MTA is around 65%, largely unchanged since last year, despite a lot of official chatter about “improvements.”) Stuck on a stalled subway beneath the East River is no place to suddenly realize you’re claustrophobic.
There have been vague promises of “infrastructure upgrades” to accompany Amazon’s development, but the city has yet to offer a detailed explanation of how it will adapt to the influx of new workers who will commute to HQ2 via subway. The situation becomes more complicated early next year, when the MTA shuts down large portions of the L line, which delivers passengers from hip Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Williamsburg to Manhattan; many of those commuters will head north on the G line to Long Island City’s Court Square station, intending to catch the 7 and E trains across the river—and adding to the morning chaos in the process.
Without adjustments by the city and MTA, rush hour around Court Square could look like a zombie mega-herd from The Walking Dead, if all of those zombies were on hefty doses of methamphetamine. The station’s average weekday subway ridership, which hit 23,672 last year, is causing visible strain. What happens if that growth multiplies by the end of 2019? That’s where the feeling in the pit of my stomach comes from. It’s like being trapped underwater.
The Rent is (Already) Too Damn High
Mass transit aside, there’s also the small matter of New York’s state and city governments offering Amazon more than $1.7 billion in incentives. Although Governor Andrew Cuomo insists that the tax breaks will pay for themselves (“You have to spend money to make money,” he told a New York Times reporter), some local officials aren’t taking the financial sweeteners well in an era of cash-strapped schools and other budgetary issues. “Offering massive corporate welfare from scarce public resources to one of the wealthiest corporations in the world at a time of great need in our state is just wrong,” read a joint statement from City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer and State Senator Michael Gianaris.
It’s instructive to study how Amazon’s original headquarters impacted downtown Seattle. Although the tax revenues helped power a lot of capital projects—something that surely warms the hearts of Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—that city has wrestled with rising rents, homelessness, and traffic issues.
While Amazon may be getting a tax break to move into the neighborhood, HQ2 could jack up the rents for many longtime residents. New York City has lost 425,000 affordable housing units over the past 13 years, while the number of apartments that cost more than $2,700 per month has doubled. Bill de Blasio has promised to build more affordable units over the next several years, but those likely won’t arrive in time to absorb the incredible demand, especially since Amazon intends to start hiring soon. The issue will prove especially acute in Long Island City, as many Amazon employees will try to live as close to headquarters as possible.
Years before Amazon considered building another headquarters, developers were razing commercial sites around Long Island City to make way for high-rises. Along Jackson Avenue, a taxi depot, a block of low-rise apartments, and the abandoned-factory-turned-graffiti-mecca known as 5Pointz were flattened and replaced by luxury apartment complexes. On the neighborhood’s northern edge, near the tangle of ramps that serve the Queensboro Bridge, overgrown lots (and a very creepy cabin that looked like something out of the Blair Witch Project) have been transformed into condos. In other words, developers targeting the neighborhood haven’t destroyed apartment buildings and displaced residents; but their focus on the luxury residences has put the area increasingly out of reach for many New Yorkers.
If you’re not making six figures a year, chances are good that you’re feeling the squeeze. You begin considering apartments in Astoria, or Jackson Heights, or other neighborhoods deeper in Queens—and you hope that gentrification won’t soon hit those neighborhoods, too. Long Island City used to host a robust collection of artists; walking down the street, you could peek through the open door of a warehouse and see a row of half-finished sculptures. Those folks will be forced to leave, along with small-business owners who can’t afford the rent, and the families who can’t keep pace, and then the neighborhood will lose its soul.
When I first moved to Long Island City, most streets offered an unimpeded view of the waterfront and Manhattan. Over the past few years, new high-rises have blocked progressively larger chunks of that skyline. HQ2, once completed, will surely eclipse it even more. It will loom over the neighborhood.