Through a combination of imagination and community-building New Yorkers can take planning into their own hands, create powerful alternative visions for their neighborhoods and put them into action. This was one of the themes that ran through the recent event at CUNY’s Center for the Humanities, “The Unauthorized Plans for New York.”
The title played with the idea that an “unauthorized” biography is often the most authentic one. Rough at the edges perhaps, but it conveys nuance and reality in a way that often escapes the official, endorsed version, just as a community-led plan gets closest to the lived reality and needs of residents.
Aurash Khawarzad shared the story of the Upper Manhatta(n)Project, a multi-disciplinary strategy to prepare NYC for climate change. He emphasized the need to work on social and environmental issues on equal terms, and to involve residents directly in decision-making. Much of the process entails “talking to people, listening, and honoring what’s heard. Unless people have agency and autonomy over how cities are planned, displacement will continue to happen,” he said.
Aurash also appealed for a shift away from a “funnel” mode of planning – in which community perspectives are channeled by gatekeepers, and inevitably skewed by funding dynamics – towards a “platform” model where people can act directly.
Kazembe Balagun opened his segment by saying that his first experience in planning was when he was seven. Riding in a yellow cab he realized that the map on the back seat didn’t go above 96th street. In other words, according to the map his home, his community, in Harlem didn’t exist.
Black activists, intellectuals, and poets re-created that map and made it their own, Kazembe said, among them Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes (who in addition to being a writer, was a community gardener).
Dio Ganhdih emphasized the “invisibilization” of indigenous culture in New York City, and said how striking the erasure is – with just an occasional gesture here and there – compared to other US cities where the land’s indigenous roots are, sometimes, more present and honored.
Ashley Dawson, CUNY professor and author of Extreme Cities, chaired the event. His book argues that solutions to the growing threat of climate change have to lie with urban movements who are already fighting to remake their cities in a more just and equitable way.
The evening in CUNY’s Skylight room reflected a deep appreciation for “unauthorized plans” of the past from which much can still be learned, and for those which are yet to be created.
This year the City is reviewing the NYC Charter – i.e. the City’s constitution. One of the major items under review is land-use processes, including “proposals relating to the development of a comprehensive city planning framework for capital spending and land use.” Share your ideas and get involved here.
When hurricane Sandy tore through Staten Island in 2012, day laborers were among the first on the scene.
About 15 organizations from across the Tri-State area formed day laborer brigades, who went door-to-door on Sundays volunteering to clean up people’s homes.
“We had an instance with an Irish family, I remember,” says La Colmena ED Gonzalo Mercado (who at the time was ED of El Centro del Inmigrante). “We got to the door, and said we have a group of six workers who can help you, because they were trying to get stuff out of the house, and cleaning up. Originally they were very suspicious. Thinking who are these brown people coming into my house, you know…
“And then very hesitantly they said ok sure, they can help us. We came back around six o’ clock to pick them up, I mean those people were crying, hugging these workers, it was so incredibly moving. And you know that experience with them is going to last forever.”
Day laborers played a crucial role in relief and rebuilding, just as they have in so many climate-related disasters across the country, from the multiple hurricanes of 2017, to the recent wildfires in California.
Worker centers and organizations such as Make the Road joined forces to increase OSHA health and safety training. La Colmena can now provide these trainings monthly, and has a train-the-trainers program so that their workers can become certified themselves. Another breakthrough is that the City now formally supports a network of five day laborer centers, one in each borough.
The frequency of storms and surges will only increase. Mercado believes that much more can be done, including making sure that day laborer centers are fully-equipped with emergency response equipment like generators.
Combatting wage theft and workplace accidents
La Colmena is strategically located next to Staten Island’s two major day laborer “corners” – two of around 35 across the city where workers wait for contractors to pick them up for construction jobs. One of the center’s many roles is issuing contracts between workers and employers. The members work on a wide variety of jobs – from local landscaping in gardens to working on luxury towers in Manhattan.
The winter months are particularly tough for some workers, when landscaping work slows right down. Some fall into homelessness and substance abuse, just as the weather is at its coldest. In January, a 25-year-old member died.
The workers regularly face wage theft, workplace accidents, and discrimination. A “wall of shame” by the door lists contractors with bad track records as a warning to avoid them.
Mercado cites the efforts of the Manhattan District Attorney as a major advance in holding abusive contractors accountable. Cyrus Vance is leading the way in issuing criminal penalties for wage theft, and for safety lapses that cause accidents and deaths.
“That’s what we need to see more of,” says Mercado. “That’s the only way that developers and construction companies are really going to understand that our workers are not disposable workers. That saving here, saving there, or producing a job in a shorter time, has its consequences. It can’t be just profit. We are playing with the lives of workers.”
Mercado also sees an opportunity to raise awareness and educate the broader public and building owners. Some of the construction sites are “townhouses that go for millions and millions of dollars,” he says, “So you think at least they can take care of the workers who are building them”.
In the future, one approach could be issuing grades – similar to those used for restaurants – to building sites or developers.
“We have a situation that’s like a no-man’s-land with developers and contractors. You are always going to find the contractors who are charging the cheapest, developers are going to go with them.
“So how do we change that culture? It’s not only unfair for workers. It’s unfair for the good developers, and good contractors, who do want to do the right thing, but are being undercut by these other guys.”
Mercado also emphasizes the need to strengthen the pathway for worker center members into union jobs. In many ways the role the worker centers are playing, he says, is providing a space for organizing, for access to resources, and training, for workers who could potentially be part of a union. Despite challenges, he says that there “has to be a way”.
Building economic democracy
Workers’ lives and challenges extend well beyond the workplace, of course. La Colmena organizes cultural events like the “Nañi Migrante” festival, inviting relatives from Mexico to participate.
“These family reunions have been eye-opening,” Mercado says. “Family members come and see the conditions in which their relatives live, and see that the dollars are not hanging from the trees, and that they barely see [their relatives] because they are working 12 hours a day. It’s not like the beautiful photos that people see on Facebook about New York. There really is a sacrifice that people are making.”
La Colmena is studying the impact of remittances in towns in Mexico and looking at root causes of migration, while also advocating for immigration reforms that will benefit members here in the US.
Members are also exploring creative ways to build a collective economy. La Colmena was one of the many organizations that testified at last year’s “Joint New York City and State Hearing on Economic Democracy”. For example, what are the ways that members could join together and become home owners, rather than living perpetually in rented accommodation with all the risks that entails? Are there ways in which a large group could pool money so they can all be part of a cellphone plan?
In other words, says Mercado: “What are the opportunities for us to use that collective power and envision a different economy, an economy that is more inclusive, and based on values.”
This Martin Luther King day, residents from across the city joined Lower East Siders in solidarity, marching against displacement of local communities by luxury developments.
The focus was the construction of luxury mega-towers in the Two Bridges area of the Lower East side, but the march brought together people opposing similar developments in Inwood, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn.
“My students are being made homeless, they are going into shelters…there’s a domino effect happening.”
“The tower just encroaches on the community, and shades the project from the sun. I’m also here to defend the Elizabeth Street garden and the Nelson Mandela garden. To turn the neighborhood into luxury towers for people who use them as investments is very wrong.”
“Artists have a lot to learn about how to participate in a community, how to be a neighbor. We are here because we want to protect Chinatown, we want to protect cultural spaces from being destroyed by gentrification, and the dumping of construction projects over here on the waterfront.”
Read “Why We March“, a statement by Art Against Displacement on their solidarity with the march.
More details from the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, on the Two Bridges developments.
On January 16, a group of women was gathered in Tottenville Library, near the Southern Shore of Staten Island, knitting and talking. They meet regularly at the library, including for a weekly book club.
We discussed significant buildings in the town, changes from the past, and the growing risk of climate change.
Protecting the shoreline
Tottenville was badly hit by superstorm Sandy in 2012. Strengthening resiliency to future storms and rising sea levels is fundamentally important for local residents.
“That was the first thing that I asked my daughter when she built [her house] here – are we in a flood zone?”, said Linda, who recently moved from New Jersey to join her daughter. Newly built, and many existing, houses are elevated to protect them from flooding.
The group was excited to describe the Living Breakwaters project which will build a string of offshore breakwaters around the Southern part of the island, resuscitating the once-vibrant Oyster beds. “This borough won an award which allowed them to begin this project, which is very important ecologically,” said Linda.
Led by SCAPE landscape architects, the project won a $60 million grant from the Rebuild By Design program, and aims to “reduce risk, revive ecologies, and connect residents and educators to Staten Island’s southeast shoreline.”
The women are still concerned about what the impact of rising sea levels will be. “Overall, the lack of protection of our boundaries is terrible” said Rita. “[Sandy] was six years ago and they still don’t have a clear action plan.”
A long commute
With limited local employment opportunities, people living on the South Shore experience the City’s longest commutes to work – commutes that can be even longer than in the past, due to the changing nature of work.
“When I first went to work from the South Shore, we wouldn’t even consider working in midtown Manhattan. You took the train and took the ferry, and you walked to work [in lower Manhattan],” said Rita. “That’s where you worked. But that’s when a lot of industry was still there, you had insurance companies, telecoms, Wall Street, that whole span. And the high schools would connect you to companies where you could work.”
The role of the library
The women emphasized the important role of the Tottenville Library in their local community. Dating back to 1904, it’s the oldest and Southernmost library on Staten Island.
They described the change from libraries’ primary role in the past as points of reference where visitors were asked to remain silent, to more of a social hub now that so much information can be found online. For this group of women it has fostered valuable friendships.
Today residents from Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst took Target, the developers Sun-Equity Partners and Heskel Group and the Department of Buildings to the New York Supreme Court. They argued that construction at the 40-31 82nd St site should stop, and that the developers violated zoning regulations that only allow small businesses to be established in the area.
Here’s Grace from Queens Neighborhoods United, on the threat the development poses to local small businesses, and hazards for people accessing Elmhurst hospital just a block away.
As she says in the video, if small businesses have to close, “This is serious for our community, where over 30% of local jobs are provided by local small businesses.”
The judge deferred the ruling to the Board of Standards and Appeal, and denied a stop work order. The next step for the community members is taking the case to the Board of Standards and Appeals on March 7.
There was an interesting exchange in the court proceedings that hinged on the word “monumental”.
“We’re not talking about a monumental edifice here in the middle of a low rise community,” said the developers’ attorney.
To which the plaintiff’s attorney, from the Community Development Project, replied: “This is a monumental construction. It’s not a tower. It is a monumental hole in the middle of a residential neighborhood that is – has – local retail.”
“M’am, monumental is relative,” replied the judge.
“It is, it is relative to this neighborhood,” the plaintiffs’ attorney said.
Last Saturday, the Justice Center en El Barrio was packed as organizers shared challenges and strategies for “Building a Different Reality.”
In the context of a citywide and global housing crisis, the event set out to share alternatives. “From fighting for rent control to implementing eviction protections to creating community-controlled housing”, the event material said, “we can build new housing while also providing immediate relief to tenants.”
You can watch the livestream here (part one) and here (part two).
The Justice Center’s Karla Reyes, who is a high school teacher, described her work with the Center as “organizing outside the classroom for the things my students need.” With one in ten public school students in the city homeless, the right to housing is at the center of their needs. “A home is a fundamental right,” she said. “You can’t do anything without a place to live.”
Welcoming the panel speakers, Karla said the place to look for solutions is in ourselves, and that “the answers are in our communities.”
Marina Ortiz of the East Harlem/El BarrioCommunity Land Trust described how the City provided $500,000 towards renovating four buildings in East Harlem within a land trust model – similar to that used by the Cooper Square community land trust on the Lower East Side. While a step forward, the amount pales in comparison, Ortiz said, to the multi-million renovation of the East Harlem events and retail space La Marketa. Now it will be important for the community to determine the future of the land trust on their own terms. “Our fight is to push the City and show them there is an alternative,” she said.
She referred to the dominance of the real estate and construction industries within the city and internationally: “they are how this economy works.” And, given the recent cut-backs among NYC local news outlets, said that “we need to create and tell our own stories, and tell them in our communities.”
Lena Melendez of Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale shared lessons from the recent rezoning in Inwood. The Economic Development Corporation’s own consultations, she said, did not include some of the people at the heart of the neighborhood – the auto-parts industry, and small mom and pop stores – and did not provide adequate translation.
Lena said that given the challenges of engaging people who are already tied up in their daily struggles organizers have to get creative. They held a sit-in at Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez’ office to generate media attention, and organized a block party with food and music. Don’t underestimate the power of music to move people, she said!
Near the beginning of the event members of Semillas Collective reminded the audience through words and video of El Barrio’s deep historical roots, originally as indigenous land, and as a cradle of Latinx art, music, and organizing.
The combination of building on the work of ancestors, creative responses to the challenges of the present, and efforts to build a better future permeated the room. The Semillas collective read words from Marichuy, the indigenous leader and former Zapatista candidate for president of Mexico, including:
“Nos tejemos en colectivo como pueblos, y en este trabajo nos tejemos también como personas”
“We weave together collectively as a people. And in doing this work, we also weave and unite together as individuals.”
Update: Feb 8 2019 – The Washington Post reports that Amazon is re-considering using New York City as a headquarters location.
Update: Jan 15 2019 – Justice for All Coalition issues a statement setting out their reasons for opposing the Amazon deal, covering “public giveaways despite public need”; “Lack of community involvement”; “Jobs for whom?”; “Faux ‘community benefits'”; “Intensifying gentrification”; “Spurring the privatization of public housing and homelessness”.
On November 13, Amazon announced that one of its two new headquarter sites will be in Long Island City, Queens.
A citywide poll since then found that the majority of residents, with the information they have so far, support the HQ coming here. But concerns and opposition to the deal are mounting in Queens and beyond.
Locals’ many concerns are the granting of up to $5 billion in State and City subsidies to Amazon, the lack of consultation and transparency around the deal, the likely spike in housing costs while the city is in the midst of a housing crisis, and doubts that many of the promised jobs will be accessible to the local residents who need them most.
Justice for All Coalition
The day after the announcement I met with members of the Justice For All coalition at the Bel Aire diner in Astoria. Well before the Amazon announcement, Justice for All has been campaigning around the impacts of rapid development in Long Island City, for NYCHA residents, small business owners, and others.
The coalition is opposed to the deal, outraged that the City and State will provide billions in incentives to a company owned by the world’s richest man, while NYCHA apartments are in desperate need of repairs, including the removal of mold, and guaranteed heating in the winter.
Justice for All Co-Chair Yvette Kemp
“We already have an uncontrollable crisis,” Yvette says, speaking of the rapid development of hotels and residential towers in Long Island City, which has pushed prices up, forced small businesses to close, and led to overcrowding in local schools.
“With all this construction, I’m also concerned about the air quality, and the lack of green space.”
Access to jobs is also an issue.
As a Justice for All Coalition report found, Long Island City as a whole saw the number of jobs increase 30% between 2002 and 2015, while unemployment in the two largest public housing projects in the area, Ravenswood and Queensbridge, increased during the same period.
Christopher Hanway, Executive Director of Jacob A Riis Settlement
Jacob A Riis Settlement is a community-based organization in Long Island City. Its Executive Director emphasizes the need for Amazon to make deep and long-term investments in local workforce training programs if it comes to the city.
Well before the Amazon announcement, public housing residents were “feeling left out of the conversation and the decisions, and honestly have a lot of fear. People are like, what’s in it for us…how do we connect to these jobs?”
Piff Jones, rapper, Queensbridge Houses
“There’s a lot of people out here that need work…it gets tough out here. Amazon, IF they do hire us, it could be a step in the right direction for our community.”
Peter Johnson, LIC resident
Long Island City resident Peter Johnson is concerned about the strain on local infrastructure, like transit and sewer systems, as new big buildings go up. He questions whether the city’s recently-committed $180 million towards this will be enough, particularly given that the waterfront neighborhood faces the rapidly growing risk of sea-level rise and storms.
He also foresees the creation of an isolated Amazon tech hub while existing residents are priced out. “These tech hubs tend to be closed, gated communities, with high security, providing a gym, health clinics and soon, so that there’s no reason to leave.
“The people who work there have no need to be involved in anything that’s local.”
Ernesto Salazar, RWDSU
“I don’t think it’s fair that New York is giving subsidies of 3 billion dollars to a company that makes huge amounts of money, while we, the working class, are suffering.”
Shawn Dixon, Ottis and Finn barbershop in Long Island City
“This neighborhood has already had problems with the ability of some businesses to get and maintain leases.”
Jonathan Westin, New York Communities for Change
“Rents are already high in New York. Amazon coming here will push them even higher.”
Jackson Heights parents
“I’m scared about the rents becoming unaffordable in this part of Queens. The subways are already almost unusable, and it’s going to get worse…It’s really hard to boycott Amazon!”