Hudson Yards and the Right to the City

One of the ads on the shiny new electronic stands at Hudson Yards assures us that Wells Fargo and Hudson Yards are “shaping New York’s Future Together.” Wells Fargo is the “preferred bank” of the $25 billion development that opened last week on Manhattan’s West side.

If indeed the future does look like Hudson Yards, it will be a dystopian one. In so many ways, Hudson Yards epitomizes the opposite of the “right to the city” – of city dwellers’ “freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves.”

A walk around Hudson Yards immediately puts many of our rights into question. For example…

The right to privacy

As people move around Hudson Yards, Related, the projects’ main developer, is collecting data about their movements. It will hold the data indefinitely. The electronic towers like the one with the Wells Fargo ad have interactive screens on the side, with tiny cameras installed. Jay Cross, President of Related Hudson Yards has said in a Real Deal interview that so far the primary use of the cameras is to convey information back to advertisers:

“We can say how many people looked at this ad, for how long. Did they seem interested, bored, were they smiling?”

That could just be the start of it, with Related able to share the data to third parties. “We can do what we want with our data,” Cross adds.

The rights to participation and to public space

Forget about it! With significant State-level involvement, there were not the usual City-based checks and balances to make sure that development projects take local, public needs into account. As Samuel Stein, author of “Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State” puts it, Hudson Yards is the “ultimate example of real estate-driven urban planning.”

Beyond the lack of community input on the process of developing Hudson Yards, is the fact that it is a development shamelessly targeted at a super-wealthy minority. New York Times’ architecture critic Michael Kimmelman wrote:

“It is, at heart, a supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent.”

In many people’s minds, New York is associated with an image of chaotic, diverse streets and sidewalks. The sidewalks are places of spontaneous interaction – at times messy, often challenging and fraught with contention – but public interaction all the same.

Hudson Yards, with its concrete spaces surrounded by flat glass walls, destroys the idea of the street.

Ironically, Thomas Heatherwick, the architect of the “Vessel” (aka the “shawarma”) sees it as a “building extension of the public space”. He has described the twisting staircases as an opportunity for an “unspoken choreography as you see each other”. But through the lenses of selfie-taking, instagramming cameras, Vessel visitors don’t see each other, in fact it’s almost as if they don’t see themselves.

At the time of the opening, Related’s terms of service gave the right to all photos taken on the Vessel to the company – a policy it only tweaked after a public outcry.

The right to adequate housing

New York City is in the midst of a housing crisis, with over 60,000 people homeless each night, and increasing numbers of New Yorkers displaced from neighborhoods as they are unable to afford the rent. Hudson Yards – originally conceived by the Bloomberg administration following New York City’s unsuccessful Olympics bid – prioritized luxury apartments from the outset. Penthouses at Hudson Yards are going for $14 million and more, while only 1,300 apartments in the fully-completed complex will be subsidized at any level.

The right to non-discrimination

The 100% male and largely white line-up for the launch day says so much about the demographics of who calls the shots at Hudson Yards and who will reap the benefits.

The line-up conveyed a clear message, that this project is not by nor for the majority of New Yorkers.

Freedom of association

In 2018, Related began using non-union contractors on the Hudson Yards project, almost unheard of for major Manhattan developments. The building and construction trades council launched the “CountMeIn” campaign to fight back, but the Related move had stoked divisions between unions. Related reached a deal with the trades council conveniently right before launch day, hailing a “new model of collaboration”, and leaving many of the rank and file union members feeling betrayed.

Bennett Kremen, a member of Pipeliners Local 798 reportedly said: “Seeing this tragic betrayal of the ‘Count Me In’ movement now explains exactly why the great American labor movement and our struggling democracy are dying.”

The future

At an event at the 92Y that coincided with the Hudson Yards opening day, New York magazine’s editor at large Carl Swanson said: “I guess it reflects a kind of new international style”.

True…an international style that’s recognizable from Dubai, to Singapore, to new cities mimicking Dubai that are popping up across Africa.

However much the Hudson Yards developers and beneficiaries might like to believe this is a valid future they are creating, it’s an unsustainable one. The fight for the right to the city is alive and well in new York, as it is in so many cities.

Last night, organizations from across the five boroughs gathered to call on elected officials to make the vision of a Green New Deal for New York City a reality: reducing emissions from buildings, transitioning to renewable energy and more.

The new 2019 report by the New York City Panel on Climate Change features community-based assessments of adaptation and equity that are led by grassroots organizations in Harlem, Hunts Point and Sunset Park.

And the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance is tirelessly fighting for legal reforms to protect New York’s tenants and homeless people.

These are the people who are shaping New York’s future together.

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Follow district-by-district stories of people transforming the way we build in NYC, via the Rights Here map:

On MLK day, a march against displacement from the Lower East Side to City Hall

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.
Myrie, a teacher from the Bronx, with Educators Against Displacement
“My students are being made homeless, they are going into shelters…there’s a domino effect happening.”
Lower East Side resident Ed
“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.”
Artist Jamie
“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. The Chinatown Working Group’s Community-led Rezoning Plan. And City Limits on a joint lawsuit brought against the project by the City Council and Manhattan Borough President, and lawsuits filed by community groups.

Building a Different Reality, at Justice Center en el Barrio

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!

Chino May of the Bronx Social Center and Take Back the Bronx emphasized how critical it is to engage residents really early on in re-zoning processes, as his group and others are now doing with the upcoming likely re-zoning of an area stretching up from 163rd Street along the Bronx River.

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.”

Further context:

The NYC Community Land Trust Movement Wants To Go Big – City Limits, January 2018

Community views – Amazon in Long Island City

Update: Feb 14 2019 – Amazon pulled out of its plans to develop a headquarters in Long Island City.

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.

l to r: Kristen Hackett, Yvette Kemp, Nick Velkov, Mary McClary, Deaconess AnLaVonne Respass

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!”