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 impossible 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:

Day laborers organizing for change at La Colmena, Staten Island

Signs outside La Colmena

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.

The CUNY report “Day Labor, Worker Center & Disaster Relief Work in the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy” describes workers’ exposure to hazardous materials and unsafe working conditions, the lack of preparedness for the storm, and the combination of ignorance and negligence on the part of many homeowners and contractors.

Important advances have been made since Sandy.

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.”

Read more and take action:

La Colmena

Endorse the SWEAT bill which will help workers recover unpaid wages

Support the passage of Carlos’ law in the NY Senate, to increase the fines and penalties developers face for safety infractions that lead to the death or injury of a worker.

National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON)

Gonzalo Mercado at La Colmena’s day laborer center