Last week, The Times ran an article addressing Amazon’s imminent move to Long Island City with the title,“What Amazon May Mean for Queens: Gentrification and (More) Packed Trains.” While the piece discussed at length the problems the MTA will face with the stress of an additional 25,000 workers cramming an already-overworked 7 line, it gave short shrift to the threat high-earning young tech workers pose to communities in LIC and Queens.
“But not everyone is ready to roll out a welcome mat,” Times reporters wrote. “Community groups said Amazon should pay a gentrification tax to offset the anticipated effect of the new work force….”
What is this anticipated effect?
Jeremiah Moss is the pen name of writer Griffin Hansbury, who has been documenting the deleterious consequences of 21st-century gentrification in New York City on his blog Vanishing New York since 2007. His book, published last year by Dey Street Books—Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul—is both a taxonomy of New York gentrification and a passionate, detailed and extraordinarily sad history of how and why it occurred.
According to Moss, Queens will enter a period of “hyper-gentrification,” which encapsulates “not only the real estate deals, the movement of money, and the displacement of lower-income people and small, local businesses. It’s the whole megillah. It’s the return of the white-flight suburbanites’ grandchildren and their appetite for a ‘geography of nowhere’…in which monotonous chain stores nullify the streets. It’s cupcakes, cronuts, and hundred-dollar doughnuts dipped in 24-karat gold. It’s the ugly extravaganza of what New York, and too many other cities, have become—playgrounds for the ultra nouveau riche, orchestrated by oligarchs in sky-high towers, the streets stripped of character, whitewashed and varnished until they look like Anywhere, USA. It’s the displacement of the working class and the poor, people of color, artists, and oddballs. And it’s the changed psychic climate. A city once famously neurotic is becoming malignantly narcissistic. Hyper-gentrification has a character—and it’s a sociopathic one. Intelligent, malevolent, and directed, it is shot up with rage and vengeance.”
The hyper-gentrification of the 21st century, which Amazon’s proposed move most certainly represents, differs from the relatively benign gentrification of the 1980s and 1990s—which included “neighborhood revitalization” by local businesses and community boards—in that it is a concerted effort by municipal government and large private money to redesign and repurpose entire swaths of the city. (Take for example, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s blatant prostitution of Long Island City in their attempt to attract Amazon, with Cuomo joking that he would rename Newtown Creek the “Amazon River.”)
In this arrangement, residents and businesses that have been the bedrock of their communities for decades are forced to cede space, property, and culture to the ruling class. This disruption of a community’s “emotional ecosystem” causes trauma—a trauma Mindy Thompson, professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Public Health at Columbia University, calls the “root shock,” a traumatic stress reaction that can increase anxiety and depression in those who have been displaced (either physically or culturally) by sudden change in their community.
Moss provides a comprehensive and fervent litany of examples of how and where hyper-gentrification took place, including moving elegies for the East Village, the Bowery and the West Side of Manhattan, with a focus on the ultra-fashionable High Line and the western blocks of Bleecker Street. His chapter on Queens is relatively brief, in part, he writes, because as a borough with large immigrant populations, it has been relatively resistant to gentrification.
Moss does, however, track the fate of Long Island City as “The Next Hot Neighborhood,” as declared in 1980 by New York magazine, along with the opening of “the scrappy” P.S. 1 in 1976 and its partnering with MoMA in 1997, as well as a lengthy lament on the regrettable demise of the 5 Pointz mural. He also warns that the borough is “on the cusp of change, where gentrification is happening sporadically.”
Some of it, Moss argues, is designed by City Hall, and some of it is “indirect, spillover from rezoned, redeveloped Brooklyn, the endless push of Manifest Destiny. These days, we hear most often about Ridgewood Queens. Its borders touch three of Brooklyn’s most gentrified neighborhoods—Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Bushwick—and the L train, that hipster express, skirts its lower regions. Just looking at a map, you can see it was only a matter of time before the Williamsburg diaspora crossed the line.”
Vanishing New York gives a one-sided account of the effects of gentrification, but it is an imperative account nonetheless. Moss is an evangelist of the unconventional and aberrant: the weird, the queer, the working class, the immigrant, the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that make a city like New York distinct from any other place in the world. He is also a cartographer of the dark underbelly of corporate America and the neoliberal ideology that dominates contemporary society.
“Gentrification is just the fin above water,” Moss quotes author Rebecca Solnit, who saw hyper-gentrification coming to San Francisco as early as 2000, as saying. “Below is the rest of the shark: a new American economy in which most of us will be poorer, a few will be far richer, and everything will be faster, more homogeneous and more controlled or controllable.”
Some will object to Moss’ interpretation of the history of 21st-century New York, and will claim that all cities change all the time; that gentrification has resulted in cleaner, safer and more economically robust neighborhoods. Amazon will likely bring with it more businesses to the area to service its 25,000-strong staff. But will the holders of these jobs be able to live in Queens themselves?
Eileen Myles, the poet who once attended Queens College and whom Moss quotes throughout Vanishing New York, writes in Inferno, her own memoir of the changing city, “The story [of old New York] becomes sort of an arch for the older person to talk under and the new people to stand around there and listen. And then step through and walk on….Always the new city grows as the old one is shrinking and a person’s ability to arrive in some comfortable state with both cities has a lot to do with money.”
Myles was writing about the relatively slowly evolving New York of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. The difference with the hyper-gentrification experienced in the 2000s is that the new city has not organically grown over the old; it has buried it alive: The new high-rise apartment buildings that have sprung up from Williamsburg to Long Island City can be viewed as glass nails in the giant coffin of a once ethnically, culturally, sexually and economically diverse city, hammered in by the rich and the homogeneous.
Part of the joy and the fright in reading Vanishing New York is that Moss knows the level of his passion and the possibilities of distortion this may lead to. Is he overreacting? Is he a gentrification alarmist? It depends on how we want our city to be. All things come at a cost, including both diversity and gentrification. The problem is that hyper-gentrification takes away all possibility of choice.
Anticipating his detractors from the outset, Moss opens the book with a chilling epigraph from Solnit’s Hollow City, one we should remember as we see the high-rises continue to sprout out of the gentrification-fertile ground of Long Island City.
“Every city changes, and walking through a slowly changing city is like walking through an organic landscape during various seasons; leaves and even trees fall, birds migrate, but the forest stands: familiarity anchors the changes. But as the pace of change accelerates, a disjuncture between memory and actuality arises and one moves through a city of phantoms, of the disappeared, a city that is lonely and disorienting; one becomes…an exile at home.”