Amazon leaves New York and shows that urban activism works

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Yesterday, Amazon announced abruptly that it would abandon its plan to build a second headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. For some politicians, such as Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill Di Blasio, who were the main supporters of the deal, it was a devastating loss for the city. But for many Queens residents, fearful that the arrival of Amazon would lead to rising housing costs and relocation, it is a victory.

The decision underscores the power of activism in cities and the strength of local communities to oppose policies and development projects that they believe do not benefit from it. It is also part of a revival of grassroots activism around affordable housing, education and public space in cities.

"The promise of new jobs and more money is not attractive for workers, who know that they are completely excluded from this process, not just now, but decades before," says Lena P. Afridi, director of economic development policy at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a non-profit organization that supported several other local organizations in the fight against Amazon. "It is always thought that development is good, and capital inflows are good, but people are beginning to realize the impact it will have on housing, infrastructure, schools and entire neighborhoods."

A Chhaya-organized demonstration at Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, Queens. [Photo: courtesy Chhaya]

Afridi says she also comes across the same kind of backlash when it comes to smaller projects. It is a common response to developers who enter a community without listening or adhering to the concerns of the local population, both in American cities and abroad. There have been other high-profile victories in recent years: in Berlin, activists have fought against Google's attempt to turn an old electric business premises into a technical breeding ground, where the tech giant has been convincingly convinced to step up its development in the autumn of 2018. to give. some developers to have managed to find middle ground with activists who have fought for their voices to be heard. The developers behind the Kingsbridge project in the Bronx, who want to transform an old arsenal into a skating complex, reached an agreement with community groups in 2014, including free skate time for local children and 50,000 square feet of community space.

Although some developers have found ways to compromise and work with community groups, Amazon's decision to cancel the project just a few months after choosing NYC seems bound to the refusal to involve the communities it would have affected. In other words, it was Amazon's way, or not at all.

"Amazon's behavior today shows why they would at least be a bad partner for New York," said New York State Senator and fierce Amazon opponent Michael Gianaris in a statement. "Instead of seriously engaging with the community they proposed to change thoroughly, Amazon continued its efforts to frustrate governments to get their way, and it is time for a national dialogue on the dangers of this type of business subsidy. "

One reason that New Yorkers were opposed to Amazon's headquarters was the fact that the company would receive around $ 3 billion in tax benefits from the city and the state. According to Afridi, the policies that make this kind of subsidies possible date back to the 1970s, when few companies were interested in moving to New York City.

"It was for an economic and political movement that no longer exists," she says. "New York City is doing great in the last two decades, but we've seen unbridled inequality, a lot of displacement and unbridled development without the protection people need to stay in their neighborhoods and communities."

But in the past two decades, the kind of urban activism that led to victory against Amazon or the Kingsbridge agreement is less common in New York. Even in the 1950s & 60s, activism around urban planning issues such as gentrification and relocation was strong, thanks to the efforts of urbanists like Jane Jacobs. It died out in the years & # 39; 70 and & # 39; 80. Since then, most of the major developments have faced opposition from activists, but they are rarely effective – probably because corporate interests are so powerful and activists usually do not have the enormous numbers and political support that the anti-Amazon movement could use. In particular, Queens and Bronx Congressman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez opposed the deal and rallied many online.

"Everything is possible: today was the day that a group of dedicated, everyday New Yorkers and their neighbors have defeated Amazon's business greed, the exploitation of workers and the power of the richest man in the world," she said. wrote on Twitter after the news broke.

In the announcement Amazon says it was the opposition of local politicians who convinced it not to continue with HQ2 in Queens, without mentioning local activists. Instead, the company claimed that it had strong support from the people, pointing to an opinion poll from Amazon, which showed that 70% of New Yorkers supported the plan.

A Chhaya-organized demonstration at Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, Queens. [Photo: courtesy Chhaya]

"New York has this great history of organizing, coming together from communities, and standing up for themselves and achieving these amazing victories," says Will Spisak, the program director of Chhaya Community Development Corporation, who advocates affordable housing in predominantly South Asian Nations. and Indo-Caribbean communities in Queens. "But I feel like this kind of real estate speculation has been in the pockets for decades, pushing communities around."

Spisak, who was at the forefront of the fight against Amazon, refers to a trend of developers who come in what he & # 39; s traditionally divested communities & # 39; mentions where companies try to profit from cheap real estate, similar to what happened in the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn. The Amazon project, with its incredible scale, would have taken over a large, underdeveloped area in Long Island City, which is already an expensive neighborhood, but the ripple effects would have affected the neighborhoods around the whole district.

Chhaya organized in neighborhoods such as Jackson Heights and Flushing, as well as in Long Island City, and reached out to local tenants, homeowners and business owners to inform them about the Amazon project and to hear their perspectives. Spisak says that the organizers in Mandarin, Urdu, Hindi, Nepali and Spanish reached in all kinds of neighborhoods and ethnic communities. "Usually it did not cost much, because people immediately knew when they heard about this coming that it would not benefit them – that it would keep people moving along the lines of what we saw in our neighborhoods for a decade, if not longer, "says Spisak.

Ultimately, victory can be a signal that urban activism is back in a big way. "I also think that in our hope it is also the beginning of something", says Spisak. "Due to the scale of this problem, we were able to hire people who may not have been included in smaller developments … Eventually, this will remind people that organizing results will produce, that if you fight, you can win."

Spisak hopes that this will also remind developers that community involvement is not an obstacle – it is a necessity. Or, as Amazon discovered, there will be consequences.

"When communities come together, even a Goliath like Amazon realizes that you can not win," says Spisak. "You can not push 8 million Davids."