Earlier this month, Anthony Bourdain of the award-winning CNN travel series Parts Unknown took his viewers on a journey through Queens. Over steaming bowls of thenthuk (Tibetan hand-pulled noodle soup), tamales, and Korean food that is “more authentic than food in K-town,” Bourdain engaged locals in conversations about the future of Queens. For some of his interviewees, Queens is still a place where immigrants can “make it,” rising from rags to riches to live the American dream; but for others, the future is far less certain.
In true Bourdain fashion, he starts his conversations with street vendors. The street vendors of Queens provide their communities with meals which create a sense of “home away from home.” They also operate as extra eyes on the street, keeping their neighborhoods safe, and serve as unorthodox community spaces where locals can share updates from their lives and discuss current events. If all goes well, these street vendors will save enough to open up storefronts, providing a more financially secure future for the next generation. But Parts Unknown highlights that the path to ownership and financial stability for immigrants is often fraught with perils.
After losing her job in the world trade center after 9/11, Evelyn Coyotzi became a tamale vendor to support her family. Despite the popularity of her lovingly hand crafted tamales, the business struggled. She was arrested 15 times because, like thousands of other vendors, she could not get a license.
There are 20,000 street vendors in NYC, but only one in five vendors actually have a license because of an outdated NYC law from the 1980s which caps the number of street vendor licenses to 4,200. Vendors who can’t get a license face a tough choice: face hefty fines and arrests or enter the black market where vendors pay above-market prices to “rent” the rare city-issued licenses. According to the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a permit that costs just $200 annually from the city may go for $25,000 on the black market.
Parts Unknown elevates one policy solution in an interview with Sean Basinski of the Street Vendor Project. The Street Vendor Modernization Act would double the number of street permits across NYC over a seven year-period starting on March 1, 2018. This is an important step, but does not fully address the issues that street vendors and other immigrants face as they seek to maintain their foothold in Queens.
As neighborhood demographics have been changing in Queens, there has been a push to get street vendors—even those with licenses—off the street. “If you get higher rents, nicer buildings, they’re not going to want a street cart out front,” said Bourdain. Working class people are also finding it harder to afford rents which have soared—so much that the average Queens resident spent over half their income on rent in 2016.
One of Bourdain’s interviewees brushes off these changes as the “story of New York”, implying that demographic shifts and displacement are inevitable. He misses the point. Gentrification is never an accident. Gentrification happens when policy makers and developers deliberately collude to advance policies which benefit those with capital over poor and working class communities. In Queens, we see this through:
- Increased police presence and crack downs on “quality-of-life” crimes which are a way of pushing out immigrants from their homes to make way for new, luxury developments in Jackson Heights and Corona;
- Proposals for business improvement districts which shift power to large business owners at the expense of small mom and pop shops in Queens;
- Rezonings which will attract new corporations and high rise luxury development to neighborhoods like Long Island City; and
- Other public-private partnerships to deliberately raise land values in Queens through proposals such as the Brooklyn-Queens Connector and the Sunnyside Yards development.
Collectively, these gentrification schemes will raise property values, while pushing out the street vendors and immigrants who Bourdain rhapsodizes in Parts Unknown. To truly protect Queens as a diverse and vibrant borough where working class people can thrive, we must fight for much more than just the Street Vendor Modernization Act; we must push for a comprehensive set of policies which put a break on the run-away luxury developments in Queens, while protecting those who are most vulnerable to getting pushed out of their homes and businesses by unscrupulous measure.
Here are a few ideas to stop gentrification in Queens:
- Pressure your local Council Member to stop land-use changes that favor corporate and luxury developer interests over poor and working class people. In NYC, most major land-use change requires a community-review process in order to move forward. While local community boards can weigh in on these decisions, their opinions are advisory-only. City Council on the other hand has the power to stop a land use change, and City Council almost always defers to the local Council Members. That is why we are demanding that our local Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer oppose three major developments which we know will hurt our community: Long Island City Core Rezoning, Sunnyside Yards, and BQX trolley(Read more on the community-review process here). Pressure your local Council Member through direct calls, participation in protests, signing petitions(like this one), and gaining allies to join you in your cause. This strategy is particularly effective during election season, when Council Members are afraid of losing votes.
- Push for policies that prevent displacement of renters and businesses. Some neighborhood changes do not have to go through the community-review process. For example, a developer could build a luxury condo “as-of-right” on privately owned land which meets the height restrictions of the existing zoning code. But this could still have a major impact on the community. Once neighboring property owners recognize that the “neighborhood is changing” they may also raise rents in their buildings to take advantage of the market. Even property owners in rent stabilized buildings can use strategies such as intimidation to vacate apartments and “major capital investments” to push rents higher than the percentage set by the rent guidelines board. Proposed anti-displacement policies such as the Citywide Certificate of No Harassment and Small Business Jobs Survival Act could go a long way to protect the most vulnerable renters and small businesses in a speculative market.
- Demand genuine community-based planning. For the long-term survival of our communities, we must go beyond the whack-a-mole strategy of fighting each gentrification scheme which crops up; communities must be able to put forward their own, alternative plans which are enforceable by the city. Technically a community-based planning process exists, but too many roadblocks mean that these plans usually only come to fruition in whiter, wealthier communities. According to section 197-a of the 1989 New York City Charter, community boards have the right to put forward their own community-based plans. Yet out of more than 100 community plans that have been put forward in the last half century, only 13 have officially been approved as “197-a plans.” As Hunter Professor Tom Angotti explains in Zoned Out! Race, Displacement and City Planning in New York City we must radically rethink the way community planning works in New York City. That starts with vesting more decision-making authority in community boards; guaranteeing that every community board have a full-time trained planner who is knowledgeable about community-based planning; and holding community boards accountable to principles of social justice as too many boards openly discriminate on the basis of race and ethnicity and fail to engage all corners of their neighborhood.
To learn more about how to get involved in building a movement, reach out to us at QueensAntiGentrification@gmail.com.