When Amazon announced Long Island City as the location of its second U.S. headquarters, a large population of young and progressive LIC and nearby Astoria residents aggressively opposed the plan. Their reasons for opposition: Amazon, a tax-dodging, anti-union corporation, would drive up rent, kill local business and crowd public transportation. Despite this loud outcry, 80 percent of Queens registered voters supported the Amazon deal, believing it would bring local development and jobs for thousands of borough residents. In the end, the minority who opposed the deal prevailed, and Amazon pulled out of Queens.
The fervent opposition to Amazon’s expansion in Queens is no surprise. LIC and Astoria have seen an influx of young professionals eager to escape Manhattan and Brooklyn’s soaring rents. This influx of liberal young people has ushered a resurgent left wing in western Queens, where Democratic Socialists of America members canvass the streets to support bold and progressive firebrands, including U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and public defender Tiffany Cab·n for Queens district attorney.
I am a young, progressive resident of Astoria. I support AOC and Cab·n’s commitment to criminal justice reform and environmental protection. And I am excited by all the activists in the Queens DSA fighting for progressive change. My concern is that many of these activists are engaging in a form of “political gentrification,” by moving to a neighborhood and telling longtime residents that their elected officials, political values and beliefs are all wrong.
When Amazon made its headquarters announcement, I found the deal concerning. I was wary it would raise rent prices and hurt small businesses. I was also aware that a large majority of Queens residents outside my liberal Astoria bubble viewed it as a job opportunity. Many community activists opposed the Amazon deal for thoughtful reasons. But many young Astoria residents, with high-paying jobs in Manhattan, opposed the deal without considering the economic opportunity for other Queens residents. Many who applauded Amazon’s demise ignored the opinions of longtime Queens residents.
The Amazon deal is a prime example of political gentrification. Young, new Queens residents opposed a deal that would provide jobs for the borough. They firmly stuck to this position and insisted that the 80 percent of Queens residents who supported the deal were simply wrong or misinformed. They aggressively imposed their political view and left no room for debate.
The irony, of course, is that the young progressives engaging in political gentrification are the same people who condemn gentrification. They rightly insist that newcomers to a neighborhood should respect the culture, practices, thoughts and views of longtime residents. But apparently if those residents have a different political opinion, those sentiments go out the window.
In the Queens DA race, Tiffany Cab·n lost to Melinda Katz, the Democratic establishment candidate, by 55 votes. Cab·n’s higher share of votes came in rapidly gentrifying western Queens, including LIC and Astoria, but Katz bested her in the more racially diverse and working class eastern and southern Queens. Cab·n was a major underdog in the race, and her near-win is a testament to the strong grassroots organizing led by her campaign and supporters such as the Queens Branch of the DSA. However, the pronounced voting divisions between western and eastern Queens highlights the need for the DSA, and the young progressive activists who recently arrived to Queens, to engage with longtime residents outside LIC and Astoria.
By engaging with and listening to longtime Queens residents, the young political activists living in western Queens can avoid political gentrification. These activists should become familiar with the needs of their neighbors and respect their opinions. For instance, numerous subway trains serve western Queens, while eastern Queens has very few options for public transportation. Residents who have only one bus stop in their neighborhood may prioritize improved bus routes over improved bike lanes — and that should be respected.
Most young progressives would agree with Spike Lee’s statement on gentrification: “I’m for democracy and letting everybody live, but you gotta have some respect. You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations and you come in and now s--t gotta change because you’re here?”
To all the new Queens residents engaging in progressive activism, listen to the people who have been living here for decades. Respect that they may have a different opinion on political matters. Trust their judgement. When longtime residents feel included and valued in your activism — that’s how real progressive change happens.
Daniel Calder is a public health professional and educator who lives in Astoria.