Despite Amazon's Departure, The Future of Art in Long Island City is Hazy
The scrapping of Amazon's proposed HQ2 location in Queens was a major win against hypergentrification, but local artists are still being displaced.
New York's graffiti iconic spot '5Pointz' stands defaced with white paint covering most of the art work, after the building was painted white in New York, November 19, 2013. (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
This article was supposed to be about how artists in Long Island City are reacting to Amazon’s proposed HQ2. Then, things changed.
In November of 2018, Amazon announced it would be placing one of its new headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, a neighborhood on the East River across from Midtown Manhattan and just north of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The state and city had promised the company $3 billion in various capital grants and tax breaks to set up shop, in exchange for a promised 25,000 new jobs over 10 years.
Long Island City has long been synonymous with artists, who found cheap rents and ample studio space in the neighborhood’s old warehouses. It was where Noguchi built his studio, where artists from Matthew Barney to Rudolph Stinger to Takashi Murakami worked, where the street artists of 5Pointz painted murals before developers bulldozed their work, and where museums and galleries like MoMA PS1 and the Fisher Landau Center thrived. But in 2001, the city rezoned LIC from an industrial neighborhood to a residential one. Since then, gentrification has taken hold, with 41 new residential buildings constructed between 2010 and 2017, many high rise luxury rentals. The bohemian vibe of the neighborhood started to give way to a more corporate one, and many worried the creative community of LIC would be imperiled.
This was the atmosphere Amazon would have been dropping into. But then, to the city’s shock, Amazon pulled out. Amazon and Governor Andrew Cuomo blamed local politicians. Mayor Bill de Blasio blamed Amazon. Few acknowledged the numerous grassroots campaigns from local residents whose landlords wanted to raise their rents $800 a month in anticipation of newer, richer residents. For now, it seems, Amazon’s campaign of rapid, often ruthless change has been put on hold; still, things continue to change for local artists.
Tobi Kahn first rented a studio in LIC in 1978, back when his space was $125 a month, and when his neighbors down the street were the Talking Heads. His landlord would only rent him the whole floor, so Kahn decided to take over the space and rent to other artists. “I told [the landlord] It has to be very inexpensive because artists don’t have any money to spare, but I promise you we'll always pay on time and we won't drive you crazy,” he said. Now, Kahn owns the building on Jackson Avenue, sharing expenses with other artists. “Even though I found the space and we divided it up into separate studio spaces, I decided to split the rent and expenses equally among the artists, as I never wanted to make money at their expense. That was something I cared a lot about. We just divided everything.”
That sort of equitable community is what drew Garrison Buxton to Astoria’s Welling Court, which, residing just north of LIC, would have been greatly affected by Amazon’s presence. Buxton, who co-founded Ad Hoc Art, met Welling Court resident Jonathan Ellis around 2008 through mutual friend Reverend Billy, who wanted their artists who help beautify the neighborhood. The result was a massive mural project that’s been going for almost a decade now. For Buxton, it was an example of the kind of healthy collaboration that can happen in a changing neighborhood. “The key is is that we didn't pick the neighborhood. The neighborhood picked us. We weren't intruding or imposing ourselves. We were invited and welcomed,” he said. However, new development is starting to affect the project. “This may be the first year where we actually have a reduction depending on what becomes available just because there's been massive development. We've lost a number of buildings, at least three or four just within the last couple of years.”
Much of the appeal of Long Island City to new residents is its artistic history and culture—the galleries, artists’ lofts and graffiti all provide a sense of urban romance. But the full-time artists in the neighborhood are often finding it harder to adapt. When Amanda Barker, an artist who lives in Sunnyside, Queens and has a studio in Long Island City, first moved to New York almost eight years ago, she and her husband even then found LIC rents to be out of their price range. But after picking up a second job, she was able to afford a work studio at Local Project, a non-profit arts space in LIC. “I’ve been in Long Island City weekly for art shows, visits to PS1 and various shops, many of which I miss dearly, as they have closed at this point.”
What Amazon represented to many residents was not just gentrification, but hypergentrification, a term coined by Jeremiah Moss as a “top down” collusion between municipal government and private development to completely reconfigure whole neighborhoods, often over residents’ heads. When Amazon announced they were leaving, many artists were relieved, even if the company’s retreat doesn’t signal an all-out win for the soul of the neighborhood. “I know that a lot of New York was split on this issue. I’ve seen the articles, and I can understand many of the reasons. But if the city is going to continue to build new high-rises and bring corporations in, there has to be some way to work with the communities and do this without the potential displacement of its residents,” said Barker.
Many artists point to 5Pointz, the mural space that was painted over overnight by developer Jerry Wolkoff and eventually demolished for a high-rise, as a moment when artists felt the threat of hypergentrification. Kahn, who was never completely anti-Amazon, called it “one of the most disturbing events to to take place in the neighborhood. I think that was a more complicated story than Amazon.” But Buxton says Amazon “would have overwhelmingly been a horrible thing for the art community,” as it would have accelerated the rate at which artists are losing their space in the area, and made what happened to 5Pointz more likely for other artists. “Hands down, it would have increased rents and property values, which would have directly translated to fewer and fewer affordable spaces for creative people that are already living on the margins and getting crushed.”
Kahn, Buxton and Barker all said the city, and LIC in particular, needs more affordable housing and housing for the homeless, better subway service, and more protections from greedy landlords. However, those needs all existed before Amazon started throwing their weight around. What’s changed in the wake of Amazon’s announcement is not the problems, but what a solution looks like. “I have to say one thing that I have found really unique and inspiring about living in Queens has been experiencing the love that people here have for their community,” said Barker. “So many residents have been protesting since Amazon announced that it would be coming here. I honestly didn’t think that it was going to make a difference, but now I see what can be accomplished with that kind of determination.”