Queens Is Worried About Becoming the New Brooklyn

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Hear the word “Brooklyn” these days and there are certain things of which you can’t help but think. Perhaps chief among them—at least these days—is gentrification. And while the first wave or two of gentrifiers usually occupy existing buildings, thereby leaving something of a community’s architectural integrity intact, later waves bring with them real development money, like, Ratner-level development money. Thus you wind up with the kind of looming structures which currently reside in parts of Downtown Brooklyn and the Williamsburg waterfront. These big glass towers aren’t necessarily what most people think of when they think “Brooklyn” (let’s not forget kale, right?), but they are undoubtedly one of the more obvious emblems of what happens when huge amounts of money get invested into the development of the next “new” neighborhood.

Despite Brooklyn’s reputation as the borough most thoroughly invaded by the gentrifying hordes, Queens has long been primed to share the burden of all the people fleeing Manhattan—after all, Long Island City and Astoria are just as accessible to Manhattan as Williamsburg and Greenpoint. And that’s to say nothing of the relatively affordable rents, abundant and diverse food options, museums and galleries aplenty, and, well, the Mets! (I say that last thing grudgingly because I am a since-birth-Yankees-fan, but, I’ll be honest, there have been many times I wished I was a Mets fan for a whole host of different reasons, but we can’t help who we are, you know?)

And yet despite all this, Queens has yet to become the “next Brooklyn” and instead has retained a seemingly intractable “Queens”-ness about it, for better (many would argue) or for worse. Sure, there has been major development along the Long Island City waterfront, but that feels anomalous and distinct from even the rest of the neighborhood. (It also, incidentally, feels more akin to the waterfront of Jersey City than that of Williamsburg, in that it seems like it was built and then populated by people who had some idea of wanting to live in New York without ever actually having lived in New York. It’s like our own mini-Brasilia only without Neimeyer’s stunning architecture.) But while those new developments have incredibly high rents for the borough, there is still more affordable housing in Queens than in Brooklyn or Manhattan, allowing Queens to maintain its position as a solid alternative to the real estate insanity in Kings County.

Now, though, there’s a new development in the works, one which has the support of the supposedly pro-affordable housing de Blasio administration and has Queens residents wondering if its construction will signal the real arrival of what “Brooklyn” means to them, namely, sky-high rents. The Wall Street Journal reports that “the roughly 1,700-unit Astoria Cove project,” which is “a 2.2-million-square-foot development on the Queens waterfront,”  has become a lighting rod for controversy recently. Set to be built in an area “primarily populated by auto-body shops and vacant lots and bounded by chain-link fences,” Astoria Cove was once supposed to offer up to 50% of its units as affordably priced housing, and now is looking to decrease that number to 17%. Many community action groups, as well as Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, are trying to preserve the original number of proposed affordable housing units in order for Queens to remain a relatively safe haven for the middle class. As Katz said Wednesday, “We don’t want to push folks out of this borough that have built this borough.”

Community advocate Jonathan Westin, director of New York Communities for Change, also pointed out, “we don’t want to see the Brooklynization of all of these areas that are up for development,” and pledged to keep for affordable housing in the neighborhood. It seems, then, that to Westin and to many others, the “Brooklynization” of a neighborhood means only one thing. The “Brooklynization” of a neighborhood means that it becomes unaffordable to anyone who isn’t wealthy. The “Brooklynization” of a neighborhood means the erasure of an area’s history. The “Brooklynization” of a neighborhood means the construction of architectural monstrosities whose only geographical point of interest is how close it is to Manhattan. So, of course, Queens doesn’t want to be the next Brooklyn. If this is what “Brooklyn” means, nowhere should want to be the next Brooklyn—including Brooklyn.

Of course, I don’t think this is all that Brooklyn is; its mallification is not yet complete—not even close. But it is something of a wake up call to be reminded that for many people—including our most immediate neighbors—Brooklyn represents nothing more than ugly buildings with unaffordable apartments that destroy existing communities. And we should all fight that version of Brooklyn wherever we see it, whether it’s in Astoria or Crown Heights.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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  1. No joke. It’s not enough that Hipsters have destroyed Brooklyn. They’re like locusts that continue to feed and destroy.