I’m not a religious person, but when I moved to my one-bedroom apartment in Astoria, a neighborhood in western Queens just north of Amazon’s proposed location, it felt like a sort of miracle. For almost two years I’d lived in a noisy third-floor studio deeper into the borough, braving two hour commutes to an adjunct teaching job in the Bronx. Though the building was well-kept, the sound insulation was so poor that the three male neighbors in the surrounding units seemed to be walking through my apartment and playing video games right in my living room.
The Astoria apartment, in a pre-War building, turned out to be blissfully quiet. I could barely hear my neighbors, and the windows looked out onto the back yards of private homes. Over the roofs of farther buildings I could see the spire of the Empire State Building, and if I craned my neck, the scalloped pinnacle of the Chrysler.
The apartment wasn’t cheap, but by working two or more jobs — that is, by working almost constantly, I could just afford it. Since Manhattan and Brooklyn were completely out of reach, and the prices elsewhere in Queens were also rising, it was a rare find. I’ve been living here for the past two years and it’s made a world of a difference: I’ve been able to write, to think, and every once in a while, when work lets up, go out and talk to people who aren’t colleagues or students.
I like the neighborhood with its mix of immigrants from Brazil, Croatia, and Bangladesh, so typical of Queens. Of course, there are many younger professionals, too, bringing with them trendy restaurants and yoga studios. But Astoria has so far resisted total gentrification. Cheap eateries, bodegas, and watch repair shops hold their own alongside Starbucks and juice bars.
Still, ever since I moved my existence — and the neighborhood’s — seemed precarious. In the neighboring Long Island City, Amazon’s proposed new home, glass condo- and office-towers were going up at a dizzying pace. Less than 20 years ago the area was hodgepodge of light industry, auto-repair shops and taxi garages. As industry declined, LIC — as most New Yorkers call it — tried to reinvent itself as a creative center, but was overtaken by a blitz of mega-development, likely fueled by tax incentives and backed by shadowy overseas capital.
As I passed these glass towers on the N train heading toward Manhattan, I felt a mix of powerlessness and foreboding. Queens Plaza, LIC’s main transport hub, was a twenty-minute walk from my apartment. This frenzy of development was bound to breach the invisible border between Astoria and LIC, and then my moderate rent and quiet neighborhood would be no more. And as with all matters relating to real estate in New York, there was little ordinary middle-class New Yorkers could do.
I did have a reassuring thought one day when I crossed Vernon Boulevard in LIC and walked underneath some of these glass edifices. Except for some whimsical details — a row of orange window-frames or a sign attesting to the building’s industrial past life — all the buildings all looked the same. They faced a pristine waterfront park complete with astro-turf playgrounds and dog parks. If it weren’t for the Manhattan skyline, you could be anywhere in the world — Hong Kong, London, Dubai — any city the super-rich call home. The people who lived in LIC’s high rises didn’t want to live in the real New York — the little of it that is left — and that was a comforting thought.
I don’t know if Long Island City’s glass utopia can absorb Amazon’s 25,000 technocrats and CEOs, if they decide to live there and can afford to. I doubt that the conglomerate’s invasion will be so easily contained. If LIC’s hyper-development needs another push to start colonizing Astoria, Amazon’s arrival will be it.
The move has overwhelming support from local government and even the City University of New York jumped on board, promising to supply Amazon with trained workers.
Of course, as with any such encroachment on New York City’s few livable spaces, we will hold meetings, protest, and write editorials. But then, ultimately, we will have to adapt to the new reality. For many that will mean living someplace else.