Just before 11 am each Sunday, a group of young men and women gather at Corona Plaza under the peeling paint of the 7 train line. There, they take up trash bags, gloves and shovels and hit busy Roosevelt Avenue, decluttering tree beds and discarded plastic on the sidewalks. Calling themselves the Coalition to Defend Corona (CDC), the weekly cleanups serve as a launching pad for uniting the neighborhood around shared issues.
While the CDC, which launched earlier this year, doesn’t recognize a sole leader of these efforts, Rajib Miah, has been part of the work from the start. During cleanup sessions, which typically attract 5 to 8 volunteers, he speaks with vendors and business owners, hands out flyers about the group's mission, and gathers informal feedback on issues of concern related to rising housing costs and ongoing commercial development.
According to a recent report by StreetEasy, rents in Corona rose by 6% in the last year to a median average of $1,865 for a one bedroom apartment. Rents in Manhattan increase at an average of 3.9 percent annually since 2010. The CDC documents their work via chalk on the sidewalks, pointing passersby to their active Instagram page to learn more about their efforts and protests against growing gentrification and displacement of renters and local businesses.
“Corona is a dirty place. There’s only so much the city trash services pick up,” says Miah. “Who better than to clean up our community but us?” The materials, supplies, and snacks are paid for mostly out of pocket by the organizers, most of whom work full-time jobs with various nonprofit groups in the area. The CDC currently accepts donations through a GoFundMe account which has raised just over $300 within the last three months. While the street cleaning efforts establish a visible component of their work, CDC makes efforts to develop cross collaborative relationships with other organizers in the community to better work together.
On the Saturday before cleanup day, organizers and volunteers huddle together on benches in the Malcolm X Community Garden. The garden, at the corner of 111th street and Northern Boulevard in Corona is nearly 40 years old and sits on a plot of land surrounded by a series of residential buildings, a Springhill Suites Marriott hotel, and a forthcoming luxury apartment building.
Unlike much of the displacement that has occurred in Queens, the land is protected by the Brooklyn-Queens Land Trust, which designates it as protected public property for use by the community and won’t be threatened with removal for development.
The temperature has dropped significantly and the wind is unrelenting. Behind scarves and rubbed hands representatives from Queens Neighborhoods United and students hailing from Laguardia Community College, City University, and Columbia College join in the conversation on how they can foster better relationships to work together on local issues.
Dylan Rosique, a resident of neighboring Elmhurst, is new to the organizing efforts. He discovered the CDC’s clean up sessions on Instagram and became interested when he saw the group doing something to directly benefit the community.
“I saw this was the best way to clean up the streets in an organized community way. We don’t have to ask the government,” says Rosique who is also interested in forming a group in his local neighborhood to create initiatives that would address self-sufficiency.
The group attempts to view The Garden, a 2009 film directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy on the removal of a thriving 14-acre urban farm cultivated by Latino immigrants following the 1992 L.A. riots. But the wifi isn’t connecting well and people are shivering.
Sujani Reddy, who leads the Malcolm X Community Garden, stands to summarize the teaching component of the film, explaining how the process of gardening, the patience required after planting and waiting for the harvest, will make them better organizers. As a few others chime in on the need for ongoing organizing space, Reddy shares that the garden can be used for the local community, no matter who moves in.
David, another Corona-based organizer who decided not to give his last name, mentions that they’re all tackling the same issues in different ways. Whether it be looking to help street
vendors or organize against new developments, he wants there to be greater collaboration.
Before departing, the group agrees to host regular collaborative strategy sessions to work together on similar campaigns and share feedback they’re receiving in the community.
Miah, who leans in on his bench, makes another attempt to get additional hands for the cleaning initiative on Sundays. “We can’t do this only as 12 people. We’re starting small but the goal is to do much more than [clean up].”