Amazon’s Arrival Stirs Emotions at Queensbridge Houses

April Simpson speaking to reporters in front of Queensbridge Houses.

April Simpson speaking to reporters in front of Queensbridge Houses. (Lucas Manfield/NYCityLens)

The battle over Amazon’s impending arrival escalated last weekend at the public housing complex that has found itself thrust into the center of the debate. In public statements and interviews with NYCityLens, residents expressed differing perspectives: some hate the plan, others welcome it.

On Saturday morning, New York State Senator Michael Gianaris and City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer posed for photos at Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in the nation and blocks from the proposed site of Amazon’s new headquarters. They also knocked on doors to collect signatures for a petition and joined activist groups in a protest of the plan.

Meanwhile, Gianaris has been nominated by Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins to the Public Authorities Control Board, a position that will give him veto power over Amazon’s plan. Its proponents aren’t pleased.

Monday afternoon, Amazon’s supporters shot back. Bishop Mitchell Taylor, co-chair of the 45-member advisory committee set up to collect community feedback, led a press conference in front of the library at the center of the complex. He was joined by April Simpson, president of the Queensbridge Houses Tenant Association. They argued that Saturday’s canvassers did not represent community opinion and expressed confidence that Amazon was coming to help. 

“We had people coming into our community over the weekend sending different messages,” said Taylor, who is CEO of Urban Upbound, a local financial services nonprofit.

Amazon’s efforts to reach out to community leadership contrasted favorably to those of the developers that have transformed the once largely industrial neighborhood, said association president Simpson.

“For the last 15 to 20 years they have put hotels and condominiums in Long Island City and no one came and sat at the table with our people,” she said.

Long Island City, where Amazon plans to locate its new offices, has seen rapid growth in recent years following a 2001 rezoning that allowed new residential and commercial development. In came high rise condos and a redesigned waterfront – alongside transit snarls, overcrowded schools and rising rents that have squeezed long-term residents.

At the core of the debate are the terms of the deal New York is offering Amazon: $3 billion in tax breaks in exchange for 25,000 jobs. Simpson expressed confidence that Amazon would follow through with its side of the bargain. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have enthusiastically supported the plan, in a rare show of unity among the two rival political powerhouses.  A poll released by Siena College Research Institute Tuesday also found that 56 percent of those surveyed approved of the deal. 

But cracks in the plan have begun to show. At a City Council meeting in December, lawmakers took Amazon to task for attempting to circumvent legislative approval of the project and offering few promises to the local community. When company executives showed up at a city council hearing in late January, they also got an icy reception.

Some Queensbridge residents are similarly skeptical.

“They’re going to hire higher-paying-rent people. I don’t think it’s going to be a warehouse,” said Ethica Eoddie, who has been raising two kids in the Houses for the last five years.

She’d rather the city spend the money it’s handing Amazon on cleaning up the neighborhood. Quickly naming a few things she’d like fixed – the potholed streets, abandoned houses and decaying apartments – she then said, “Instead, they’re giving them money when they’re already rich.”

Mold has been growing on the walls of her apartment due to a leaky pipe, she said, and instead of fixing the leak, housing staff just repeatedly repainted the walls. “Governor Cuomo, I got a few choice words for him,” she added.

Not everyone in the community has a negative view of the governor.  

“Cuomo said – that’s my man, Cuomo – Cuomo said that Amazon would be great for New York,” said Moses Mims, a retiree who’s lived in the complex for over 20 years. “We need jobs,” he added.

Moses Mims in front of Queensbridge Houses.

Moses Mims in front of Queensbridge Houses. (Lucas Manfield/NYCityLens)

Mims moved to New York with his wife in the 1960s from Birmingham, Alabama. He’s happy with where he ended up. “When I came out here, I thought it was a ghost town,” said Mims. But it’s changed. “We got lights out here, we got cops out here patrolling: it’s a wonderful place now,” he said.

Mims now lives with his daughter, who works in insurance, and his 20-year-old grandson who attends LaGuardia Community College down the street.

His grandson once wanted to play in the NBA, but recently he spoke to Mims about getting a job at Amazon after finishing college.

Mims passed on some words of advice for those opposed to Amazon’s arrival: “My mother used to say, ‘It’s a bad wind that blows in the same direction all the time. Everything changes, she said, for better or for worse.’”