Sunday 22 September 2019

Amazon's new neighbours in NYC live below the poverty line

Meet the neighbours: The Queensbridge Houses are home to a population with a median household income below America’s federal poverty level
Meet the neighbours: The Queensbridge Houses are home to a population with a median household income below America’s federal poverty level

Corey Kilgannon

Until recently, the most important thing to know about Amazon for residents of the Queensbridge Houses, America's largest public housing project, was that any packages left in a lobby would likely be stolen.

But Amazon may soon be a far larger presence in their New York City neighbourhood.

The company owned by Jeff Bezos, the world's richest man, seems set to establish a major headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, where Queensbridge's 26 ageing buildings are home to a mostly black and Hispanic population with a median household income of $15,843, well below the federal poverty line for a family of four.

Here, where livings are eked out on meagre pay cheque, or social service assistance, with nearly 60 percent of its households relying on food stamps, the new neighbour will be one of the world's most profitable and famous high-tech companies, bringing what could be a work force of 25,000 people making salaries upward of $100,000.

The stark contrast amplifies some of the social and economic tensions coursing through American society - a widening income gap, a lack of access to high-paying jobs for many minorities and a technology sector struggling to diversify.

The planned location for the new headquarters is still unclear, as is whether Amazon will deliver any benefits to the roughly 6,000 people who live in the Queensbridge Houses and other disadvantaged parts of the neighbourhood.

"What are they going to do for the community? Are they going to guarantee us employment opportunities?" said April Simpson, the president of Queensbridge Tenants Association. "I'm worried about, when they come, they're not going to have opportunities for people. Not just people from Queensbridge - but other lower- and middle-income people in this area.

"That's why we're leery about them coming in."

As New York City seeks to challenge Silicon Valley's dominance as a tech hub - Google recently announced plans for a significant expansion in New York - the explosion of jobs has helped propel the local economy. But it has not mitigated the 'tale of two cities' narrative of economic disparity that Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to address in a city where the poverty rate in 2016 was 19.5pc, significantly higher than the national rate.

That stratification is keenly felt in Queensbridge, a gritty complex just across the East River from the East Side of Manhattan and some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods and real estate in the country. Many Queensbridge residents said they feel left out of the city's booming economy.

Hard by the Queensboro Bridge, the Queensbridge Houses have been plagued with crime and drugs. Those problems have eased in recent years, Ms Simpson said, and community programmes have improved the quality of life. Last year, the housing project did not record a single shooting, something that had not happened in more than a decade and was a source of pride.

But the neglect that afflicts many public housing developments and has led to harsh criticism of the de Blasio's administration, persists here, residents and other local leaders said.

"There are still a lot of problems with the apartments - the lack of heat and hot water, non-working elevators, mould and broken front doors," said Jimmy Van Bramer, the city councilman whose district includes the Queensbridge Houses.

Tyshema Basnight (42) said she had been trying to rejoin the work force after raising a family. She has an associate degree in computer science and a tech job at Amazon would be a dream job, she said.

"For now, I'm just looking for secretarial work," said Ms. Basnight, who was among several residents lined up for one of the few ageing computers available in the tenants' association office for residents who do not have computers of their own.

The office is not on the cutting edge of the digital frontier. And all the buzz over the e-commerce behemoth transforming Long Island City into a gleaming new-economy tech hub was met with skepticism, if not outright hostility.

Many businesses - including travel and financial companies and hotel chains - have opened in recent years in the area, but Ms Simpson said they have not hired local residents or offered to "give back" to the community.

"They did not hire here - they brought in their own people," she said. "My thing is: If you build here, hire here."

A spokesman for Amazon, Sam Kennedy, declined to comment on its plans in New York, but said that the company has a proven track record of funding and creating programmes for the needy in Seattle, where Amazon has its main headquarters.

This includes donating tens of millions of dollars, creating affordable housing, opening a shelter in its office complex for homeless families and creating a training programme for the food service and culinary industries for less-advantaged residents. The company also says it has spurred the creation of 53,000 outside jobs in industries ranging from construction to health care, and has stimulated the establishment of more than 2,000 new small businesses.

The new companies that have come to Long Island City have helped transform the semi-industrial waterfront neighbourhood into a haven for moneyed professionals. Since 2010 more apartment buildings have been built in Long Island City than in any other neighborhood in the city. Apartments in the more than 40 new buildings sell for an average of over $1m.

But past the gleaming skyline of high-rises, in Queensbridge and several other smaller housing projects in Long Island City, many residents fear that Amazon's arrival will only intensify the gentrification that is making the neighbourhood less affordable for people of limited means.

(New York Times)

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