On Gentrification in an Unhip Place

Lessons about immigration, social mobility and how to be a respectful gentrifier from a native of this Queens neighborhood in constant flux.

Flushing, Queens. Credit: Guillem d’Efak Fullana-Ferré on Flickr

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Flushing-Main Street, the last stop on the 7 subway in outer Queens, occupies a curious place in the minds of New Yorkers. Foodies and bloggers have embraced the Flushing neighborhood, discussing their favorite dim sum restaurants in familiar tones. Sophisticated young urbanists maintain a vague but respectful awareness of it. News outlets periodically marvel at the pace and scope of its growth. Elected officials praise the inspiring pluck of the small business community. Flushing is still too unhip and too far away to get sustained attention, but everyone is quick to agree that it’s important, in some way or other.

Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue is now the third busiest intersection in New York, behind only Times Square and Herald Square. Businesses, wages and employment in Flushing have grown at a rate that far outpaces the rest of the borough. The burgeoning commercial sector has attracted a stunning amount of large-scale development. Numerous major projects are lined up in the heart of downtown, including an $850 million mixed-use complex with a fountain plaza set to begin construction this fall. There was even a luxury residential construction in the height of the recession: Sky View Parc is a 448-unit condominium with tennis courts, swimming pools, a bamboo-lined rooftop garden and two-bedroom apartments that go for upward of $1 million.

This is, of course, gentrification writ large. But the significance of this process in a neighborhood like Flushing has mostly been ignored in the context of the city as a whole. It is hard to compare the changes in this working-class ethnic enclave to what happened in Williamsburg or Bushwick. After all, the gentrifiers here are largely Asian, a fact that doesn’t fit at all with the familiar narrative of wealthy white people moving into a minority neighborhood.

And yet, the story of how Asian immigrants settled and developed Flushing might be the most illuminating example we have on the rights and wrongs of gentrification. It avoids framing the process as a reductive cultural conflict between bars and galleries on one side and Laundromats and bodegas on the other. Instead, it allows us to see the migration patterns of working-class New Yorkers, their development over generations, their attempts at social advancement and how they fit into the long-term narrative of their communities.

In this way, we can consider a few basic questions that are lost in the most spirited debates over gentrification: Why do minorities and immigrants move into poor neighborhoods in the first place? And what do they really need from these neighborhoods?

Building the Support Network

“Flushing was dying in the 1970s.” Jack Eichenbaum, the Queens borough historian, said of the neighborhood when New York was at the brink of fiscal insolvency. Flushing then was an overwhelmingly white middle-class community with an established core of large department stores. However, suburbanization and economic stagnation crippled commerce in the heart of its downtown. “Long Island and its suburban-style malls siphoned people and businesses away,” Eichenbaum recalled. “When Wallach’s closed downtown, people wrung their hands and prepared for the end.”

The iconic Serval Zipper factory also shut down in the mid-’70s, and simultaneously spelled the downfall of the apparel industry in New York. It was in the midst of its complete commercial, residential and industrial collapse that Asian immigrants came to Flushing.

According to Eichenbaum, the very first of them were actually workers and vendors from the 1964 World’s Fair, in nearby Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, who decided to stay after the fair was over. They were generally well educated and solidly middle class. “The first Korean family to move into my building spoke English,” Eichenbaum said. “The father was a church minister.”

Korean immigrants in particular shored up Flushing’s weakened commercial sector, taking over empty and shuttered storefronts. Many of them were skilled professionals in their home countries, but when white-collar careers didn’t work out here due to cultural or occupational barriers, they took to local entrepreneurship.

Meanwhile, the proportion of white residents continued to drop as the middle class moved on to more desirable places. “You were supposed to live a better life than your parents,” Eichenbaum explained. “In my building, I was the youngest Caucasian person by far.” The generation that grew up in Flushing learned to drive and started looking elsewhere. Many left for Long Island and other suburbs, while some dived into the heady world of 1970s Manhattan. They were moving up, in terms of either comfort or hipness.

Asian immigrants settled in greater numbers to take their place, and in the decades that followed established a more diversified community that supported other immigrants with varying levels of education and professional skill. Flushing has changed dramatically as the restaurant and retail sectors flourished on the backs of these low-wage laborers.

In 1997, 77-year-old Julia Harrison, representing the aging and diminishing white population, made a final run for the City Council seat for Flushing. The election would end up reflecting the fundamental demographic shift of the neighborhood. Harrison accused the Asian middle class of buying up property and opening Flushing to a wholly undesirable sort of people. They were inevitably followed by “the paupers… smuggled in and bilked by their own kind.”

This is the curious and crucial point. In the commonly understood examples of gentrification, artists and well-educated young people first settle into a run-down neighborhood, making it safe for the waves of affluent professionals that follow. But the Asian middle class in Flushing did the exact opposite: They made the neighborhood safe for waves of poor people. The first wave of settlers bought into the idea of Flushing as an engine for social advancement. Like the white middle class who eventually did well enough to move out, the Asian immigrants treated Flushing as a way station, not a destination. And they made it so that successive waves of immigrants could live here in the same way.

Sky View Park, a 448-unit condo in Flushing, Queens. Credit: Onex Real Estate

Fast forward 20 years, and the children of the paupers have gone on to college and elsewhere. The same pattern plays itself out again. Like those before them, this homegrown generation is also leaving for greener pastures. Meanwhile, new immigrants are starting to move in, filling in the newly built towers and condominiums, and fitting into the fabric of the neighborhood.

“We have two main types of buyers for Sky View Parc,” said Helen Lee, director of Onex Real Estate, the company that owns the condo complex. “There are empty nesters from Long Island or Connecticut looking to change their lifestyle, and there are the wealthier Asian immigrants who feel uncomfortable living in Manhattan.” In both cases, the buyers are drawn to the language, amenities and infrastructure of the Asian community in Flushing. Though they are quite a bit wealthier than the average Flushing resident, Sky View Parc residents still participate in the community that already exists — a support network and a stepping stone for those not fully acclimated to American society.

Perhaps most strikingly, Flushing remains a terribly unhip place despite the influx of people and capital. The demographics and priorities of the residents are just different. The streets are vibrant, but they are lined with a barebones framework of cram schools, test prep services, cheap retail and cheap food. It is first and foremost a site of social advancement, and the reason it works is because each successive wave of people who move in respects this function of the neighborhood. They reinforce and participate in the infrastructure of mobility, and move out when their wants and needs change. It has been this way since the white middle class left during the ’70s, and it continues to inform the college-educated Asian kids of today. Though the appearance of the neighborhood has changed greatly, its overarching narrative has not.

Respecting the Way Station

I had dinner last week with my two oldest friends in all of New York. We sat together as second-generation immigrants who ran through the gauntlet of test prep classes, went to good colleges, avoided quarter-life crises and dutifully assimilated into American society. And we spent the entire night talking about moving to New Jersey.

In a time when people our age come into the city in droves and dictate the changes in the urban environment, it seems strange and out of place to point out that many of us have based our entire lives around the notion of getting out of here. But this is an obvious and understandable sentiment, right? Sometimes the point of growing up in a poor neighborhood is so you can eventually move out and not be poor anymore.

And yet, in contemporary discussions about gentrification, and in the fights waged across so many community board meetings and new construction sites, there seem to be little acknowledgement of this basic aspiration to mobility and advancement. Instead, critiques of gentrification focus on diversity and how marginalized groups contribute to the grand mosaic of human experiences in the city.

This line of argument has always confused me. It inevitably portrays the interests of the neighborhood as reactionary and nostalgic in the face of seemingly progressive forces from the outside. Not only does this sidestep the question of what working-class residents actually need out of their communities, but it’s also just counterproductive. First, it cannot express what is so bad about the changing character of gentrifying neighborhoods except in terms of personal distaste. Second, it tries to preserve a way of life that is, for many residents, simply undesirable in the long run.

The streets in Flushing are vibrant, but lined with cram schools, test prep services, cheap retail and cheap food. Image via Wikispaces

More than anything else, the immigrant and minority working class is defined by adaptability. We weather great upheaval, travel long distances, and undergo dramatic cultural changes all within a few generations. Our communities are based around the idea of a vague but obtainable better life in the future. It’s easy to get caught up in the specific routines and cultural forms of the here and now, but they are secondary to the drive for advancement. The most essential part of a good working-class neighborhood is not the vibrancy of street life, or the meticulous preservation of historic buildings, or even the race and class of the people who live there. It’s the infrastructure necessary for social mobility.

For people my age, Flushing is a boring place to be. And yet, many of us recognize that the barrenness of amenities, the thriftiness and the monotonous work ethic here are essential and still barely sufficient for people to move into the middle class. “If you want to move up, you have to do it through education and assimilation,” said Eichenbaum, who received a Ph.D. in geography from the University of Michigan and whose father worked at a produce market in Flushing. “There are no other ways.”

Many working-class ethnic neighborhoods form out of necessity, because a certain kind of life happened to be open to them. Yes, they might eventually develop into vibrant and interesting neighborhoods with great food. There is much to be proud of in these communities. But it’s plainly wrong to assume that people stay there for the same reasons that gentrifiers wish to move in. Indeed, these neighborhoods are often just a step on the ladder, and a means to an end. In light of this, the trouble with gentrification is not so much that it keeps poor people from living in the neighborhood, but that it can keep them from leaving that neighborhood on their own terms.

Ultimately, the key to being a “good” gentrifier is to do what minorities, immigrants and poor people have had to for generations: assimilate. This is the difficulty that lies at the heart of all the exciting nightlife, creative industries and refined consumption that gentrification often brings to a poor neighborhood. Can our new city dwellers make some sacrifices in their personal tastes and desires? Can they live in a thrifty, uncool neighborhood — and resist the urge to do something about it? Can they abide by the ground rules of a poor neighborhood, take the idea of social mobility seriously and respect the necessary infrastructure? If so, they will not only enjoy cheaper rent, but something that’s even harder to find nowadays: An urban experience defined by fluidity and dynamism rather than a preserved state of “diversity.”

Jefferson Mao is an urban planning student. He runs the news and commentary blog Flushing Exceptionalism.

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Jefferson Mao is an urban planning graduate student. He blogs sporadically at Flushing Exceptionalism.

Tags: new york cityeconomic developmentgentrificationimmigration

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