Laura Scherling | Essays

A Tale of Long Island City: Between Industrialization, Innovation, and Gentrification

Along Center Boulevard in Long Island City, near the previously proposed Amazon development sites. Photo by Matt Mathews.

Recently, approximately 25,000 Amazon employees were poised to move to New York to work in a new corporate campus, HQ2, in Long Island City (LIC), New York. The social and economic outcomes of such a change on LIC were largely unexplored and loudly debated, and in a highly-publicized reversal Amazon announced on February 14th, 2019 that it was canceling its plans for the campus. This takes place during a period in which LIC has already experienced rapid growth—with development of its key commercial corridors, Jackson Avenue and Queens Plaza, rehabilitation of its waterfront along the Anable Basin, and proposed incentives to retain arts and cultural spaces and initiatives. Many of these new developments have been design-led, forged through partnerships between investors, design and urban planning firms, and organizations such as the plastics and real estate investment company Plaxall, Inc. and commercial real estate development firm Tishman Speyer. These changes simultaneously signal progress and present unknown challenges for long-time residents, the 80,000 workers based in LIC, and for the numerous manufacturing, education, art, design, and cultural organizations in the area. Already, a twitter of articles have raised the spectre of urban gentrification, and some residents and organizations who have long called LIC their home may not be able to withstand the rising cost of rent. But while LIC’s potential role as a hub for technology firms and startups might seem surprising to some newcomers, and even long-time residents, LIC’s technological history is in fact deeply embedded in the neighborhood’s history of industrialization. Inside these severe, sometimes blighted façades of LIC’s warehouses are notable chronicles of people, commerce, and design—a long standing history pouched in plain sight.

From its early settlement by indigenous Americans, through Dutch and English colonization, and industrialization, LIC has been reincarnated as a vibrant agriculture center, shipping terminal, and manufacturing and arts and cultural hub. LIC’s early colonial business origins were deeply-rooted in the beaver fur trade, with popular designs like the cocked hat and the top hat sold in European markets until trade disagreements between the Seneca nation and settlers erupted in the Beaver Wars. As hunting waned, multiple water-powered tide mills were erected in colonial Queens, enabling a grain and flour industry to flourish. Milling was a lucrative venture from the 17th century until its early 20th century decline and the importance of the beaver trade and flour milling remain (commemorated today in the design of the New York City seal).

Not long after the Erie Canal opened in 1825, LIC’s water and ground transportation underwent remarkable enhancements, thanks to a member of the Steinway piano family. William Steinway helped to oversee the integration of LIC transportation routes, and worked with designer Wilhelm Maybach to bring Daimler engines to America. Between the 19th and 20th centuries, a multitude of diverse and cutting-edge businesses established in LIC, including some of the country’s first kerosene and modern oil refineries. Queens historian Robert Singleton observes of this period, “During the 20th century, the convergence of railroads and waterways, in close proximity with Degnon Terminal’s state-of-the-art loft buildings, again made LIC the heart of the nation’s commercial core, this time in manufacturing and services. The community’s success was undoubtedly turbocharged by being immediately adjacent to midtown Manhattan. Ideas and location are the parents of innovation.” He also says, “Each building in LIC represented somebody’s dream. Queens was an economic engine.”

Robert Singleton, Queens historian and Executive Director of the Greater Astoria Historical Society. Photo by Matt Mathews.

Century-old companies with deep roots in Long Island City, such as Sunshine Biscuits (c. 1890) and the Gordon Baking Company (Silvercup), had already undergone evolutions of their own. Sunshine Biscuits was sold in 1966, however its original home in the Apple Tag & Label building, along with parts of its distinctive signage, still remains intact as it transitions into becoming a home to newly arriving tech and media companies. The former flour silo Silvercup, perhaps one of the most visually iconic LIC businesses, was purchased by Harry Suna in 1980 after several union strikes and a shutdown, and the building was repurposed into the film and television production facility Silvercup Studios.

Silvercup Studios, formerly the Gordon Baking Company (Silvercup). Photo by Matt Mathews.

After the manufacturing decline in New York City, LIC transitioned into becoming an affordable neighborhood for designers and artists to pursue their work and inspirations, and became home to important cultural locations, like the contemporary art museum MoMA PS1 in 1971 and the Noguchi Museum in 1985, aiming to help pioneer a metamorphosis of the neighborhood it had moved into.

Many more designers and architects have also found a home in LIC, including the multidisciplinary studio THE UP STUDIO and landscape architecture and design firm Plant Specialists. Between 1985-86, the volunteer-led arts-advocacy organization LiC-A (Long Island City Artists) was created as an annex to a paper factory, and offered professional development opportunities to established and emerging artists. It later became a 12,000 square foot fine arts center through a donation by Plaxall, Inc. More recently, Eleventh Street Arts was established in affiliation with Grand Central Atelier in LIC, where they were able to transform “a storage warehouse into a labyrinth of painting studios” that has brought together local fashion designers, artists, and craftsmen to sell their products during a weekend Christmas Market.

The Plaxall Gallery in LiC-A, an arts advocacy organization. Clockwise from the bottom: Artistic Director Edjo Wheeler, Performing Arts Director Tana Sirois, and Gallery Director Norma Homberg. Photo by Matt Mathews.

Students Eva Yates (left) and Hemali Vadalia (right) in a sculpture course at the Grand Central Atelier. Photo by Matt Mathews.

Colleen Barry, artist, educator, and Director of Drawing at Grand Central Atelier, pictured with her students. Photo by Matt Mathews.

With the recent speculation around Amazon, developers and buyers anticipated an increased demand for LIC real estate, as evidenced by a 400% spike in traffic to view new and existing apartments after Amazon’s initial announcement. Some view a LIC revitalization as an urban renaissance that will forge mixed-use business opportunities, broaden market potential, and build a “city within the City”. Meanwhile, some LIC businesses, residents, and New York politicians and advocacy groups adamantly challenged the decision to award and subsidize Amazon’s secondary headquarters in LIC. Today, there are still unknown implications of LIC’s rapid development and what gentrification may mean in terms of widening income gaps; impacting, for example, 7,000 residents like Syed Rahman who call the sprawling public housing development Queensbridge Houses their home.

View from the Queensboro bridge of the public housing development Queensbridge Houses. Photo by Matt Mathews.

For others, like Plant Specialist founder Grahame Hubbard and designer Erin Hodges, the challenges around urban development are practical. “We are concerned about traffic and public transport coming into the area as we feel it is already operating at capacity... but [we] will embrace and help where possible just like people helped and embraced our entry into the LIC community 30 years ago.” Others, like artist, educator, and RISD professor Paul Soulellis, have seen this before. “When Google moved to 111 Eighth Ave in 2005 there was tremendous excitement…[Now] the neighborhood’s transformation is complete—as a tourist destination, as a place for global business, as a playground for wealth and commerce.”

Designer Erin Hodges, pictured at Plant Specialists. Photo by Matt Mathews.

Yet many also view the development of LIC with a note of optimism. LiC-A artistic director Edjo Wheeler noted that the Amazon initially chose LIC “because of the cultural vibrancy [...] provided by the local business and diverse arts scene.” The UP Studio’s John Patrick Winberry explains, “When we moved from Greenpoint, Brooklyn four years ago, we saw Long Island City as a young, growing neighborhood with a strong community of creatives. The friendly neighborhood is evolving rapidly and we’re thrilled to watch it grow [...] it’s a great opportunity for growth in a neighborhood that is still ripe for change.”

For Colleen Barry and Justine Kalb from Eleventh Street Arts and Grand Central Atelier, there is a mixture of emotion around the potential for further development and the two consider, “Change to this neighborhood is certainly inevitable, but hopefully we can hold out as a cultural center for arts education in the neighborhood.”

John Patrick Winberry, The UP Studio founding partner and architect. Photo by Matt Mathews.

As LIC faces the future and the possibility of a radical overhaul, there are lessons that can be drawn from its history and urban identity, which is rooted in design, the visual arts, innovation, and technology development. Amazon’s HQ2 would have been an iteration of this rich and overlooked past. In LIC’s current moment, small independent businesses like The Mill and the LIC Beer Project flourish beside manufacturers, street art installations by artist Magda Love and artist collective 5 pointz (some of which have already been deconstructed), museums, architects, furniture makers, film studios, and more. Love, who has painted two murals in LIC saw her work in neighborhood as “projects of love” where local residents were able to interface with each other, public space in the neighborhood, and there was a visible and positive impact of the arts in the LIC community.

Artist and social activist Magda Love. Photo by Matt Mathews.

There is a raw and untouched aesthetic to LIC that is perhaps more reminiscent of an older New York City. Juxtaposed against major coming developments, the question as to how existing organizations, creative professionals, and mega-tech companies will co-exist is uncertain. In our current time of wealth concentration, and burgeoning democratic resistance, Long Island City will continue to be a testing ground for new and equitable models for development.

Matt Mathews is a photographer and media professional. His work can be viewed at https://m2photonyc.smugmug.com/Portfolio.

Posted in: Business, Ecology, Housing, Inclusion, Infrastructure

Laura Scherling Laura Scherling is a designer, researcher, and educator––working and teaching at Columbia University. Scherling holds a doctorate from Columbia University Teachers College. She is the co-editor of the recently published book Ethics in Design and Communication: New Critical Perspectives (Bloomsbury Academic UK). Scherling is also the co-founder of GreenspaceNYC, a nonprofit sustainability and design collective. Her work has been published by Brookings Metro, Design and Culture, Spark Journal, Interiors: Design/Architecture/Culture, and the Futures Worth Preserving Cultural Constructions of Nostalgia and Sustainability. Her work can be viewed at laurascherling.info.

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