Black Dispossession and the Making of Downtown Flushing

Introduction


The New York City Council vote to approve the highly controversial Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD) in December 2020 marked the culmination of more than two decades of planning and rezonings by the Department of City Planning and NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYC EDC) to transform and elevate downtown Flushing, a regional economic center in northeast Queens. Once a racially and ethnically diverse, working-class neighborhood, Flushing is now an epicenter of luxury residential and commercial condominium development. Decades of urban planning that privileged the private interests of property and business owners, governing elites, and an emergent immigrant growth coalition have shaped a development trajectory that is increasingly reliant on Chinese transnational capital.


Flushing’s industrial waterfront along a polluted creek represented the neighborhood’s “last frontier.” Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Department of City Planning (DCP) worked on the land use studies that served as the basis for the SFWD proposal to redevelop twenty-nine acres of industrial waterfront into a fortress enclave of thirteen luxury towers connected by a privately owned and managed street network and waterfront promenade. Flushing’s waterfront is the third and final component of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2004 Downtown Flushing Framework, a plan that sought to establish “a high-quality standard” for “new residents with additional purchasing power.”


Elected in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 tragedies, Mayor Bloomberg was eager to prove the city’s resilience and readiness to resume business as usual; one of his key strategies was to catalyze new commercial developments by rezoning ‘underutilized’ industrial waterfronts in the outer boroughs including Queens. In Flushing, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding, Dan Doctoroff, and the NYC EDC convened a Downtown Flushing Taskforce composed of the local growth coalition including electeds such as long-time Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, newly elected NYC Councilmember John Liu, property and business owners, and other community elites. This public-private initiative produced the 2004 Downtown Flushing Framework that linked two Flushing sites – Municipal Parking Lot #1 and the waterfront – with the sixty-acre Willets Point located across the Flushing Creek and once known as the Iron Triangle due to the concentration of manufacturing businesses.


Source: NYC EDC 2004 Downtown Flushing Framework

This article focuses on one of the Flushing sites, the five-acre Municipal Parking Lot #1, which is now a privately-owned residential-retail complex, Flushing Commons, marketed as ‘a new standard of luxury at the most distinguished address in Flushing’. This downtown site previously came into municipal ownership through urban renewal and eminent domain which entailed the dispossession of a significant portion of Flushing’s African American population, descendants of one of the country’s first free Black communities. Since the early 1950s, the site has served to generate revenue as the city’s first metered parking lot accommodating 1,100 cars in a surface field with a second level deck added in the 1960s. Until just a few years ago, the 200-plus year-old Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church sited on the northeast corner of Municipal Parking Lot #1 served as a potent symbol of Flushing’s deep roots as an African American community.


As part of the 2004 Downtown Flushing Framework, Mayor Bloomberg sold the site at a below-market price to a joint venture between TDC Development and Construction Group, a subsidiary of F&T Group (one of the three Chinese transnational developers behind the Special Flushing Waterfront District) and the Rockefeller Group. Flushing Commons helped facilitate the repositioning of an immigrant economic enclave into an epicenter of Chinese transnational real estate investment and development.


Flushing’s Municipal Parking Lot #1 exemplifies the integral role of city planning and governing elites in Black dispossession and the transfer of land assets to private developers. As one of Mayor Bloomberg’s legacy commercial real estate ventures, Flushing Commons established a luxury standard for residential development in a translocal real estate market aimed at global elites. While Chinese transnational finance is underwriting Flushing’s transformation into a live-work-play enclave for the “fuerdai”, the roadmap to promote and integrate outer-borough commercial centers and industrial waterfronts into a global real estate market have long been set by city planners and the urban growth coalition.


Flushing’s Black Community and the Macedonia AME Church


Flushing is celebrated for its history of religious tolerance and racial diversity. Viewed as the inspiration for the Bill of Rights, the 1657 Flushing Remonstrance was authored by a group of colonial settlers to protest the persecution of Quakers by the Dutch colony’s Governor Peter Stuyvesant. Religious institutions and burial grounds are notable markers of Flushing’s history as one of New York City’s earliest free Black communities. Local placemaking projects often involve the commemoration of these sacred grounds. For example, the 1936 excavation of a site for a park revealed its previous use as a burial ground for African Americans and Native Americans in the mid-1800s. Similar to the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, excavated remains included pennies that had been placed on the eyes of the deceased. Upon improvements to the site, the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.


Flushing’s Macedonia AME Church has occupied the same corner of the Municipal Parking Lot #1 on Union Street since its construction in 1837. The site was purchased in 1811 by the African Methodist Society, which formed in the late 1700s by free Blacks, Native Americans, and Quakers. A portion of the church site was used as a burial ground and when a chapel was added in the early 1930s, 200 bodies were removed with the intention to relocate the remains to the Flushing Cemetery. Due to the lack of proper documentation for the deceased, the transfer was not permitted and the remains were reinterred underneath the church building. It is reported that prominent members of Flushing’s historic Black community are among those buried on the grounds of the Macedonia AME Church.


The Macedonia AME Church is also believed to have served as a stop in the Underground Railroad and is a designated site on the Flushing Freedom Mile that recognizes landmarks connected to the abolitionist movement. The commemoration sign notes, “(M)any of the Macedonia AME Church members were active in the fight against slavery, and the church may have been used as a station on the Underground Railroad helping fugitive slaves to freedom.” Due to its sizable African American and Irish populations, downtown Flushing was referred to as Black Dublin and appeared to be similar to Seneca Village, the racially mixed, working- and middle-class settlement in upper Manhattan that was demolished in 1857 to make way for Central Park.



Redlining, Urban Renewal, and Black Dispossession


During the New Deal, the federal government provided mortgage assistance to qualifying homeowners. To assess risk, the federal government’s Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) coordinated the collection and mapping of data from local real estate professionals (lenders, developers, and real estate appraisers) to assign grades ranging from “A” to “D” based on an area’s perceived "mortgage security" determined by housing characteristics, proximity to industry, and most significantly, the sociodemographic composition of residents. Based on this risk grading system, widely known as redlining, grades were visualized on color-coded maps with green "A" representing the ‘most desirable’ areas with minimal risk to financial lenders, blue “B” marked as slightly less desirable areas, yellow “C” indicating declining neighborhoods, and red “D” designating ‘hazardous’ areas. As the HOLC map for Flushing indicates, the presence of an African American population was sufficient for an area to be redlined, and deemed high-risk thereby, ineligible for federally subsidized or insured loans.


The federal government’s complicity in the systemic devaluation of properties in African American neighborhoods through redlining was followed by Title 1 of the 1949 Housing Act which established federal financing for cities to raze neighborhoods deemed "blighted" or "a slum" to clear land for commercial redevelopment. In New York City, Robert Moses coordinated urban renewal and the wholesale clearance of neighborhoods, in part, to construct the necessary roadway infrastructure to accommodate a privately owned car-centric city. While the purported goal was to improve housing opportunities, the subsequent displacement of hundreds of thousands of families frequently created sites that remained vacant for decades until the market conditions were ripe for maximum profits.


At the June 1948 annual Flushing Chamber of Commerce dinner, Robert Moses announced a plan to clear two “blighted areas” in order to construct the city’s first-ever municipal parking field as well as 400 units of “modern low-rent” public housing on Flushing’s industrial waterfront. The pilot municipal parking field, which would accommodate 1,100 cars, was proposed for a six-acre site between 37th and 38th Avenues where Flushing’s Black community was concentrated and anchored by the Macedonia AME Church on Union Street. At the June 1953 groundbreaking, Moses described this area as the “worst (slum) in the borough.” According to a 1949 NYC Board of Estimate report, the area was occupied by 75 residential dwellings, a 4-story apartment building, a church, 9 stores, and a clubhouse. A New York Times article, “New Action Taken on Queens Slums,” published in the same year noted that residents “forced to move” would receive preference in the new public housing complex.


As part of the Works Progress Administration, the NYC Department of Records took black and white photographs of every tax lot in NYC during the 1940s, providing a rich archive to reconstruct a neighborhood’s built environment. Although city officials referred to this area as “the jungle” made up of “ramshackle dwellings” which posed “a moral problem” to the business sector, the photos of the lots surrounding the Macedonia AME Church do not show a blighted neighborhood. African American residents are seen on the streets of modest but well-kept homes and a commercial center.



Source: NYC Municipal Archives

Life-long Flushing resident and Macedonia AME Church historian Jay Williams’ family purchased properties in this area in the 1850s. His father's descendants came from Virginia via the Underground Railroad and his mother's descendants were part Shinnecock Native American from Long Island and African American from Detroit, Michigan. The Williams family owned a large property in downtown Flushing at 38th Avenue and Union Street that they lost in the early 1950s when the city took it by eminent domain to build the municipal parking lot and widen Union Street. The family, Mr. Williams noted in his Queens Library Oral History Project interview, did not receive fair compensation for the taking of their property.


In what it deemed a “twin attack on slum and traffic conditions,” the city cleared the six-acre site but spared the Macedonia AME Church. Church leaders successfully argued the church was “hallowed ground” because of the human remains that were buried at the site. Nevertheless, they lamented “(A) way of life was destroyed as members of the African American community were scattered, leaving only their church as a reminder of their former existence in the area.” At the June 1953 groundbreaking, New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) chairman, Philip J. Crews, reported that 250 families and 38 commercial businesses were displaced to clear the site for the parking field. Purportedly, 75% of the displaced tenants were relocated to the newly constructed NYCHA complex, James A. Bland Houses, near the industrial waterfront (and across the street from the recently approved SFWD).


“Flushing's billion dollar baby is finally on its way”


One year after the release of the 2004 Downtown Flushing Framework, Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference at the Flushing Town Hall to announce the developer selection for the “underutilized” Municipal Parking Lot #1. Flushing’s small business owners, especially on Union Street, were among the fiercest opponents to the project fearing the loss of inexpensive public parking and years of construction-related disruption would sound a death knell for their businesses. To date, only the first phase of F&T Group’s “crowning achievement” has been completed. The much-hyped public amenities – a one-acre town square with a fountain plaza and a new 50,000 sq. ft. home for the local YMCA - have yet to materialize. Despite nominal community benefits, the city provided significant subsidy for Flushing Commons in the form of the discounted land sales price of a mere $20 million as well as inclusion in two tax abatement programs, the 15-year 421-A and 25-year Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program.




At the 2005 press conference, former NYC Councilmember John Liu predicted the luxury development “will set the tone and direction for Flushing.” A 2020 New York Times article on ultra-luxury residential condominium production during the past decade found that Flushing added the second highest volume of condominiums after Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Moreover, Flushing’s hyper-gentrification is largely driven by a handful of local developers such as F&T Group, Century Development Group, and United Construction and Development, and their Chinese real estate conglomerate partners including the Shanghai Construction Group and ZhongGeng Group. Notable examples of these transformative projects include One Fulton Square, The Farrington, Tangram, and the recently approved Special Flushing Waterfront District.


Transnational Finance and Macedonia AME Church


While Robert Moses was persuaded to spare the Macedonia AME Church in the 1950s, current church leadership was unable to resist the lucrative profits gained by selling the historic and sacred site. In June 2018, the Macedonia AME Church was sold to a developer for nearly $12 million dollars. More than half of the financing ($7.5 million) was provided by ICROSSFunds, a NYC-based real estate crowdfunding firm that secures capital from investors in China. Shortly after the sale, the developer obtained a Department of Buildings (DOB) demolition permit and the more than 200-year-old church was demolished six months later. DOB records show that a permit application for a new 14-story mixed-use building was filed in June 2020 by Raymond Chan, a developer-architect who has collaborated with Century Development Group on numerous luxury residential condominium towers and hotels in Flushing, Long Island City, Astoria, and Jamaica, Queens. Project financing for the Century Development Group relies heavily on the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program which grants U.S. permanent residency to overseas investors. Mr. Chan’s permit application is pending a zoning approval.




Photo by Tarry Hum, Flushing Freedom Mile sign adjacent to the construction wall perimeter of the demolished Macedonia AME Church site.

Conclusion


The Macedonia AME Church has long served Flushing by providing leadership and space for worship, social events, essential services such as a day care center and a food pantry, and importantly, memorialized the area’s place in the abolitionist movement. Alluding to internal dissension about the church’s future, Mr. Williams was emphatic in a 2016 interview that “the church has been there for 200 years and I don’t want to see it sold out.” The fate of Flushing’s African American community and one of its key institutions tells a common narrative of the dispossession that results from anti-Black racist urban planning and policy actions and a city building approach premised on the commodification of land and the continual pursuit of its “highest and best” use. Chinese transnational capital is underwriting the remaking of Flushing whose land use and planning genealogy is premised on Native American and Black dispossession and the displacement of marginalized working-class Asian and Latinx immigrants. Shortly after the New York City Council vote to approve the SFWD, Flushing activists contributed to a Community Declaration on the Future of New York and led a city-wide action to protest racist rezonings. Moreover, an ongoing lawsuit against the City Planning Commission and DCP was recently amended to include the New York City Council for their roles in planning an “illegal playground for the wealthy.”


Tarry Hum is Professor and Chair, Urban Studies Department at Queens College, City University of New York. She is the lead co-editor of Immigrant Crossroads: Globalization, Incorporation, and Placemaking in Queens, New York.


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