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Remembering Arturo Ignacio Sanchez, a Fighter for Immigrant New York

By Samuel Stein and Tarry Hum

Last month, New York lost a champion for the working-class immigrant city. Arturo Ignacio Sanchez passed away in assisted living in Queens, the borough he loved and fought for over the course of his 74-year life.

Arturo taught urban planning at various colleges and universities around New York and wrote well-regarded academic papers, book chapters and reviews. Readers of Planners Network’s precursor to Progressive City, the print magazine Progressive Planning, might recall Arturo’s contributions, such as his article on a controversial Business Improvement District (BID) in multi-ethnic Jackson Heights in the 2015 “Latin Americas, North and South” issue, or his review of Andy Merrifield’s Dialectical Urbanism in the 2003 “Marxism, Socialism and Planning” issue.

His writing was always sharp, both in its analytical rigor and in its cutting tone. (Pity the subject of a Sanchez takedown!) He honored Marx’s famous call for “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” Sometimes this led to skirmishes with erstwhile allies, including left urbanists who he felt failed to incorporate the experience of places like immigrant-dense western Queens into their analyses of New York City’s transformations. But his most trenchant critiques were usually aimed at Latino and White political and business leaders who claimed their corporate and carceral agendas would save the neighborhoods, when in fact, Arturo argued, they could destroy them.

Rather than take these claims to the respected but rarely read world of academic publishing, Arturo primarily pushed his case against neoliberal urbanism in two community forums: on the pages of the local free newspaper Queens Latino, and on the “Newest New Yorkers” committee of his neighborhood’s Community Board, the most local branch of government in New York City. He continued to follow and teach the latest theories and debates in urban planning, but he made his greatest impact by translating those ideas into clear language for the general public, providing relevant cases to demonstrate complex concepts and concluding with inspiring calls to action.

One of Arturo’s most famous interventions was the case of the 82nd Street BID, the subject of his 2015 Progressive Planning piece. The BID served two blocks in the middle of Jackson Heights, which cut through one of the neighborhood’s small business and transit corridors, Roosevelt Avenue. Years prior, Arturo had written about the dense networks of formal and informal businesses and services along Roosevelt Avenue, and tracked its development alongside changes to US foreign and domestic policy in the late 20th century in his chapter “From Jackson Heights to Nuestra America: 9/11 and Latino New York” in Michael Sorkin and Sharon Zukin’s edited volume, After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City

When the BID announced its plan to extend dozens of blocks down Roosevelt Avenue and become the biggest BID in the city, Arturo made it his mission to challenge the BID supporters’ vision for the city. In columns for Queens Latino and in public meetings of the Community Board and other local institutions, he described in plain language why the BID’s model favored property owners over everyone else, how the local political machine’s rhetoric about crime and disorder pathologized the poor, and what neighbors could do to stop it. This campaign of columns culminated in a game-changing interview with the BID’s then leader, ironically a former student of Arturo’s years prior. Arturo wrote that the BID president became angry with him, shouted curses, grabbed his notebook, crossed out what he disagreed with, and left. The BID leader contested this account, but shortly afterward he resigned. After years of organizing in opposition by groups like Queens Neighborhoods United, Roosevelt Avenue business and property owners voted down the expansion. This was a rare BID failure under the Bloomberg administration and a major victory for community organizers.

While helping to defeat the BID expansion may have been Arturo’s greatest public triumph, it was far from his only foray into local politics. In the following years, his columns and his Community Board activity touched on a range of important issues—more and more so as his corner of immigrant Queens became the center of several important stories. He tracked the successful opposition to Amazon’s plan to move one of its headquarters to the Long Island City waterfront, the rise of COVID (which, for a time, was worse in his part of New York City than possibly anywhere else in the world) and local and national attempts at pandemic relief. He helpfully portrayed the development trajectory of 21st century Queens as the rise of two growth nodes (Long Island City to the west and Flushing to the east) and the subsequent attempt to gentrify the polyglot neighborhoods between them. His writings and presentations weaved the lessons of critical theory into the everyday political struggles of his beloved Queens.

Never falling into the conservative realm of pure preservationism, Arturo called instead for more change—change away from a status quo that granted greater rights to landowners than to tenants, to bosses than to workers, and to the US-born over immigrants. He valued the work of public education, political transformation, and serious debate as he eschewed some of the formalities of academic life. As a result, he was perhaps better known to patrons of Jackson Heights coffee shops than to regulars at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning conference.

We recall fondly moments when Arturo took the time to get to know us and encourage our development and research. Sam remembers a warm night spent with Arturo at the Jackson Heights Colombian bakery Letty’s early in their friendship. Arturo shared with him his own life story, including his experiences in public housing, his political awakening, and his jaded take on the US university system. But he surprised Sam by also sharing his interest in Judaic writings and cultures, stoked by a Jewish childhood friend in The Rockaways whose home was filled with books. Over the years, they would read and comment on each other’s work and offer ideas for new connections and directions.

Tarry remembers Arturo as a dynamic and generous teacher.  He gave numerous walking tours of his beloved pan-Latino neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights to Queens College urban studies students.  Upon learning of Arturo’s death, an alumnus wrote “He was such a memorable speaker and his passion and insight was so evident. Thank you for introducing me to him, among many other students.”  Arturo took great interest in Tarry’s research on Chinese transnational capital and immigrant growth coalitions. They regularly had conversations about Chinese-financed development along the 7 subway line connecting the two capital nodes of Flushing, Queens and Hudson Yards. 

Arturo has passed, but he leaves behind a strong legacy of struggle for immigrant New York. He will be recalled not only by his friends and his students—and certainly by his enemies and adversaries—but by a legion of readers and community members whose view of the city was shaped by his writing and talks. His memory will be invoked often in the coming months, but it will be sustained long into the future by the activists who continue his quest for a vibrant, diverse and equitable neighborhood, city, and world.

Samuel Stein is a policy analyst in New York and the author of the book Capital City: Gentrification and Real Estate State.

Tarry Hum is on retirement leave from the City University of New York.




We feature stories on inclusive urban planning practices, grassroots organizing, and civic action. Our contributors and readers are activists, reporters, practitioners, academics, and community members.


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