Amazon’s announcement, last year, that it is building a new headquarters in Queens, received mixed reactions.
Some were excited about the tens of thousands of jobs the tech juggernaut is promising to bring to the New York City borough. Others wonder if they will even get access to those jobs, and if the area’s already overburdened infrastructure can handle the influx of population.
Chris Hanway says he noticed another, less impassioned response: apathy. Hanway is the executive director of the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement, a nonprofit based in the Queensbridge Houses — the largest public housing complex in North America. It’s just a few blocks from where Amazon is building the new headquarters.
“People literally shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘Well, we’ve been down this road before. It’s not really going to affect us in any way,’ ” Hanway says. “Because they’ve lived this experience.”
Amazon is not the first major company to move to the area, but activists and nonprofits are trying to ensure that this time, the way the company interacts with the community is different.
In Queensbridge, hope often falls flat
It has experienced significant progress recently, but for decades Queensbridge was marred by violence.
“Queensbridge has always been literally and psychologically isolated,” Hanway explains. “It’s got the river on one side, the bridge on another and sort of light manufacturing buildings around it.”
But it’s only a few subway stops away from bustling Manhattan, and in recent years, big companies took note of that. Ralph Lauren opened an office nearby, and so did JetBlue. These days, many neighborhood streets are lined with posh restaurants and cute boutiques.
And yet, activists say Queensbridge residents haven’t reaped the benefits. Hanway says, unemployment is high. He knows this community well, and he can’t think of one person employed by the recently arrived major companies. “A lot of hopes and expectations where raised about JetBlue coming into the community, and those hopes ultimately fell flat. Very few, if any jobs came to the residents of Queensbridge.”
Officials at Amazon — which is an NPR sponsor — were not available for an interview. They have, however, promised to allocate millions dollars for workforce development, and host job training sessions and fairs at the Queensbridge Houses.
Hanway has met with Amazon officials, and made it clear, he wants more concrete promises. “What are our goals? How many local residents are we going to hire? Into what kind of jobs? How will we get those residents ready for these jobs? And there have to be benchmarks, and Amazon has to be held accountable for that.”
Trying to build a local talent pipeline
On a chilly week night, I head over to an area near the Queensbridge Houses with a lot of warehouses and storage units. Inside one building, a coding class is underway.
The student body is what many tech activists wish Silicon Valley looked more like: diverse. Latinos, African-Americans and women.
This is part of the nonprofit Pursuit, which trains low-income adults for tech jobs.
“I think we have a unique opportunity here and for New York to be a place where the technology community can thrive but also be inclusive,” CEO and founder Jukay Hsu says.
Hsu, who was once a Harvard classmate of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, says he saw how his school friends revolutionized technology. But then he’d come home to his native Queens and wonder about those left behind.
Hsu is also a co-developer of Amazon’s new headquarters. His goal is to make sure the company relies heavily on local talent. “Amazon, when it’s here, can be embedded in Queens. Amazon’s coming to Queens, but we want to bring Queens to Amazon,” he says.
In a lounging area outside the Pursuit lecture room, I meet a 26-year-old coding student, Ivy Strickland. She says she’s excited about Amazon coming to town.
“I’m the youngest of three children. My mom had us when she was a teenager,” she says. “Imagine me, someone who now makes like, under $20,000 a year, able to get a job that could pay me enough that I would be able to do certain things, like pay my mom’s mortgage or help her out.”
In addition to studying at Pursuit, Strickland works in retail. She says she sees coding as a metaphor of how piece by piece, you can build something amazing.
“To see the way that you can take something so small and grow … I guess for me, personally, to know where I’ve come from, it’s like the same thing: I can see myself growing,” Strickland says.
Whether this city, and this neighborhood, will be able to build something good with Amazon remains to be seen. For now, there is hope, a good measure of distrust and plenty of that legendary Queens strength.