Flushing: The Community that Could

If you were to ask me what I think about most, the answer would be Flushing, Queens. As a self-described Flushingite, I’ve treaded on foot through the pages that mark my neighborhood’s history. It is filled with quirks while still maintaining its roots with places such as the Bowne House, the Quaker Meeting House, and Old Town of Flushing Burial Ground, just a few steps from my home. Its inhabitants have changed from protestant, Dutch, and English in the 1600s to Italian, Greek, Irish, and Jewish during the 20th century to what it is today, Chinese, Korean, and Hispanic. However, this history marked by buildings has been hit by a gentrification wave increasingly fueled by transnational investors from China through the rise of luxury buildings. The essence of the community is being lost as the longtime neighbors and small businesses who built up the neighborhood and fame as the “Asian food capital” are being displaced to make way for luxurious glass boxes. I saw this happen in 2016 with the displacement of my babysitter Mercedes and I am seeing it happen again.

The truckloads of bodies that I saw pile outside of Flushing Hospital during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 reminded me of the disparities that lie between residents living in two-million-dollar condos and those outside. Oblivious to the memories and laughter that filled the homes that once stood there; oblivious to the people priced out and had to move to crowded shelters, apartments, illegal basements, or end up homeless. Many sneer at the homeless who find shelter under the glass roof outside of Macy’s, but this wasn’t common when I was kid nor when my parents moved here. It has only become a problem now that gentrification has moved full force.

Many are confused when they first hear this, not understanding how tenants can be forced out. I explain to them that rents and mortgages have doubled and tripled after the 2008 recession. My family’s house is evidence of that: my parents purchased it in 2005 at nearly $500,000 and now its value has nearly doubled, worth around $950,000. According to community board 7’s profile of the neighborhood, 56% of households are rent burdened, meaning they spend 35% or more of their income on rent, and 26% of households have incomes below the poverty line. Both of these figures are above the rest of Queens and New York City. And this in spite of Flushing having a 2.8% unemployment rate, nearly half compared to Queens, 4.4%, and New York City, 4.9%. A loophole in Major Capital Improvement (MCI) projects has led to rent increases that end up displacing people. That, or illegal harassment from landlords who don’t inform tenants of their rights, know many tenants can’t fight back because they are undocumented, or have retaliated on tenants who do fight back; for instance, Bobby Nathan, a local activist, was locked out of his apartment for his attempting to organize fellow tenants in Flushing and has been forbidden from entering certain buildings in Flushing unless a tenant is accompanying him.

All of this has been compounded by COVID. Food access has become a problem as many many were put out of work, yet Flushing rents have risen ceaselessly. Despite the many challenges, the heart of the community, and the people that make it beat, are still here fighting. The youth organizing committee at Minkwon, a community organization based and founded in Flushing, saw mutual aid and solidarity work as the best response. This resulted in a community fridge—one of many that have sprung up across the city. In November, the fridge was only an idea. Over the months that followed, the youth at Minkwon worked to secure the donation of a fridge, a host and provider of power, volunteers, and funding for materials. The launch was a celebration of work and commitment to the community as we printed our hands on the fridge’s housing, and spoke about our connections to Flushing. The weeks that followed were tough because demand for the fridge grew beyond the initial expectation. Being a youth-led project, passing this hurdle was difficult as there was little assistance from adults. Nevertheless, the youth found more food suppliers and worked to increase the amount of volunteers.

The fridge was built by and for a community and youth that are resilient. Resilience—that is what Flushing is.   

A Flushing resident takes food from the Flushing Community Fridge. May, 2021.

Ying, Minkwon’s former youth coordinator, and a youth volunteer help paint the community fridge. May 2021.

Youth volunteers organize food recently brought from La Jornada pantry. May 2021.

A youth volunteer sorts through canned goods. May 2021.

Youth volunteers prepare recently donated dough. May 2021.

Organizing committee member Ivan going live on the fridge’s Instagram page. April 2021.

Various organizing committee members and youth volunteers paint the housing for the fridge. April 2021.

A hand print that was added on the fridge’s launch day. April 2021.

A sign remembering a fellow community member who passed due to COVID-19 and reflecting on the spirit of mutual aid. May 2021.

A sign denoting that a lot that has been sitting empty for years can be turned into a condo, an increasingly prevalent situation in Flushing. May 2021.

Bobby Nathan, a local activist, points out multiple units up for rent in Flushing on his walking tour of the neighborhood. May 2021.

A woman looking for plastic bottles in Flushing. May 2021.

A woman reading the announcement for the launch of the fridge in front of the local public library. May 2021.

A elderly man selling items, something that has become a common site throughout COVID. May 2021.

The youth organizers and I, the photographer, celebrating our departing youth coordinator Ying [farthest to the right] one last time in the courtyard of the Free Synagogue of Flushing, the host of the fridge. May 2021.

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