Over warm cups of butter tea at a nearby Tibetan restaurant, the anti-gentrification activists Beatriz Rodriguez of #SaveNYC and Kirsten Theodos of TakeBackNYC agree that there is something powerful about Queens that Amazon did not anticipate. The borough holds the Guinness World Record for “most ethnically diverse urban area on the planet,” and with diversity comes healthy dissent and resistance. “The people here really struggle,” Rodriguez says. “They are being displaced all the time. They left other countries to come here and get pushed around again? That’s why they have that fight.”
“It’s not like a lot of Manhattan,” Kirsten adds, “which is so whitewashed. For the people in Queens, it’s about survival.” And where there is a fight for survival, there cannot be complacency. There must be progress.
Progress, in this case, means looking to the past. Many New Yorkers now believe the party line that to have a functional city, you have to welcome big development, and to have jobs, you have to give away billions in taxpayer money to corporations. But not too long ago, New York was a rambunctious and progressive city. Its unbridled spirit, what came to be known as “New York values,” was built by a confluence of immigrants, people of color, artists, early LGBTQ communities, and a strong working class. They brought democratic socialism, built strong unions, and fought for human rights.
Samuel Stein, an urban-studies instructor at Hunter College and the author of Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, also sees the Amazon defeat as a watershed moment—and he expects pushback from the establishment. “Some will say that the successful fight against Amazon’s HQ2 marks the death of New York and the triumph of negativity and fear over progress and development,” he says. “They will say it shows that we can’t do big things anymore. I say: Bullshit. This is not the death of New York City; this is its resuscitation. If it is the end of anything, it is the end of an era in which people feared the developers, and the beginning of a time in which developers fear the people.”
If those developers were here at Diversity Plaza, they might at least feel nervous. Boodoosingh, a Tassa drumming group, is pounding out a percussive rhythm so powerful you can feel it in the marrow of your bones. Its ancestral beat, calling back to Trinidad and Tobago, to colonized India and ancient Persia, intensifies and rises until it feels like an exorcism, a ritual cleansing. The people in the crowd are moving together, bouncing on their toes, dancing with arms in the air. A spirit is reverberating through the people and it will not stop. Behind the drummers, the head of Jeff Bezos looks on from the piñata. After the music, Ahmed announces, “This is our city. A new New York is rising.” Someone hands a broomstick to a boy in the crowd and points him toward the piñata. The people gather close, urging the boy to hit it hard. He aims and takes a whack. Then another. Bezos’s head spins. The boy keeps at it. Another whack and the piñata splits open, spilling out a glittering burst of confetti. The crowd cheers and the dancing continues into the night.