Background

Objectives

This project excavates and makes public the debates and changes related to development in western Queens over the last nearly 100 years. Its goal is to provide a historically and spatially rooted point of reference in ongoing debates around development in western Queens today. It also supports a broader analysis of that debate related to my dissertation work, which investigates the experiences, perspectives and alternative visions of development held by residents of one community organizing group in the region.

In a tagline, it aims to (re)investigate the past, (re)situate the present, and (re)imagine the future.

Context

This mapping project is part of the feminist activist ethnography that is my dissertation work. I am a PhD Candidate in the environmental psychology program at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

My dissertation inquiry centers the members of one particular resident group, the Justice For All Coalition (JFAC), a diverse group of resident-volunteers fighting for just development in their area, and of which I am a steering and executive committee member. JFAC formed in 2016 in tandem with a possible neighborhood rezoning for Long Island City (LIC). Initial members stemmed from existing church networks and the local public housing communities. Though the possible rezoning seems to be off the table, JFAC has remained active, coordinating with broader and broader networks of similar groups to oppose the BQX, the Amazon Deal, Sunnyside Yards, the coordinated rezoning of NW Ravenswood, and NextGeneration NYCHA, and to advocate for the needs of the community as they seem them. While the group’s membership and interests have diversified over time, our roots, base, and leadership remain in the local public housing developments of Queensbridge, Ravenswood, Astoria and Woodside, which centers the work we do, how and why.

Theoretical Grounding

JFAC’s work and the perspectives and experiences of its members will be at the center of this recalibration of time and history in Western Queens. Their contestations with city ambitions for the area contrast in ways that resonate with Lipsitz’ contrast of the white spatial imaginary and the black spatial imaginary (2011). The white spatial imaginary is ahistorical, valorizing of private property rights, colorblind, market-based, and rooted colonial logics of land use and manifest destiny. By contrast, Lipsitz spends the majority of his book aiming to elaborate the black spatial imaginary, which he claims is creative and community-centric, and rooted in the unique circumstances of survival that the Black community in the US has confronted ongoing. As Lipsitz notes in before beginning of his elaboration, the black spatial imaginary is not limited to the black community; but is one point of contrast for a multitude of counter or alternative spatial imaginaries that are born of and guide the lived experience; that are plagued in similar and different ways by dominant power structures.

Almeida (2015) deepens our understanding further, pointing to the role embodied knowing plays in providing an important vantage point for social critique that is often silenced and/or invisibilized and/or rewritten. The embodied knowing that stems from the gap between between dominant narratives and truths, and one’s lived reality reveals and problematizes the status quo, highlighting its limitations, and partial and political nature. Said succinctly, race-based epistemologies “do not present something new, they present something familiar from a different angle” (Almeida, 2015, p91).

The logics of the black spatial imaginary or race-based epistemologies are akin to the black logics and methods Hunter (2018) uncovers in his racial recalibration of Philadelphia’s Black Seventh Ward. Indigenous timelines, as Hunter (2018) calls them, intertwine with but counter dominant narratives and offer alternatives readings of the historical development of a place. It is also these competing logics and narratives, and underlying “double consciousness” that Brand (2018) argues can reveal the white supremacist logics that are deeply embedded in urban development and land use decisions. Moreover, Brand (2018) found that beyond critique, these viewpoints illustrated alternative, more just future visions.

Ultimately, Brand (2018) calls for “new methodological approaches to understanding the spatial production of subaltern knowledge systems that can counter development paradigms that decenter black geographic experience” (Brand, 2018, p-16-17). This is a call this study aims to take up and implement. In summary, this research takes residents’ claims as a legitimate, particular, and important starting place for understanding and deconstructing development in Western Queens, and the housing crisis in NYC more broadly, as well as imagining alternative just urban futures for all.

A Piece of the Puzzle

The map and broader digital history project discussed and shared on this site is one important mechanism through which this recalibration will be accomplished. It aims to provide context for the narratives of and aspirations for the neighborhood that may be collected through interviews and active participation with JFAC. As well, it provides a point of contrast for the perspectives of other stakeholders.

The map also provides insights in its own right – about development in Western Queens, and how the area has changed over time. It also speaks to the availability of data and ease of which it can be used to generate insights.

Broader A(ctivist)mbitions

At its core, this project is equally activist and scholarly. Most evident of this is the that is current and future design is being conceived with public use at the forefront. May the maps and other content be used by neighbors and other groups in Queens to support organizing efforts and counter arguments that hold the city accountable to the local community. May the maps, data files, resources and insights be useful to neighbors and groups around the city who may wish to carry out similar neighbohrood history and advocacy projects.

After all, this is OUR data, OUR histories, and OUR futures.

Acknowledgements

This project is deeply indebted to others – developers, activists, researchers, and more who have shared not only their work but also made visible the underlying labor in a way that is useful to others following in their path. Without their efforts, this project would not possible. I have similarly attempted to give back to the growing community attempting this work.

This work has been propelled by my membership with the Justice For All Coalition over the last few years. I work with them as a resident of Astoria and as a graduate student.

This project also owes its success to first cohort of the Data for Public Good Project, of which I was also a member. We collectively undertook a Leaflet-based mapping project that provided a safe and supportive team and tangible, project-based approach in which to intially explore web-mapping.

These experiences have been made possible by my role as GC Digital Fellow with the GC Digital Initiativs (GCDI), and as a student in the environmental psychology program at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Both have provided me with supportive communities that have informed my intellectual development around social justice, scholar-activism, and the role digital tools and technologies can play in supporting these efforts.

Relatedly, I must acknowledge my patient committee members – Dr. Michelle Fine and Dr. Tarry Hum, and Dr. Susan Saegert who is also my advisor – who have supported the theoretical and methodological development of this project.