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CANCELLED: 2020 Thomas Scott Seminar - Labor vs. Labor: Working-Class Institutional Politics In Response to Amazon and Gentrification in Western Queens

Date and time: 
March 19, 2020 - 4:00pm - 5:30pm

Cowles Auditorium
Humphrey Building, West Bank Campus
301 - 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55455

The Thomas Scott Seminar has been cancelled due to the Minnesota Department of Health guidance on cancelling large events, as well as the University of Minnesota-wide travel restrictions and in-person class cancellations because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). For more information on the University of Minnesota response, please visit this website. We hope to reschedule at a later date.

About the seminar

In November 2018, after a very public process that witnessed cities showering them with offers of various forms of subsidies, Amazon announced that they had selected Long Island City, Queens (LIC) as one of two locations for their second headquarters. The deal would be for a large complex/campus along the East River in one of the few remaining sections of LIC that had not already been redeveloped in the last ten years —years that had seen an astonishing amount of construction in the area. And while there had certainly been criticism and community organizing against the proposed deal, given that it had the vocal support of both Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo, most New Yorkers had assumed that the deal would be implemented. Then, rather surprisingly, on February 14, 2019, Amazon announced its withdrawal from the deal and its decision not to build the planned campus in LIC. In the wake of this historic and quite-uncommon outcome in urban development politics, this paper and seminar asks two related but very different questions.
The first question is: why were working class institutions so split over this issue? What were the fault lines that caused some unions to vociferously oppose the Amazon deal, while others to vociferously support it? If all of these groups represented large numbers of people who are Queens-based workers, tenants and immigrants, what drove some of them to understand their class position as reason to side with the corporation and its political supporters, and others to understand their class position as reason to oppose them? Most importantly, what does this fragmenting of working class institutions tell us about the nature of labor in contemporary urban development politics, particularly in real estate-driven localities like New York City?

This leads us directly to the second question we are asking in this paper: What does the future look like for Western Queens? This section of Queens has long been a destination for new immigrants and has provided both housing and working class employment opportunities for them. That future is very much in doubt. Regardless of the retreat of Amazon, the future of Western Queens is being shaped by the real estate industry and its supporters/enablers within the local state. How might the landscape of labor and working class politics play out in future conflicts over development and demographics? Based on our political engagement in these areas and with these groups, as well as interviews with others involved in the Amazon and other land use fights in Queens, we will answer both of these questions and do so with our eyes on the much larger questions of: who is the city for and what kind of city will it be?

About the presenter

James DeFilippis’ research focuses on the political economy of cities and communities. He is particularly interested in the processes of social change, and questions of power and justice in cities. While his interests are broad and include questions of immigration, affordable housing, the conditions of work in low wage industries, and the production of public space, it is questions of community control and building forms of power in poor neighborhoods that have been at the center of his work.  He began his work around community control over economic development more than 20 years ago and continues to work with, and in support of, community land trusts, community development credit unions, worker co-ops and other forms of community control. He is a founding member of the New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI). 

James is the author or editor of six books, around 50 articles and book chapters, and many applied monographs and reports for practitioners and advocates. He has a BA in Political Science from the University of Vermont, and a PhD in Geography from Rutgers University. He taught at King’s College London and Baruch College, CUNY before returning to Rutgers. Outside of his academic career, he has also been a staff member for (then) Congressman Bernie Sanders and a Housing Policy Analyst for the Community Service Society of New York.