Gentrification in Jamaica, Queens

Stephanie Aliaga. May 2018. 

Gentrification in Jamaica, Queens

In my first three years of commuting via public transportation to St. John's University, I watched small businesses in the Jamaica Station area close down and replaced by residential and commercial developers. Immigrants make up almost half of the population in Jamaica and own local business around the area. In recent years, developers have been interested in investing in Jamaica and now it has become officially the largest private investment in decades (Kern). Gentrification is a double-edged sword because although it comes with a lot of investment and improvements in the community, it can also lead to displacement for lower-income families (A House Divided).

In the 1950s and 1960s, a large-scale of white people migrated from the cities to the suburbs. Federal Housing and Veterans Administration home-loan guarantees made it economically appealing to own a home in the suburbs than to rent an apartment in the city. Tax deductions for interest payments on home mortgages provided additional financial incentive. Along with government-built highways that made commuting from suburban homes to city jobs accessible. Taxpaying businesses fled as well from downtown shops to suburban shopping malls (another post-World War II invention). By 1960, one of every four Americans lived in suburbia and held more than half the nation’s population by the end of the century (Making Modern American 864).

Black migrants and the grinding poverty of the rural South filled the abandonment of the inner cities. Government policies contributed to residential segregation. For instance, FHA administrations often refused blacks mortgages for private home purchases, thus limiting black mobility out of the inner cities and driving many minorities into public housing projects. Public housing programs frequently followed a neighborhood composition rule that built housing for blacks in neighborhoods that were already predominantly black, thus solidifying racial separation (Making Modern American 864).

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation was a government-sponsored corporation that was meant to refinance home mortgages in default to prevent foreclosure. They practiced redlining where they created maps that color-coded credit worthiness and risk on neighborhood and metropolitan levels. The maps helped set the rules for nearly a century of real estate practice. Jamaica, Queens had a C- security grading that meant “definitely declining.” And for all of South Jamaica, it had a D rating that meant “hazardous” (Robert). Low ratings were common for less affluent neighborhoods with significant minority and foreign-born populations (Miller Greg). The Veterans Administration and Federal Housing Administration also later used these maps to “decide who was worthy of home loans at a time when homeownership was rapidly expanding in postwar America” (Badger). As a result, many African Americans had to rent housing, often at exorbitant rates and poor conditions, from landlords who knew they had no choice (Robert).

Jamaica was named after the Jameco Indians, an Algonquian tribe and in 1664, the English gained control of the settlement. Jamaica had major development throughout the 1800s. In 1814, the Village of Jamaica was officially incorporated and a year after the public school system was founded. In 1834, the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad Company made a line that went to Jamaica and by 1870, the South Side Railroad (that later merged with the LIRR) went from Jamaica to Babylon, Long Island (Jamaica History). The town grew rapidly attracting people from Long Island and Brooklyn and also former slaves from the South. The 1875 population of 780 jumped to 3,922 five years later and in 1910, that number topped 58,000. Business and residential development accelerated in the 20th century, with the 1918 extension of the elevated transit lines, which enabled people who worked in Manhattan to live in Jamaica. The Long Island Rail Road Station was completed in 1913. Between 1920 and 1940, Jamaica Avenue commercial real estate boomed. The district included department stores like Gertz and Macy’s. The 1937 opening of the IND Subway under Hillside Avenue linked Jamaica with Manhattan and Brooklyn (History of Jamaica).

Between 1980 and 2014, population growth was driven by immigration as the number of immigrants more than tripled. By 2014, immigrants made up 41% of the population, compared to 18% in 1980. Nearly half of the immigrant population comes from the Caribbean, most notably Jamaica, and from Central and South America, primarily Guyana. In 2014, the area had the largest population of Jamaicans in the City (24,200) and the second-largest number of Guyanese (20,150) (An Economic Snapshot).

With the healthy growth population and convenient access to the NYC subway and LIRR systems, this attracted many developers and corporations like Starbucks and Chipotle. Major investment in the area of Jamaica began in 2003 when the city put $1.9 billion into the construction of the AirTrain to JFK Airport and rezoning 368 blocks of the downtown core in 2007.    

The Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC) is a non-profit organization that works with private developers and government officials on projects to revitalize Jamaica (Mission). In 2012, they selected developer BRP Companies, a development firm, for a project at 93-01 Sutphin Boulevard, which was home to a Duane Reade and low-rise mixed-use buildings since 2001. GDJC owned the property and agreed to sell it to BRP if they would build a large mixed-use project to spur growth in Jamaica (Guerre).

Their project of the Crossing at Jamaica Station is being built at the cost of $407 million and is the largest private development in the area (Warerkar). According to the Queens Chronicle, “the Crossing at Jamaica Station will consist of two apartment towers with 669 affordable units, retail and space for as-yet unidentified community use at Archer Avenue and Sutphin Boulevard, the busiest intersections in Southeast Queens. The stores that were once located in that lot like Duane Reade, an African Hair Braiding store and a Community Learning Center, are no longer there.

Although BRP claims to be “at the forefront of affordable, mixed-income, and market-rate housing,” in March 2018, BRP announced that they plan to sell condominiums instead of rent below market apartments at its Harlem development called “The Rennie,” according to The Real Deal. It was previously planned an 80 percent market rate, 20 percent affordable rental building with 134 units. However, the new offering plan calls for all of those apartments to be sold for a total asking price of $104 million, or $780,000 per apartment on average (Parker).

Since the 1920s, Harlem has been known as a major African-American residential and cultural center. During the Great Depression, unemployment in Harlem went past 20% and people were being evicted from the homes. Landowners took advantage of the neighborhood and offered apartments to the lower-class families for cheaper rent but in lower class conditions. After the 1990s, Harlem began to grow again. Between 1990 and 2006 the neighborhood's population grew by 16.9%, with the percentage of blacks decreasing from 87.6% to 69.3% and then dropping to 54.4% by 2010. The percentage of whites increasing from 1.5% to 6.6% by 2006,[30] and to "almost 10%" by 2010. A renovation of 125th Street and new properties along the thoroughfare also helped to revitalize Harlem (Fanelli).

In 2016, real estate experts at StreetEasy predicted that Jamaica would be the next hottest neighborhood, after the area experienced a significant increase in asking rents, sale prices and population. This is particularly alarming because Brooklyn and Harlem that were once lower income communities were listed as an up and coming city that has now been gentrified.

In the documentary, City Rising, they argue that from the displacement of Native people to the enforcement of Jim Crow, the history of the U.S. land policy and practice is a history of inequalities. “The United States was actually founded on someone else’s property. Manifest destiny, when people moved from the eastern seaboard across the Midwest and on through the western United States to California, really had underneath it, the idea that just because somebody lived there, if they were not utilizing the property in its highest and best use, that that property could be taken. That is the justification for taking land from Native Americans.”

From the displacement of Native peoples to the enforcement of Jim Crow, the history of U.S. land policy and practice is a history of inequities. Gold rush-era Chinese workers and Blacks fleeing Southern racism were barred from California's housing market and segregated to particular communities. After the Great Depression, the federal government backed mortgage lending as a route to homeownership and wealth accumulation, but redlined minority communities. White flight to suburbia left the urban core starved for investment and government services. Predatory lending and the 2010 foreclosure crisis further depressed rates of homeownership in the inner cities (City Rising). Today, the racial affects of redlining shape the way in which minorities and lower income communities are being affected by gentrification. The Crossing at Jamaica Station will be completed in 2020, along with other new stores being built around the area. As the rent increases and local businesses being closed down, Jamaica will soon become the next gentrified city.

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