Out on Anable Basin, on the coast of Long Island City, a unique industrial landscape has dotted the landscape for 150 years. Clustered around this manmade inlet and radiating out onto the cobblestone streets nearby is a collection of simple warehouses, home to a diverse array of small manufacturing businesses that include furniture makers, upholstery shops, welders, architectural restoration firms, and a century-old sculptural mold maker.
But all of this may soon disappear, to be replaced by the new Amazon HQ2 campus. Officially announced on November 13, the Amazon proposal would create an enormous new complex around Anable Basin, bringing 25,000 employees to this quiet corner of the East River waterfront. A 14-month-long planning process for this megaproject will soon commence, and construction could begin as early as 2020, with the new campus completed by 2022.
Not everyone was happy to hear about Amazon’s plans—which has already brought a wave of new homebuyers to the neighborhood—and the company’s announcement was immediately greeted by an avalanche of criticism and protests. Local politicians and residents took to the streets, condemning it as a “secret backroom deal,” while newspapers slammed the idea that $3 billion in city and state subsidies would be given to the one of the world’s wealthiest corporations. The new Amazon headquarters have been described as a doomsday event that would push hundreds of residents into homelessness, make Long Island City a company town, amplify its transit problems, and increase gentrification, displacement and inequality throughout Queens.
In the weeks after the announcement, the mood on the streets around Anable Basin was bleak. Small groups of local residents made pilgrimages to the waterfront to look at the old warehouses and the abandoned remnants of the Water’s Edge restaurant, a neighborhood favorite that shuttered in 2015. Some visitors took photos for posterity, while others reminisced about the rapidly changing landscape. In the damp grey weather, these impromptu gatherings felt like a wake.
“The first thing they are going to do is put up a fence and tear all this down,” said Bruce Barbour, a lifelong Queens resident who visited the waterfront to feed feral cats and to take a last look at the warehouses. “When this happens, it’s going to totally change it to gentrified. This is going to be another level in the changes in Long Island City. Put some flying cars in there, and it will look like the Jetsons.”
Over the past decade, many of Long Island City’s historic industrial buildings have been bulldozed to make way for a dystopian collection of anonymous glass towers. Chemical factories, soda bottling plants, gas stations, and garages have all vanished, replaced by an ongoing development boom that has created thousands of sleek apartments for new residents. No other neighborhood in the entire country has had as many apartments built in the last eight years, and no other neighborhood in New York City has seen its landscape changed as much by rezoning and redevelopment.
Against this backdrop, the Amazon proposal feels like just another nail in the coffin for the community’s surviving mom-and-pop manufacturing businesses.
The glass towers have already marched up the East River to the very edge of Anable Basin, and have now encircled the back of the neighborhood along Jackson Avenue and around Court Square. But on the streets to the north and east of basin, there still exists a stronghold of one-story warehouses. Many of those businesses are now anticipating that they will be displaced by the real-estate gold rush that Amazon has unleashed, and are waiting for their landlords to sell out to the highest bidder.
“It is 100 percent no good for manufacturing,” said Ricky Zeng, the owner of Sky Land Tempering Glass Corporation, a glass manufacturer that leases a space along Vernon Boulevard adjacent to the proposed Amazon site. “For some, it will be good. For us, not good. I don’t think we will be able to continue. We need to face the facts and plan for what happens next.”
If these businesses are forced to close or relocate, hundreds of manufacturing jobs would disappear. Employees are already dreading what might come next. “For local workers, it will not change for the good,” said an employee at another small business adjacent to the Amazon site, who declined to be identified because he feared he might lose his job for speaking out. “When they are done with it, the place will look a lot different. They are going to take everyone’s business. It is not good for the neighborhood.”
The Amazon proposal could spell disaster for Long Island City’s small manufacturing businesses and may cause the destruction of centuries of industrial architecture. But its campus will also face many new disasters in the coming century: The proposed HQ2 site is situated on the front lines of climate change and sea level rise in New York City, in a flood zone that was underwater during Hurricane Sandy. The streets here already flood regularly during rainstorms, and the Amazon parcel “could be partially underwater by 2050,” according to The New Republic. By the end of this century, the state government predicts the coast here will be flooded by up to 6.25 feet of sea level rise.
Just 10 days after Amazon made its announcement, the Federal government published its own bombshell news, releasing the latest volume of its National Climate Assessment. The report paints an exceedingly dark vision for the future of the East Coast. “Much of the infrastructure in the Northeast, including drainage and sewer systems, flood and storm protection assets, transportation systems, and power supply, is nearing the end of its planned life expectancy. Climate-related disruptions will only exacerbate existing issues with aging infrastructure,” the report states in its Northeast summary.
“America’s trillion-dollar coastal property market and public infrastructure are threatened by the ongoing increase in the frequency, depth, and extent of tidal flooding due to sea level rise, with cascading impacts to the larger economy. Higher storm surges due to sea level rise and the increased probability of heavy precipitation events exacerbate the risk,” the report states in its summary of the coastal effects of climate change. “Many coastal communities will be transformed by the latter part of this century, and even under lower scenarios many individuals and communities will suffer financial impacts as chronic high tide flooding leads to higher costs and lower property values.”
Sinking billions of dollars into a new campus situated in the cross-hairs of climate change could be considered a very strange investment. New York is already struggling to cope with the immense costs of upgrading its aging infrastructure to prepare for climate change, and is still dealing with the enormous problems left behind in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The L train shutdown, an aftereffect of Sandy, will cost $477 million, and the city’s first storm surge barriers, recently proposed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, could cost tens of billions of dollars if they’re approved.
Instead of giving billions of dollars to a $1 trillion company in order to build a headquarters that is expected to be underwater soon, perhaps the city and state could instead build a sea wall along the entire coast of Long Island City, or invest in some form of green infrastructure that would protect the community from the coming climate apocalypse. For longtime residents, who have already seen a decade of real estate deals gut their community, this doesn’t seem likely.
“None of this will be here in five years,” shouted one passerby. “Fuck Amazon!”
The streets of Long Island City near Anable Basin are lined with small warehouses and manufacturing businesses. Along Ninth Street, a block away from the proposed Amazon site, these include Sculpture House Casting, a century old sculptural mold maker.
This Department of Education building, on Vernon Boulevard at 44th Drive, is a city-owned property that sits on land that will be given to Amazon as part of its headquarters complex. It is currently used as the Office of Pupil Transportation, and 1,000 school employees will be displaced when Amazon takes over the property.
Across the street from the DOE building is the Long Island City headquarters of Stillwell Supply, a construction equipment company founded in 1933. The building, on the corner of 44th Drive and Vernon Boulevard, is immediately adjacent to the proposed Amazon site.
To the west, down 44th Drive, both sides of the block are owned by the city, and are situated within the proposed Amazon site. “They are going to build a little city in there,” said Barbour. “I would love to know what they paid for all this property.”
A Department of Transportation (DOT) garage complex sits on the south side of 44th Drive, within the Amazon footprint. It houses the Jolt Elimination Team (J.E.T.S.), an emergency response unit that responds to hazardous road conditions, which will be relocated to make way for Amazon.
This long warehouse adjacent to the DOT property is owned by Plaxall, a private company that owns a large portion of the land within the proposed HQ2 site. The warehouse is adjacent to Anable Basin, and houses a number of small businesses, including Taylor Creative, a furniture rental company, and Celebrity Moving.
The public pier at the end of 44th Drive was repaired and reopened in 2016 after falling into complete disrepair. “Prior to the pier’s reconstruction, the waterfront was unusable and inaccessible to businesses and residents,” according to Urban Engineers, the firm that completed the $7 million repair.
Next to the pier is the abandoned Water’s Edge Restaurant, which opened in 1980 and closed in 2015. It sits on a barge that is owned by the city, which is also located within the footprint of the Amazon development site. “This was like the River Cafe, real fancy,” said Barbour. “I think this will be the helicopter pad. That’s where I would put it.”
Located at the end of the long warehouse owned by Plaxall are the Anable Basin Sailing Bar & Grill, a newer seasonal restaurant, and Sound River Studios, a private event space. A digital clock has been installed on the warehouse wall, counting down the days and hours until the end of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Walking east along 45th Avenue, this narrow backstreet cuts between the DOT complex and the Plaxall warehouse, and is lined with brick walls, security cameras, and razor wire. “You wouldn’t go down there at night—you’d be hit over the head or something,” said Barbour.
The Long Island City location of GardaWorld is located in the same Plaxall complex that houses Anable Basin Sailing and Celebrity Moving. It operates as a “cash vault,” where workers count money and search for counterfeit bills.
In the GardaWorld parking lot, an abandoned armored car is overgrown with ivy. Like the warehouse, this parking lot is owned by Plaxall and sits within the Amazon footprint.
Up the street, at the corner of 45th Avenue and Vernon Boulevard are several empty retail spaces, including the former home of DDK Cleaners and the Riverhead Gentlemen’s Club, a strip club described in 2015 as “the last of a dying breed.” It is now reported as permanently closed on Yelp.
Next door on Vernon Boulevard is the 55 Stan Operating Corporation, a taxi depot, garage and gas station situated near the head of Anable Basin. The depot is located at the border of the Amazon site.
Next to the taxi depot are several one-story manufacturing businesses, including Sky Land Tempering Glass. “I’m regretting not buying this building,” said Zeng, the owner of the business. “It’s too crowded already. The rents are going up.”
This empty factory on Vernon Bouelvard is the former site of Paragon Paint, which is being redeveloped by Simon Baron Development. They have proposed to build a 26 story residential tower designed by SHoP Architects here. The developer “is likely to spend about $15 million cleaning up the contaminated site—where paint and varnish was manufactured for decades,” according to the LIC Post.
A cluster of homes and small businesses are next door to the Paragon Paint site, at the corner of Vernon Boulevard and 46th Avenue, including LIC Bar and City Vet. They may soon be overshadowed by both the Amazon complex and Simon Baron tower.
Looking west down 46th Avenue, from Vernon Boulevard. Many of the warehouses here are also owned by Plaxall, a plastics manufacturer and real estate management company which has been in Long Island City for over 70 years. The northern side of the avenue is part of the proposed Amazon campus.
A second wing of Simon Baron’s residential complex also sits on 46th Avenue. The developer’s latest proposal is to replace this warehouse with a one-story building, and to create public access to the head of Anable Basin.
Next door is a long warehouse property owned by Plaxall, which would be demolished to make way for the Amazon headquarters. It currently houses an architectural fabrication business, a gym, and an art gallery. Plaxall manages over 1 million square feet of space in the neighborhood.
The parking lot behind the Plaxall warehouse is used by LIC Flea & Food, an event that draws in thousands of tourists to to Long Island City. It would also be displaced by the Amazon campus.
Looking west toward the mouth of Anable Basin, where it meets the East River. This 500-foot-long industrial inlet was created in 1868 by Henry Sheldon Anable, whose family owned much of the land in Long Island City.
The waters of the basin are inaccessible to the public, other than via the canoe and kayak launch of the Long Island City Community Boathouse, a volunteer-run community group that is also housed on land owned by Plaxall, within the Amazon footprint.
The south side of the basin is lined by a public promenade created as part of the Queens West development project. It looks across toward the Plaxall warehouse complex that is slated to demolished as part of the Amazon headquarters. The Prudence Ferry, which Plaxall once hoped to turn into a floating beer garden, is moored nearby.
At the mouth of the waterway, looking north toward Anable Basin Sailing. All of this property may soon be redeveloped as the new Amazon headquarters. And all of the waterfront here may soon be underwater, with sea levels expected to rise dramatically in the next few decades.
Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.