As Development Surges in Flushing, a Neighborhood is Thoroughly Changed

Across the street from the Fort Totten bus stop in Queens is a bronze sign in sans-serif letters: “FLUSHING COMMONS |RESIDENCES.” The font and style are a near match to a sign adorning the luxury clothing store Atelier next door, housed in the same steel grey earthy sienna-colored building.

The fenced-off parking spaces down the street hint that a larger parking lot was once there. There are no traces of the one-story houses that stood on the land before the lot, or of the gravestones that had been buried beneath foundations.

Nearly 70 years ago, the area was home to a small community that was uprooted when developer Robert Moses decided that its Black residents were in the way of a parking lot he wanted to build. Unknown to Moses — and to the people who had lived there for generations — the houses had been built upon a graveyard. And when construction began on the project, workers pulled up unmarked, forgotten headstones.

Some residents moved into the Bland Houses down the street, but others left the neighborhood altogether. Only the Macedonia AME Church was left as a reminder of those who called the neighborhood home, and now it is gone, demolished in 2017. Church members hope to rebuild it on the same spot.  

A sign in Flushing marks the site of the former Macedonia A.M.E. Church, which parishioners hope to rebuild. (Photo/Andrew Little)

“It was a viable Black community right there in the heart of downtown Flushing, and it was thriving,” said Carolyn Scavella, 79, who moved out of Flushing over 30 years ago.

Scavella has been attending Macedonia since she was 4 years old and continued to commute to services even after. She now lives in Jackson Heights, about six  miles away.

The Flushing that was hers growing up – the tight-knit, Black neighborhood that included the houses destroyed for the parking lot – is no longer there.

People who are familiar with Flushing real estate say the biggest driver of change in the last 20 years is the developer: F&T Group.

Michael Lee, a Taiwanese immigrant who founded F&T over 20 years ago, led the development of Flushing Commons, which is the first phase of a 1.8 million-square-foot project that will spread across the corner of Union Street and 39th Avenue. Queens Crossing down the street is also an F&T development, as is One Fulton Square and luxury condo complex Tangram, currently under construction.

Queens historian Jason D. Antos tracks the most recent makeover of Flushing to the turn of the century, just after the formation of F&T. To him, what the area looked like then compared to today is “day and night.”

At the time, Main Street was home to shoe-repair shops and department stores. Since then, business in the area has become more of corporate affair.

Others familiar with the business landscape agree with the timeline, including James Chen, a board member on the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce and owner of a local print shop and delivery service.

“Everything you see here is either franchise from overseas, or big development,” said Chen. “There is no character anymore.”

Rent has nearly doubled for Chen’s print shop in the last decade, and his shop is not alone. Rent spikes in the last decade have made other shops move out of Flushing to Long Island, New Jersey, or Connecticut, according to Chen.

Chen’s family immigrated to Flushing from Hong Kong in 1986, when he was 10. Chen talks nostalgically of the downtown Flushing he knew growing up. It was a place where people went to hang out for the day, to eat interesting and inexpensive food and wander the streets, which were relatively quiet. Now, he says, with fewer options for cheap food, and bigger crowds, people in his community tend to go out for a specific purpose, like a doctor’s appointment or grocery shopping, and go home.

And, more people from China have been settling in Flushing.

“It doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing,” said Chen, who believes the immigration has helped Flushing come to rival Manhattan’s Chinatown as a popular destination for Chinese culture and cuisine.

With the influx of immigrants came an influx of capital. F&T is one of several Flushing developers that partners with Chinese conglomerates.

Since its beginnings, Flushing has been home to many different cultures.

A Dutch cartographer named the area after his hometown. The Dutch then made Flushing their easternmost stronghold against the British in the 17th Century, massacring members of the indigenous Matinecock Nation along the way and pushing them off their land.

The Quakers, who came to America to escape persecution, also met violence from the Dutch in what was known as the Flushing Remonstrance. The Bowne House and the Flushing Quaker Meeting House are thought to be stops on the Underground Railroad, which made way for Black communities to take root from the early 1800s on.

Immigrants from Europe and South America showed up in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Since then, Flushing has welcomed people from Japan, China, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Korea, India, Afghanistan, Guyana and elsewhere.

The differing feelings about what Flushing means were apparent at recent hearings for F&T’s newest endeavor, the Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD).

Tony Chang, who spoke in favor of the project, runs Gu Xiang Printing on 39th Avenue with his parents, and interprets what others see as a loss of character as a realization of progress in the area.

“Flushing used to be like a rinky-dink, a really run-down place,” said Chang. “Ever since the development came in …  it’s demanded more cleanliness to kind of present an acceptable, clean city.”

For Chang and his family, gentrification has paid dividends. They receive additional work from the businesses at F&T-owned One Fulton Square, a block away, as well as from F&T itself.

But the waterfront project was opposed by others, including fellow print shop owner Chen.

The projects spearheaded by F&T have often been accompanied by such contention. Jewelry shop owner Ikhwan Rim was at the center of local businesses’ fight against Flushing Commons, starting in 2007. For his company and many other Korean small businesses on Union Street, the condos were seen as a possible death knell.

Rim, the executive director of Union Street Small Business Association, avoided that outcome by moving his sales online, but others were less fortunate. Many neighboring businesses on Union Street have closed, he said, and he has considered moving his business elsewhere.

Another problem is the lack of affordable housing. Other than the Bland Houses, there are not many choices, forcing those who cannot afford the newly built condos to convert basements and attics into rooms.

“Either you’re super rich or you’re super poor to live in downtown Flushing,” said Chen. “There’s no in-between anymore.”

The City Council voted in favor of the SFWD in December, but a lawsuit brought against the project in June is still going through the city’s court system. Two local nonprofits and a community member are accusing F&T and its partners of misrepresenting the project’s use of land to avoid doing a full environmental impact review.

The spot where Macedonia AME Church once stood is empty, blocked from the view of passers-by by green, 10-foot-tall boards. A sign stands in front of the lot marking the church’s history.

There is no estimated date for the new church building’s completion – the pandemic has delayed the project. Macedonia’s temporary location is in Jamaica.

Macedonia was once surrounded by a community of people who attended it, then a sea of parking spaces, and when it is rebuilt, it will be in the shadow of Flushing Commons’ luxury mixed-use buildings.

“I would say that that’s part of progress,” said Scavella, “but I guess they said the same thing when they put up the parking lot for commuters back in the early ‘50s.”