Of all the institutions, public or private, near Amazon’s ground zero in Queens, none may have more to gain or lose than LaGuardia Community College.
The school, a part of the CUNY system, is tucked into a congested corner of Long Island City, a short walk from the roaring 7 train. One of two community colleges in Queens, LaGuardia serves a student body that is half Hispanic and nearly a quarter Asian, many of them immigrants. When Amazon announced in November it had struck a deal with the mayor and governor to land its second headquarters in the neighborhood, LaGuardia’s president, Gail Mellow, welcomed the trillion-dollar corporation with open arms.
“It’s exciting to see Amazon recognize Long Island City, where our college serves as the educational anchor, as THE place to be in New York City,” Mellow said in a statement at the time. “Having Amazon in our backyard will be transformative for our students.”
But as opposition grows from politicians and progressive activists against a tech giant that aggressively opposes unionization efforts, collaborates with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, drives brick-and-mortar stores out of business, and pits localities against each other for generous tax subsidies, some students and faculty at LaGuardia are rebelling against their president’s support for Amazon—and the role she has played in trying to sell the city's Amazon agreement to the community.
“I really see the president’s role there and the college in general as being a kind of pawn,” Arianna Martinez, a professor of sociology and geography at LaGuardia, told Gothamist. “We have no business being involved in this public handout to the richest corporation in the world. It’s just insane.”
Political organizing doesn’t always come naturally at LaGuardia, a two-year school where many students are also working full- or part-time. Yet, inspired by a simmering opposition movement in Queens and fearful that rapid gentrification will soon make their neighborhoods entirely unlivable, students and faculty there are beginning to mobilize. An anti-Amazon tabling event was scheduled for Wednesday; students and faculty are strategizing over what to do next.
Tensions boiled over last week at a closed-door strategic planning meeting where a select group of students and faculty had been invited to hear a presentation from Elizabeth Lusskin, the president of the Long Island City Partnership, which advocates for economic development and business interests in the neighborhood. Lusskin, according to students and faculty who attended the meeting, spoke positively about the rapid change in Long Island City, which has evolved over the last two decades from a rumpled blue-collar neighborhood to an enclave of glittering high rises and $3,500 one-bedroom apartments.
While Amazon was not a focal point of the presentation, toward the end Lusskin reportedly emphasized the potentially beneficial aspects of the deal struck between the tech giant and New York State—a promise of 25,000 to 40,000 jobs with a $150,000 average salary. That enraged students and faculty, several of whom said they came away with the impression that the presentation was little more than propaganda for Amazon.
“One of Lusskin’s pitches was that Long Island City will become a place where people can work, live, and play in one place,” ignoring the fact that gentrified rents are beyond the reach of most LaGuardia students, said a faculty member who declined to be identified. “During her talk, also, she said not all the new jobs at Amazon would be ‘AI,’ but many would be ‘HR’ and ‘maintenance’ jobs, implying if not stating that LaGuardia students would be a better fit for the latter two.”
Daniel Talero, a student at LaGuardia, said he was one of several students to stand up and challenge Lusskin at the meeting.
“It seemed ludicrous to me the whole presentation at LaGuardia was about the gentrification of Long Island City without addressing the gentrification aspect,” Talero recalled.
Talero, who described himself as “overcome with emotion,” says he asked Lusskin a series of questions, including how students like him were expected to afford to live in such a gentrified neighborhood and, more pointedly, “How dare you come to LaGuardia, one of the most diverse schools in New York with a very large immigrant population, and invite a company that works with ICE?”
Before Lusskin could answer, Mellow took the microphone. According to those present, she defended Amazon, arguing that gentrification was happening before the corporation announced their plans to come to Queens and would continue even if the headquarters never arrived. As one of 45 members of a city- and state-sponsored advisory committee set up to take community input on the Amazon deal—critics of Amazon were notably absent from the committee—Mellow told the students and faculty she was asking Amazon for a range of “pipeline jobs,” from “A.I.” to “receptionists.”
Pressed on what Amazon could guarantee for LaGuardia graduates, many of them from low-income homes, Mellow said “right now, nothing,” but argued she would be in a position to negotiate for more as the head of the workforce development committee. As students pressed for more answers, Mellow said she would be happy to meet with them “offline,” and cut off public debate.
Mellow, who declined to speak with Gothamist for this story, has been an enthusiastic booster of the Amazon deal since its inception, and it’s unclear whether student and faculty pressure can change her mind. LaGuardia’s website, curiously enough, has an entire page dedicated to Amazon—“Welcome to Long Island City, Amazon!” the page proclaims—and Mellow has gushed about how much the tech giant can help her community college.
“With [Amazon’s partnerships], we can improve our curriculum to serve not just Amazon but the New York tech industry as a whole,” Mellow said in November. “The tech industry talks about needing more diversity and women, and [coming to] LIC gives them the opportunity to make good on that.”
Mellow is well-wired in the business and real estate communities of Queens, and has emerged as a champion of large-scale developments. She currently sits on a steering committee for the massive Sunnyside Yards project, which has drawn less scrutiny than Amazon but fed fears of further congestion and gentrification in the neighborhood.
Beyond a much-derided promise to hire 30 residents from the nearby Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing complex in America, it remains to be seen how Amazon can improve the employment prospects of students who may have to compete with experienced tech workers from across the city and country.
In addition to concerns about providing corporate welfare for the wealthiest company in the world—Amazon can receive up to $3 billion in city and state subsidies if it hits its job targets—students and faculty say they are most disturbed by Amazon’s relationship with ICE in the Donald Trump era. As the anti-immigrant president ramps up deportations and ICE agents stalk courthouses, Amazon last year pitched its facial recognition technology to the agency as a way to efficiently target and identify immigrants.
Forty percent of LaGuardia’s students come from outside the United States, according to the college.
“Amazon is a threat to LaGuardia’s diverse population,” said Lj Williams, a LaGuardia student organizing efforts to oppose the company. “LaGuardia is very welcoming to undocumented students, low-income students and immigrants. Amazon works with ICE, gives information to ICE—how can an institution support a company that is threatening our student body?”
Talero, who like Williams is graduating this spring, is hopeful that students can come together to make a “formal” declaration against Amazon. Up until recently, opposition has been fractured and below the surface. Attending the school so close to where the Amazon headquarters may end up—and only a few miles from his Forest Hills home, where his Colombian- and Peruvian-born parents live—has motivated Talero to take up the fight.
“My exclamation may have been a starting point,” he said.