‘We are the displaced people’: Gates go up, closing off large portion of Willets Point

Willets Point
Photo: Jacob Kaye/QNS

The saga of the development of Willets Point in Flushing took another turn this week as the city prepared to gate off a large swath of the long-ignored and crumbling industrial park. 

By the end of the week, auto workers working out of makeshift shops on the side of the road will be without a place to practice their craft. 

“We are the displaced people,” said Arturo Oyala, an auto worker who lost his storefront shop several years ago when the city began to develop the area. Now, he does upholstery work out of a personal van that he parks on 36th Avenue inside Willets Point.

Oyala now stands to lose that location as well. 

On Tuesday, July 2, a development company under contract with the New York City Department of Housing and Preservation installed gates blocking off Willets Point Boulevard, 35th, 36th, 37th and 38th Avenues within the Iron Triangle. The streets together outline Phase 1 of the development. 

The gates will be locked by Friday, July 5, according to a worker with the development company. 

According to the Department of Housing and Preservation, the gates have been erected as part of the development process.

“This is in no way a targeted action,” the department said in a statement to QNS. “Certain streets in this area have been de–mapped as part of the Urban Renewal action. The streets were recently closed for the first time as is standard procedure at this stage. Due to safety risks, businesses cannot operate on demapped [sic] streets. These actions, including the street demapping [sic], are necessary steps to enable a future mixed use development.”

Sam Sambucci, a property and business owner in Willets Point, believes the gates may be going up because the city is attempting to ensure workers like Oyala leave the area.

“They are going to demolish everything in Phase 1 because they can’t stop anyone from squatting or dumping,” Sambucci said. 

Recently posted signs along Seaver Way, the newly named street that marks the western boarder of Willets Point, threaten vehicle owners who park their car in Phase 1.

“Unauthorized vehicles must be removed immediately,” the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s signs read. “Anyone who remains unlawfully upon these premises will be prosecuted. Punishment includes up to one year imprisonment.”

Efforts have been made in the past to relocate Willets Point workers, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s website, the group overseeing the entire development.

The website says the program “successfully concluded in 2014.” But Oyala and other workers in the neighborhood say these efforts were lackluster. 

“We don’t have a relocation and now they come and close the businesses and close the area,” Oyala said. “They close it and they don’t care. They didn’t really help these people.” 

The New York City Economic Development Corporation did not respond to request for comment.

Sambucci said that by closing off the majority of streets that lead into the neighborhood, the city is only making the Willets Point situation worse. 

“The city is creating such a dangerous situation,” Sambucci said. 

The neighborhood’s streets are covered with gaping potholes every few feet and are already treacherous to navigate. Once the gates are locked, however, only several streets will allow for people to enter and exit Willets Point. Sambucci worries it will soon be impossible to get in, out and around the neighborhood. 

“They are not providing the basic facilities for us to survive,” said Sambucci.