|Men gather around screens during racing season at the Aqueduct racetrack, soon to be made over and developed by Resorts World New York into a racino.|
Bindra has grown up in this flea market, learning the tricks of the trade from his father. The iconic flea market, which has operated out of the parking lot of Aqueduct in Southwestern Queens for 30 years, is a noisy and sprawling hub for 500 vendors, many of whom are Indian, Guyanese and Caribbean immigrants making their way up the economic ladder by hawking cheap bargains to other immigrants. Now Bindra, who is paying his way through college with this business, is bracing himself for December 31, when he has to uproot his shop.
“They’re throwing us out,” said Bindra, “Who knows if the money will come back to the community? Who knows where I’ll go from here?”
In August of this year, entertainment giant Genting Malaysia Berhad put down a $380 million bid and won the rights to run the Aqueduct as a casino and make its first big splash in the U.S. market. A $1.3 billion makeover will equip the racetrack with 4,500 electronic slot machines, transforming it into a betting and gambling complex to accommodate 10,000 people by next spring.
On November 22, Genting New York notified the flea market’s operator, Plain & Fancy Shows, Inc., that its contract would not be renewed after its December 21st expiration date, although the market could operate through the holidays until December 31.
“Since the Aqueduct facility will be a construction site for several months, the Division of the Lottery determined that the continued presence of the flea market would raise safety concerns in addition to being incompatible with the future use of the property,” said spokesman Stefan Friedman in an email.
Vendors are in the dark over whether they will be relocated. Plain & Fancy did not respond to five calls for comment.
“This is a community of immigrant and working-class people who want to protect their jobs,” said Yvonne Kissoo, who is Guyanese and president of the Flea Market Vendor Association, a newly convened group of Ozone Park’s vendors partnering with the nonprofit Indo-Caribbean Alliance to collect signatures to petition for help. “How can Genting come and pull the rug from under our feet?”
It’s been difficult getting the flea market vendors to speak as a united body, Kissoo said, in between hawking ladies undergarments to regular customers she knew by their first name. Many vendors in the flea market can’t speak English, are terrified that their immigration status will be revoked, or afraid that they will be left out of future flea market opportunities if they protest, she said.
“I was hopeful that some sort of accommodation would be worked out, but unfortunately that was not the case,” said Councilman Eric Ulrich in a phone interview. “I don’t think any compromise will come out of it. Genting has said that the flea market is not consistent with the ideas and image they would like to project.”
New kid on the block
The conflict surrounding the flea market vendors and Genting has brought out fears amongst new arrivals in the community that a casino may cause them to be displaced.
“I don’t think the flea market and casino are compatible aesthetically or business-wise,” said David Quintana, a community activist, blogger and Community Board 10 member who has lived in Ozone Park for 41 years, over coffee at the neighborhood institution Esquire Diner. “One caters to lower to middle class people. The other is looking for real high-rollers from out-of-state and around the world. These are diametrically opposed interests.”
With a market share of $37.5 billion and the operator of the world’s most profitable casino in Singapore, Genting has arrived in Queens for the big win. Genting pulled in $8.9 billion in earnings in 2009, but is expected to make a 67 percent jump in earnings to $14.9 billion this year and 91 percent increase over two years to $17 billion next year, according to analysts for Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
Ozone Park’s location could prove more than ideal to bring in the big spenders: flanked by Howard Beach, Richmond Hill and Woodhaven, the casino is a 10-minute drive from John F. Kennedy International Airport.
But Genting will also have steer carefully through Ozone Park’s politically charged and culturally diverse landscape, where middle-class immigrants are a burgeoning group coming under the strains of overcrowding and the recession.
West Indian and South Indians are growing in numbers, drawn to the area’s familiar comforts, accents and lower rents. The population in District 10 rose by 18 percent between 1980 and 2010, according to New York City data. Between 1990 and 2000, Asian and Pacific Islanders doubled from 6.4 to 12.8 percent, and those in the non-Hispanic, non-black and non-Native American category went up tenfold from 0.5 percent to 5 percent.
The new tide of immigrants has resulted in jostling for space and storefronts. “We came in 20 years ago, and saved little by little, dollar by dollar,” said Mary, an Indian grocery store owner, with a tinge of pride, but added that with more Indians settling into the area, business was steadily getting more competitive.
The economic struggles may have taken its toll on the community. Guyanese made up over one-third of foreign born in District 10 in 2000, a number expected to have increased in 2010 census. But Little Guyana, located in Richmond Hill, is less of the vibrant and bustling center of gravity for the Guyanese community than it was five years ago, said Antonio Sieunarine, a pilot, whose Guyanese family moved to Ozone Park nine years ago from the Bronx, over roti at a Liberty Avenue bakery.
At a presentation before Community Board 10 at the Aqueduct racetrack in July, a Genting spokesperson stressed that it would exceed the stated goal of 25 percent employment of minority and women during construction and ongoing operations. Last month, Genting held an event to inform local certified minority and women-owned business enterprises about contracting opportunities and the procurement process during reconstruction of Aqueduct.
Genting also pledged to donate one percent of its net profits to civic projects approved by the community, and would be expected to donate over $350,000 and up to $500,000 each consecutive year.
Leroy Gadsden, president of the Jamaica National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that he was dissatisfied that jobs had not been earmarked for Queens residents. Together with 18 other civil rights, clergy groups, and trade unions representing 30,000 people in total, his organization authored and passed a resolution to support more efforts to ensure that Queens residents “get their economic fair share of jobs during the development of the racino,” he said in a phone interview.
“We need to ward off the ills of casinos that those who are poor and in the minority are going to suffer because they are people of color,” said Gadsden.
Betty Braton, president of Community Board 10, said there had been numerous discussions with Genting to ensure that the company would take local interests into consideration. “We are satisfied that Genting understands our concerns and will act to ensure that people from the local area get considered for jobs,” she said.
Genting will hold more outreach events in the next few months to notify the Queens residents about permanent jobs once the facility opens for use, said spokesman Stefan Friedman.
Bringing back Aqueduct’s glory days
In the grey interior of the Aqueduct racetrack, men cluster around the screen anxiously, furiously spurring their horses on. The floors are littered with betting tickets. The air is thick with anticipation and the smell of stale fast food. Arthur L., an Ozone Park resident, watches his horse intently, then shakes his head and laughs. He’s lost. Again.
He’ll still come next weekend, as he always does. “I really want to see this place up and pretty,” he said. Does he think the redeveloped racetrack will benefit the community? “You lose some, you win some,” he said, with a pensive smile, revealing gold teeth imprinted with the initials of his name.
In its prime, the 116-year-old track was graced by legends like Seabiscuit, glamorous women in big hats, and crowds of up to 73,000. The racetrack is now a shadow of its former self, with less than a tenth of its previous attendance during racing season from October to May.
This June, a report released by the Office of the State Comptroller’s warned that the New York Racing Association, the organization that runs Aqueduct, was staring at insolvency. Even after a $105 million bailout from the state in 2008, NYRA’s projected deficit was rising at an alarming rate, and estimated to reach $19 million in 2010, double its deficit of $8.9 million in 2009, noted the report.
The industry suffered a further blow this week when calls to bail out the city’s beleaguered Off-Track Betting Corporation fell short in Albany, making the revitalization of Aqueduct even more pressing. The bill fell three votes short of the 32 needed to pass the State Senate, and OTB, which owes Aqueduct $14.7 million, was declared bankrupt and shut down at midnight on December 7.
Attempts to turn around the ailing Aqueduct began ten years ago after then-Governor George Pataki agreed in October 2001 to a budget deal that authorized electronic slot machines at Aqueduct. The bidding process, however, fell through twice in the past three years.
In the most recent fiasco this March, the plug was pulled on Aqueduct Entertainment Group after it failed to meet the bidding criteria and was not able to not provide sufficient financial details of its investors.
In the lead-up to the elections in October, the state inspector general released a devastating report that alleged corruption on the part of Democratic leaders in the State Senate. John L. Sampson, the Senate Democratic leader from Brooklyn; Malcolm A. Smith, the Senate president from Queens; and Angelo Aponte, the appointed Senate secretary had tinkered with the bidding process and played favorites with a troubled bidder that had donated to Democratic party, alleged the report.
The political mudslinging has evoked deep frustrations. “After so many years of dealing with talk about the casino, people want to see it openly flourish,” said Quintana.
The desire for a revitalized Ozone Park holds especially strong amongst older and more entrenched members of the community nostalgic for the neighborhood’s thriving days when John J. Gotti and his partners in the Gambino crime family roamed the community and Aqueduct was in its heyday.
“When the Italians made their money and moved out to Long Island and places like that,” said Quintana, “there was a sense that there were more schlocky 99 cent stores, compared to the old days when there were real men’s stores, real furniture stores, and real shoe stores.”
Speaking at his blanket booth, the elder Bindra railed about the loss of his flea market business, and lamented about a slow business during a chilly morning. “The city is just thinking about getting rid of the budget deficit, but they’re not thinking about the other effects of opening the casino,” he said.
“The question is what would happen if the community didn’t do this? If Aqueduct ceases to be in existence, alternatives like a factory would have other effects on the community,” said State Senator Joseph Addabbo. “The plan we are taking on is the best plan we have going forward.”