Willets Point stages hunger strike

Auto shop workers in the shadow of Citi Field want the city to pay to relocate them as a group. Photo by Rich Bockmann
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Workers who rely on the various auto-service shops in Willets Point to put food in the mouths of their families staged a hunger strike last week, protesting what they said was the city’s poor effort to relocate them in order to make way for a planned mixed-use development.

The City Council is scheduled to give the final vote Monday on the $3 billion redevelopment proposal for Willets Point, which will displace about 160 businesses east of Citi Field in its first phase to make way for a hotel, retail outlets, a mall and housing.

The city has offered each business a year’s worth of rent — totaling about $9 million — to move out by the end of November, but a coalition of shops called the Sunrise Cooperative said that was not enough.

“The city’s attempts to assist the occupants of these businesses here in Willets Point has been woefully inadequate, the funding that they’re offering is woefully inadequate and essentially they’re going to be leaving the owners and these businesses without a source of income to feed their families,” Ferris Turner, an attorney representing the co-op, said inside one of the shops last Friday as a handful of workers gathered to begin their protest.

“And so the hunger strike is, in effect, a look into the future for these families because essentially most of them, probably after they’re essentially evicted here, will not have sufficient income or funding to feed their families.”

Marco Neira, president of the Sunshine coalition, said about eight workers had signed up to participate in the hunger strike, and he expected more to join.

He said the group had begun negotiating with property owners in Maspeth to find enough space to relocate all the businesses together, but the city would not pony up for their price.

Moving piecemeal, he said, would spell the death for each shop.

“If they relocate me to, say, Jamaica, nobody’s going to follow me,” he said, explaining that the various bodywork and mechanical shops benefit from the range of services they can offer customers all in one place. “What happens after the first month? I have to close my gate.”

Julia Sandoval, who works in the office of one of the shops, said she was going to participate in the strike as long as it lasted. The single mother of four said she is diabetic and she was joining the effort against her doctor’s advice.

“My doctor told me no,” she said. “But I have to.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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