Why Is Suga Ray on Hunger Strike?
A Queensbridge resident takes a stand to stop the City from handing an underutilized building over to developers, and instead, just for once, give it to the people.
4:20 PM EST on March 10, 2023
It's getting cold on a shaded corner of Vernon Boulevard in the still-industrial parts of Long Island City, but this windy, somewhat desolate stretch of road is where you can find the artist Lashawn "Suga Ray" Marston, a Queensbridge resident who has been sleeping on the sidewalk and on hunger strike since March 1.
For much of the past thirty years, New York's leaders have viewed the western Queens waterfront as a pure white, blank canvas—one where they could maybe put an Olympic Village, or an Amazon headquarters. For the most part, what they've done is allow developers to build endless, unaffordable condo towers that blot out the sun.
But Marston, as well as other community activists, have a different vision. Marston launched his two-week hunger strike and sleep-out with one goal in mind: to get the City to hand over the Department of Education offices at 44-36 Vernon Boulevard to the nonprofit Western Queens Community Land Trust, which hopes to turn the building into a community center.
The building was set to be given to Amazon as part of their HQ2 project, which was ultimately—and presciently, it turns out—scuttled by community opposition. To Suga Ray, the willingness of government officials to hand over the building to one of the world's richest men shows just how far they're willing to go to appease the wealthy, while ignoring the people that actually live in Long Island City and nearby Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing project in the world.
"We're the community telling you how to save your young people," Suga Ray told me. That day was the 16th anniversary of Suga Ray's release from prison, and he was worried about the future generations of kids in Queensbridge. "Why wouldn't they listen to that?"
While I spoke with Suga Ray in front of his tent, people stopped by to talk about why they agreed that this building should be handed to community residents, and not made into just another condo or office building. Even though Suga Ray's energy was lagging a bit, other people there picked up on the energy and began dreaming about what could go in the mostly empty building. "I know what goes on in there, it's all just contractors, everyone trying to take money out of the community, fighting for the pile of money," said one man in a biker vest, who was on his way to work. "Money isn't the problem, it's getting it to the people."
The land trust needs an additional $75 million to build out the full project, but Suga Ray says all the City has to do is "give us the deed, we'll get the money." As we spoke, Suga Ray noticed a homeless sweep flier had been put up while he was sleeping—the City intends to kick him off the sidewalk tomorrow.
In a statement, City Hall says it has "no current additional plans for the building.”
Nevermind that planned sweep—he plans on staying there, and on hunger strike, until his birthday on March 14.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
How have Queensbridge and this area changed in the 37 years you've been living here?
The investment in the community has been going down. We used to have a lot of programs growing up—basketball, football, computer, martial arts programs. The Queensbridge library has become a tech hub, but a lot of the people that work there aren't from the neighborhood, so the word isn't getting out. Here, on Vernon Boulevard, Long Island City, [there's] obviously a huge change—it used to be factories, all industrial, dirt roads, salt piles, all that, and now it's a lot of luxury housing and development.
When did you become involved with community organizing?
I always was. Even when I was getting in trouble in the streets, I would go, after school, or even if I didn't go to school, I'd go to the community center to tutor my peers. I committed my life to it full time after I got out of prison and changed my life, and it was mainly through the arts. I'm an artist for my community.
When you're sleeping outside of this building, what are you dreaming about going inside this underutilized building?
I'm seeing a rooftop garden, deeply affordable studio space for artists, manufacturing space for those who build, a woodshop for young people, a community cooperative kitchen, storage for food vendors. That's such a big thing—people go all over the city to store their food carts and trucks, and every time a building goes up, they need to take them further away. So why not keep them here?
Why do you think politicians were so eager to make a deal with Amazon but, now that the deal's off, won't even talk to your group about the project?
It's like Michael Jackson said—they don't really care about us. So we have to make a stand. Politics is supposed to be about engaging with the community, and to build up that community, but politicians in New York have been completely bought out by the real estate industry, and they care about profit, that's it. That's everything to them.
I'm just tired of the rhetoric, the runaround, never getting a straight answer. We need this space—young people are dying, having their lives destroyed. When you have a space to call your own, and I'm not talking about a school here, you can build people's spirits. Minds are being fortified.
So I decided something had to be done. That's why I'm on hunger strike, and if politicians say they want a better city, they need to see what can happen here, this plan we've come up with. We're the community telling you how to save your young people. Why wouldn't they listen to that?
How worried are you about waking up one morning and seeing they've sold off this building to be part of another development scheme, with zero community input?
It's always a concern, but you can't worry about it.
I'm focused on the art we're creating out here, the photos we're taking of the protest. I'm envisioning what we do the day after we win. I'm thinking about what we'll create, because you can't think about anything else for this to work.
Then we can move on to even bigger issues, because this space can't solve everything.
OK, a more immediate worry—there's a sign here that says they're going to kick you out on Saturday. What happens then?
We gotta fight it. I'll have my people out here, but this is a peaceful demonstration. I'm not living on the streets, it's not filthy, it's not dirty, they're tripping. You move me, get ready for the mayor to show up for real, because that plays right into why I'm doing this! You have to interact with me, that's why I'm here! That's the point!
I'm doing something out of love. And it's the truth. Public land for public good. Let's do something for the people, for once. Let's invest in the people. Let's let young people find the thing that they love. It's the best investment the City could ever make.
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