Red Hook Residents Say Big-Box Stores Broke Job Promises

By Kieran K. Meadows

Red Hook residents were deeply divided eight years ago over the building of a large Fairway supermarket on the waterfront. Proponents said it would bring jobs. Opponents said it would be the beginning of the end of the historic waterfront and would bring tons of traffic to quiet streets.

A similar battle erupted four years ago when the Swedish furniture giant Ikea eyed a 340,000 square former shipyard down the street. The argument came down to economic development and the promise of jobs, versus environmental concerns and neighborhood preservation.

“The people in here, in the projects, everybody wanted Ikea to come here, cause they wanted jobs,” said Alisa Pizarro, an 18 year resident of the Red Hook Houses, a public housing project just blocks from the store. “They said they’d give us jobs so we’d say, ‘Yeah come to the neighborhood.’ ”

More than six months after Ikea opened and four years after Fairway, some residents say that the promises of jobs for local residents—pledges that Fairway and Ikea made central to their case for building the giant big-box stores along the Red Hook waterfront—have been broken.

While some local jobseekers were hired, the residents say the stores let many go in favor of people from outside the community. This situation has only served to exacerbate the unemployment dilemna in Red Hook, particularly in the Houses, the largest public housing project in Brooklyn.

Jobless rates have been as high as 27 percent in the Houses, according to the 2000 census. Residents of public housing make up a majority of the neighborhood, with over 70 percent of a local population of about 11,000 people.

The unemployment rate in the Houses is much higher than in the New York City metropolitan area, which was 7.2 percent in December 2008. And that number is likely to rise with the current economic recession. The recession, compounded by the financial crisis and mortgage meltdown last fall, has cost hundreds of thousands of people their jobs nationally.

The U.S. lost 598,000 jobs in January and the national unemployment rate rose from 7.2 percent to 7.6 percent in early February, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But these rates are nothing compared with the high rate of unemployment in the Houses.

“It’s even worse,” Pizarro said. “It’s even harder for those people to find a decent job.”

Pizarro said she knew a lot of people who got jobs at Fairway when it first opened. However, within a few months, the situation changed.

“They fired people and hired people from outside the neighborhood. People thought it was a gimmick,” she said.

Another Red Hook Houses resident, Cynthia Colon, noticed the same thing. Despite firings or layoffs, when the stores have to fill the job openings they should look to local residents, because of the stores’ direct impact on the neighborhood, she said.

“It doesn’t matter if they let someone from the community go,” she said. “They should replace them with another resident from the community.”

When Fairway and Ikea were looking to open Red Hook stores, they actively reached out to local leaders for support in the Red Hook Houses and found it. Ikea, for instance, promised the creation of 500 to 600 jobs. Political pressure was placed on elected officials to approve the plan.

Ikea hired 600 people and a majority of the new hires were local residents, according to Lillie Marshall, the president of the Red Hook Houses West Tenants’ Association. The week the outlet opened in last June, some organizations that had recruited workers for the store estimated that at least half the jobs had gone to local residents.

Joseph Roth, an Ikea spokesman, said that while the company does keep track of where its employees live, its policy is not to release this demographic data. But, he said, Red Hook residents had a two-week head start in the application process before the store opened, and the company had invested in job-training programs and also paid for the renovation of a local senior citizens center. He emphasized that the company maintains a good relationship with the Red Hook Houses East and West Tenants’ Associations.

In response to the residents’ allegations, Roth said the company has been “very good at reaching out and making sure that local folks who apply are given strong consideration.”

“Whenever possible, we try to give preference to local residents,” he said.

Still, some in the neighborhood are skeptical about whether Ikea has kept its pledge to provide jobs to the folks who needed them the most. Vanessa Hegler, a long-time Red Hook Houses East resident who works at Macy’s Department Store in Manhattan, said she’s heard fellow residents say that Ikea promised the neighborhood jobs “just to satisfy us, just to pacify us.”

Cynthia Colon has heard the same sentiment.

“They came in here, they rode our backs to come into this community with the businesses. They owe us,” Colon said. “It’s a matter of respect. You can’t just use people like that.”

In the coming year, more development is coming to Red Hook. A BJ’s Wholesale Club is destined for a warehouse on the former Revere Sugar Factory site, next door to Ikea. Also, Phoenix Beverages, a major beer distributor, will be relocating to two piers on the waterfront.

After their experience with Fairway and Ikea, some wonder if these major companies are just creating false promises of jobs for local residents, in order to gain support for the developments.

“It’s probably the same cycle, just to pacify us,” said Hegler. “It’s an ongoing problem.”

Colon thinks that the community has learned its lesson.

“We gave Ikea a free ride,” she said. “Unfortunately we had no agreement with them. We should have had a community agreement with Fairway and Ikea.”

Pizarro, who works part time as a community organizer around housing issues, is part of a local organization, the Red Hook Initiative. The organization is encouraging people to attend meetings and speak out about some of the issues affecting them, including unemployment.

“One voice is not going to do anything.” Pizarro said. But when you have the whole neighborhood screaming, that’s when politicians listen.”

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