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Forged by Immigrants, NYC's Historic Flower District Faces Demise

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Leadership & Transparency
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New York City’s Chelsea district has long been known for its history as a melting pot of immigrants, small legendary businesses and fanciful dreams to make a better life. But these days one Chelsea neighborhood in particular is facing mounting challenges to survive.

Rising rents are making it harder for businesses in neighborhoods like Chelsea’s vibrant flower district to meet their costs.

But that’s not the only reason why this collection of small storefronts, many of which have been passed down from generation to generation, is shrinking.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) endemic raids across the city is changing the landscape of districts that once served as starting points for immigrant families.

According to the Immigrant Defense Project, which developed the interactive program, ICEWATCH, to track visually the number of immigrant arrests across the country, there were an estimated 665 arrests across the state of New York between 2013 and July 2018. More than half, says the nonprofit, have occurred within city limits and about two-thirds of that 665 have taken place since President Trump was elected.

While ICEWATCH carefully notes this is only an approximation, publications like The Intercept and City Lab point out the real concern about ICE’s impact on New York’s immigrant population: not all of those arrested are either in the U.S. illegally, nor were they the original immigrants targeted in the sweep.

For areas like the flower district, which depends largely on tourism, commercial and upscale sales, the impact is worrying. One business owner interviewed by Bloomberg writer Riley Griffin said potential applicants are being scared away by ICE’s targeting of the flower district. “[The workers] pay taxes. They are wonderful people. These are stand-up success stories,” she said referring to the immigrants that have worked for her business, many of whom went on to become U.S. citizens. “[But now] I can’t get a single person in.”

Of course, it isn’t just ICE that is driving these historic shops out of business. The 2008 recession provided the first big blow to an industry that has always been about supply and demand, and relies heavily on a consistent workforce to tie them together.

And Chelsea's flower district also relies on stable economic factors. Increasing demand for real estate in the Chelsea area, both for the burgeoning tech industry’s commercial development and for housing, is putting the squeeze on long-term renters that have largely survived as small mom-and-pop businesses. Meanwhile rents across much of Manhattan have doubled at twice the rate of wages. The result is a perfect storm forcing many of the city’s niche flower businesses to move and leave Chelsea behind.

Still, that won’t solve the industry’s employment woes. With often sketchy information about just how many deported immigrants were actually of non-legal status when they were arrested, many potential workers are understandably reticent to apply – even if the work is in a neighborhood that was largely built by immigrants.

Image credit: Kristine Paulus/Flickr

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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