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One Queens activist resorts to a hunger strike in long-running fight over a city building

By Michelle Bocanegra,

A rendering of a potential rooftop garden at a city-owned building in Queens. Activists say that's one use the building could feature if turned over to the community.

An activist has been on a hunger strike in Long Island City for almost two weeks, demanding the Adams administration surrender the city’s deed to a building that some say could be better-utilized by the community.

Lashawn "Suga Ray" Marston, an artist and member of the Western QueensCommunity Land Trust — a group of activists, small business owners and residents pushing for a community-minded approach to land use — says he has not eaten since his strike began on Feb. 28.

He began sleeping outside the city-owned building at 44-36 Vernon Boulevard the same day, in a tent that his girlfriend has occasionally slept in too, stocked with blankets and hand warmers. Marston, who turns 39 on Tuesday, plans to continue his strike until then. He and his supporters say the city is only using 30% of the building.

“We got to push the envelope a little bit,” Marston said. “We got to push the needle a little bit, got to do something a little bit extreme, get a little more attention and let people know that like, I'm serious. Nobody else is serious about it. I'm very serious about this.”

Marston is among a group of activists who have for years pressed the city to turn the building over to a community land trust run by residents of Western Queens, filled with communities with industrial and working class roots that have been transformed by a wave of gentrification .

The building is on the site of the since-botched Amazon deal, where issues of affordability have been a regular refrain among local residents.

The city-owned site spans 600,000 square feet and is largely used by Department of Education employees. Marston said the intention isn’t to displace city workers — but to redistribute resources so that unused space can be shared with residents.

The group has released a proposal for how to convert the building into a space shared by the community with the DOE. This would include a rooftop farm, which Marston says could benefit public housing residents in nearby Queensbridge Houses.

“People make up the community,” Marston said. As far as corporate interest in the land, he said, “everything shouldn't be privatized.”

Advocates will gather in support of Marston on Sunday.

Adams’ office referred Gothamist to the education department. Spokesperson Jenna Lyle said the facility “serves many different critical functions for New York City Public Schools, with over 1,200 employees working out of the building supporting school facilities, transportation, food service, the Public Schools Athletic League, and many other departments.”

Lyle said the building was also an important equipment hub during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the city has “no current additional plans for the building.”

Marston said police have visited his tent a few times, but authorities have not tried to remove him. As he looks forward to his first meal in weeks, once his strike ends, he has in mind a deli in Sunnyside: serving up vegan pancakes, vegan sausage and vegan popcorn chicken.

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