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Exploring a Queens Neighborhood
The soul and body of New York doesn't just derive from glamorous, artistic and hip neighborhoods, or from those that carry a rich historical legacy and a mythic aura. For every Upper East Side, Greenwich Village, Harlem, and Williamsburg, there are cohesive, workaday, and still often distinctive neighborhoods that help grant the city its unique character. I'm thinking of neighborhoods where lower middle class and working class people can afford to live, and that house many immigrants.
Jackson Heights in Queens is one of those everyday neighborhoods, though much more architecturally significant than most. (The City's Landmarks Commission has designated about half of the neighborhood as a New York City Historic District.) It is conveniently located, about a half hour ride by subway from Midtown Manhattan, and it is believed to be the first garden city community built in the United States. It was originally built as a place for middle-to upper-middle income workers from Manhattan to raise their families. Jackson Heights has preserved its co-op garden apartment buildings with private, not public, parks that are tucked into the mid-blocks, mostly hidden from view by the buildings surrounding them. It's the more affluent part of the neighborhood, and still has residents, who are remnants from its Irish and Jewish past.
An urban sociologist friend, who has just moved into one of the large and light-filled garden apartments that are now attracting middle class professionals, because the price of apartments is much lower than Manhattan's-recently, gave me a lengthy tour of Jackson Heights. I also wandered alone through the neighborhood streets, which were filled with immigrants - Columbians, other Latinos, and South Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis, as well as Russians and Koreans, who make up more than half of Jackson Heights' residents. I saw few black faces on these streets.
The midday streets were teeming with people shopping on its main drags in a wide variety of mostly small shops (though the omnipresent, soulless Duane Reades and Starbucks exist there as well) and every ethnic restaurant imaginable. There was even the last existing Jahn's ice cream parlor that brought back memories of the one on 50s Fordham Road, the Bronx's prime shopping street.
Jackson Heights is a throwback to older New York neighborhoods, but it feels denser and more alive (it is open all hours), and has much more for the eye to take in and get stirred by. I don't recall Sikhs giving out flyers, Bollywood video shops, Halal butchers, Tibetan restaurants, Columbian hair salons, and night-clubs on those old Bronx streets. A few cafés and chic boutiques have opened in Jackson Heights, but there is no danger of the neighborhood turning into a gentrified Williamsburg.
Passing P.S. 69, where the majority of the 2000 students speak English as a second language, I see mothers, a number dressed in burkahs or wearing hijabs, while the Columbian women stand at a separate entrance, some wearing much more sexually revealing clothes. According to my urban sociologist friend, some interaction between the Moslem, Hindu, and Latin American parents takes place there, and at times in stores, but in his words, "overall there is a civil indifference towards others not of one's culture."
Jackson Heights also contains New York City's oldest gay community, dating back to vaudevillians who moved there in the '30s. Today, it's mostly Latino, and there is a lively nightclub scene located mostly on Roosevelt Avenue under the IRT elevated tracks - a principal commercial street, where the raunchier part of Heights' life thrives. The gay scene is not an intrusive one, and the community seems to be generally tolerant and accepting, especially around the time of the Heights's gay pride parade. Jackson Heights is not perfect - 15 % of the families are considered poor, and there are a high percentage of adults without health insurance. There also used to be a great deal of drug traffic, and there are still police horse patrols operating to prevent dealing. But my friend says there is little apparent drug crime, and though there is "some drunken rowdiness on the main streets from customers leaving the bars, people walking home from the late night subway feel safe."
The city needs its Jackson Heights, Astoria, Bay Ridge et al. - urban neighborhoods that still have reasonably priced housing, that project vitality and solidity, and that have not yet been pillaged by developers who dream of turning the city into an oasis for the moneyed.