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Letter From New York: Discovering America in Queens

By Lenny Quart

Online

In this evocative article, Lenny shows how the borough of Queens has changed over the last 40 years to become a microcosm of the ethnic diversity of the United States

Posted 03 February, 2004

When I was a pre-teen in the early 50s Bronx, I remember going to Queens for the first time. One frozen December night we took a bus to visit family friends in Whitestone. When we stepped off the bus I recall being stunned by what I saw. There were quiet streets of detached, sturdy red brick houses, many of whose doors, windows and small front lawns were adorned with Christmas lights, decorations, and tableaux. It was something I never experienced on my own tenement- filled and art-deco apartment-house streets of stoops and fire escapes that barely acknowledged Christmas.

That day in Queens I felt that I had for the first time entered a piece of serene small-town America, that I thought only existed in some of the Hollywood double features that I attended every Saturday afternoon. I fantasized that benign folks with large loving families, like Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s A Wonderful Life, lived next door and Christmas carols were sung a capella under lamplight by clusters of jovial people standing in the snow. Those films projected a very white, usually Protestant world where life’s tragedies would never undermine the basic sweetness and harmony of living in America.

However, I didn’t envy my parents’ friends for living in a spacious house on a street with many trees and white picket fences, that exuded a sense of well-being. I liked my own seedier, edgier ethnic neighbourhood more. But given that my immigrant parents never quite became fully assimilated Americans —most of the national rituals (from Thanksgiving turkeys to Easter eggs) that radio and television had drummed into my consciousness played little role in their life—Whitestone’s Americanness fascinated me.

Over the next few decades, Queens, the city’s largest borough in area, which had remained agricultural through the 19th century, changed radically: four and five- story nondescript apartment house developments sprang up on empty land; equally characterless attached and detached homes were built on other vacant lots; and the population grew (currently it’s over two million). But soon the ethnic and racial composition of the borough was transformed.

From the mid-60s on, Queens, with a great deal of available and affordable housing, became a magnet for immigrants from Columbia, Korea, India, Pakistan, China, Columbia, Ecuador, Guyana, and the Soviet Union among other countries, turning it into the most ethnically diverse area in the city and country. More than one third of Queens’ population today is foreign born, and more than 110 different national groups reside there.

Most immigrants come to New York to seek better economic lives, though there are political refugees among them.  As a result, Queens is now filled with busy shopping streets where Chinese, Korean, and Cyrillic lettering dominates, with shops owned by native-born Americans often an anomaly.

Queens remains a predominantly residential area where the identity of the neighbourhoods (they were once small towns) are much stronger that that of the borough as a whole. And though the demographics of neighbourhoods change— their distinctive character endures: Asians, and Latin Americans have begun to move into Greek/Italian Astoria; Jackson Heights, which used to be Jewish and Irish, is now mainly Indian and Hispanic; and Flushing once a mixture of older ethnic groups is now predominantly Chinese and Korean.

None of these changes have occurred seamlessly. There have been political conflicts, as the immigrants begin to vote and want their share of power, and the neighborhood old-timers resent that some immigrant shops have signs without any English on them. Their feeling is that the immigrant stores only want to serve their own, and that it has become time for them to leave the neighborhood.

However, ethnic conflict is not the dominant fact in  Queens’ life. Sometimes there is tension, but at other times friendship crosses over ethnic lines. But more often, “the choreography of Queens is one of chaotic, but polite cohabitation.” Those words are part of the introduction written by Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan’s to their Crossing the BLVD—a collage of recent immigrants’ oral tales that convey many of the frustrations, yearnings, failures and successes of Queens’ immigrants.

One family that appears in the book are Bukharan Jews who come from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states, and have settled in the Rego Park section of Queens (30,000 live there and in adjoining neighbourhoods) near the deadly-to- pedestrians ten-lane Queens Boulevard. The Bukharan Jews are an offshoot of Middle Eastern and Persian Jewry dating from the 6th Century A.D., who constitute a distinct group within world Jewry. They have their own language, foods, dance, music and unique mix of Jewish and Central Asian traditions.

Rego Park is a comfortable, mundane looking neighbourhood, with a large variety of housing - boxy six-story apartment houses, older one-family private houses with aluminium siding, and attached newer two and three family private homes - in a mixture of commonplace styles. There are tiny Bukharan bakeries selling domed tandoori flatbread loaves and small round lepeshka loaves, gift shops and restaurants where the customers all seem to be swarthy neighborhood men. The Bukharans have synagogues, Jewish day schools, and newspapers of their own. And most of them are small shopkeepers or work in the jewellery trade. 

The Bukharan Jews have maintained an independent and vital communal identity in Queens that is reinforced through their celebration of weddings, bar mitzvahs, holidays, and possibly two or three parties every week. They have kept their extended families together - staying in the neighborhood or in ones nearby. And they support each other economically.

When the next generation of Bukharans go to college their communal identity will probably get weaker, but so far they have not quite assimilated to American life. There are other Queens ethnic groups that have embraced American culture more readily, but there are probably few streets left in Queens that can evoke the image of small town America that Whitestone once did. That holds true for most of America as well. We are a vastly different country today, and the actor Jimmy Smits is probably as representative of America now as Jimmy Stewart was then.

 

  American Studies Today Online is published by
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The views expressed are those of the contributors, and not necessarily those of the Centre, the College or the University.
City of Liverpool College, Liverpool John Moores University and the Contributors, 2004
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