Signs of the Times

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If Flushing’s multilingual collage of signs appeals to you, take a Polaroid–along with Goldfingers and dairy farms, it could soon be a relic of Queens past. Arguing that foreign-language signs are a civic faux pas, State Senator Frank Padavan wants the Queens office of the Buildings Department to enforce a 1906 state law requiring businesses to include English on all signs.

Padavan’s staff began researching the law when an angry Flushing resident, Eileen Smith, complained to the senator in July. “The Asians have taken unbounded license to form Flushing into a solidly identifiable area,” she wrote. Noting that the nabe’s early history goes back to the Dutch and English, she asked plaintively, “When can we take Flushing back to make it look like an American town?” Smith did not return calls from City Limits.

In an interview, Padavan credited ethnic businesses with revitalizing Flushing but says that customers of all linguistic backgrounds must be able to easily identify what business a store is engaged in–and be able to accurately fill out police reports if problems occur.

This isn’t the borough’s only recent nativist resurgence. In the early 1990s, Flushing City Councilwoman Julia Harrison proposed a city law with similar signage requirements. “How the hell can you run a town or a village or whatever the hell we are if you can’t tell what a store is?” she asks now.

Stan Mark, program director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, says that absent any evidence that foreign-language signs are a threat to public safety, enforcing the state law doesn’t make sense. He sees the effort as part of a broadening anti-immigrant surge, which in Flushing takes on the characteristics of a turf war between natives and newcomers. “[Asian shopkeepers] are not considered American. That’s the undercurrent, culturally,” Mark says.

However, advocates for immigrants in Queens have bigger worries. A group called ProjectUSA has erected several anti-immigrant billboards around the “borough of immigrants.” But Padavan insists that his call to enforce the sign law should not be linked to ProjectUSA. That initiative, he says, “has to be addressed in a totally different manner.”

A Buildings Department spokesperson says the agency is investigating how to respond to Padavan’s request.