In 1967, when Leslie Gunaratne first saw the spanking new apartment block in Staten Island’s Park Hill Section, he knew it was going to be perfect. The 31-year-old accountant had emigrated from Sri Lanka only six weeks before, and New York was still an unfamiliar and somewhat intimidating blur. Living out of a rent-by-the-month hotel in Manhattan, he urgently needed to find a place for his wife and three children.
That’s when he found Staten Island. A colleague stepped in, organizing a house-hunting trip through the borough, assuring Gunaratne that it was far more congenial than Manhattan–and cheaper.
Gunaratne was charmed by Staten Island’s slower rhythms and small-town feel. The streets were quiet, and there was lots of open space for his children to play in. “I simply fell in love with Staten Island,” he recalls.
For the Gunaratne family, Staten Island was a convenient respite, a lucky accident. But for the thousands of Sri Lankans that were to follow them, this small neighborhood was to be an outpost of home.
Leslie Gunaratne says that his family was the first from Sri Lanka to settle on Staten Island when they moved into their three-bedroom apartment on Targee Street on May 1, 1967. Then, a few years later, Gunaratne got a phone call from the Sri Lankan mission to the United Nations. A young doctor due to start a job in the city was stuck at the airport with no place to go. Gunaratne instructed the officials to send the young man and his wife to Staten Island, and he promised to pay the taxi fare. (A foreign exchange shortage in Sri Lanka allowed travelers to change only $3.50 before coming to the U.S.) The kind gesture took root. “Leslie was nice enough to allow us to stay with him for almost a week,” recalls Dr. Fauzy Saleem, who still lives in the borough almost 30 years later.
After that, the pace picked up. Many of the early Sri Lankan settlers on the island were members of Gunaratne’s extended family, who began to come over in 1973 after he became a United States citizen. In just a few months, he helped his five brothers, four sisters and their families move to the U.S. By then, he’d bought a four-bedroom house in the New Brighton section of the island. Each sibling “would come and stay with me for a month, till they found a job,” he explains. “Then they’d rent places around the neighborhood.” Soon, many of his married nephews and nieces were bringing over their in-laws as well. By the time Gunaratne moved to Houston in 1979, he estimates that 80 percent of the roughly 500 Sri Lankans on Staten Island “were connected to me by blood or marriage.”
Gunaratne’s relatives became the kernel of a community that has since expanded to nearly 3,000 people, serviced by a restaurant, a Buddhist temple and a cluster of grocery stores. The island is the New York hub for the approximately 5,000 Sri Lankans in the tri-state area. “Staten Island is a name that’s known in big Sri Lankan cities,” says Bante Kondanna, the chief priest at the temple. “People know that if they run into trouble while visiting New York, they can come to Staten Island and find a Sri Lankan who will help them.”
The newcomers are most visible in the knot of businesses at the crossroads of Victory Boulevard and Cebra Avenue in northern Tomkinsville. Parkland Grocery is piled high with cans of fried jakseed and soya curry, as well as newspapers and videotapes from home. At Good Spicy Taste Restaurant and Bake Shop, Sri Lankans stop by for meals of such staples as kottu and rotti, topped off with creamy vatilappam, a flan-like dessert garnished with coconut and raisins. Often, the lilt of “baila” pop music–which fuses Portuguese colonial influences with rhythms from South India–floats out from a boom box on the counter. Images of the Buddha, Mary, the Hindu god Shiva and an Islamic inscription decorate the eatery, testimony to the religious diversity of these immigrants.
Like every immigrant group in the city, these Sri Lankans have devised their own distinct ways of becoming New Yorkers. Yet their path to becoming part of the fabric of the city tells a universal story of how immigrant settlements coalesce, grow and thrive.
Often, edging in has meant trying to exploit an occupational niche that other groups have ignored–or rejected. For many Sri Lankans, that path has led to working in the sex shops of Times Square, a marginal job that became even less desirable when the city passed anti-pornography laws three years ago. In another familiar phenomenon, groups that are warring in their homeland–in this case, the Tamils and the Sinhalas–here live side by side.
In fact, the biggest tensions in New York City’s Sri Lankan enclave don’t stem from old ethnic animosity. Instead, the conflicts are about how best to get by–and get ahead–in the new world. Some professional Sri Lankans worry their community’s reputation will be sullied by the sex-store workers. Ultimately, the particular patterns of this Sri Lankan enclave are a reminder that the city’s ethnic neighborhoods aren’t endpoints. Instead, they are way-stations, defined largely by accidents of personal preference and history, where immigrants are transformed into Americans.
Few people with work papers would willingly choose jobs in the porn industry, where dreary tasks include selling tokens and mopping effluvia off the floors of the peep show parlors. The hours are long, often for less than the minimum wage. And the shops are now a precarious way to make a living, ever since the Giuliani administration pushed through zoning regulations in 1997 that imperiled the future of this industry.
But that may also be what opened the door to this business for the new Sri Lankans: Simply put, dirty jobs are easier to get. As their island-nation’s economy crumbled under the strain of a long civil war, a new wave of Sri Lankans wound up in New York in the early 1990s. Many were here illegally, tourists who overstayed their visas or sailors who skipped ship. When they arrived, the city was recovering from a recession and still suffering from double-digit unemployment. Porn shops, unlike more dignified industries, were hiring.
The city doesn’t track the ethnicity of the store owners, but Sri Lankans estimate that their countrymen own between 10 and 15 stores–almost 10 percent of the 140 to 150 stores still operating. They are a visible presence in Times Square, if you know where to look. Among the owners is a man known to some as Lucky N because he has decided that the letter “n” is auspicious for him. He has given his establishments names like Neptune, Nimble and Nectar.
Each wave of Sri Lankan immigration to New York has roughly coincided with rising political tensions at home, but each has different characteristics. Gunaratne and many other professionals who moved here in the late 1960s are members of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala ethnic majority, who were afraid that the government’s socialist-oriented policies would stifle initiative. They also were concerned that the chauvinistic ambitions of an extremist Sinhala group was robbing the country of its cosmopolitan flair. Many of the early immigrants were doctors, in part because the Sri Lankan capital was one of only two Asian cities where foreigners aspiring to work in U.S. hospitals could take the test permitting them to practice medicine in this country.
In the mid-1980s, though, immigration patterns shifted. Members of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority were increasingly seeking refuge in the U.S. as ethnic struggles intensified into a bloody civil war. Many settled on Staten Island, alongside the Sinhala “adversaries” they were fleeing. On Victory Boulevard, three of the four Sri Lankan stores are owned by Tamils but patronized both by Tamils and Sinhalas. “We’re in America to make money. Who’s got time to relive the problems at home?” a Tamil man named Mohan says, tucking into a steaming helping of chicken curry and string hoppers at the Good Spicy Taste Restaurant.
By the mid 1990s, the civil war had shattered the Sri Lankan economy, prompting another rush of migration. Of the 488 Sri Lankans who migrated legally to the city between 1990 and 1994, almost a quarter chose to move to Staten Island, according to the City Planning Department’s Newest New Yorkers survey. (By contrast, a mere 1.5 percent of all immigrants to New York during that period said that they intended to live in the borough.) Staten Island proved attractive as much for the familiar presence of other people from home as for the low rents (the average household in the borough pays $497 a month, by one account) and the relatively easy access to Manhattan afforded by the free ferry.
Many of the Sri Lankans who came during the last decade came illegally. It was these men who wound up working in the porn shops, and they are now the source of the friction in this supposedly conservative community. Few employees and owners, for instance, even admit to what they do; in conversation, they say they work “in video stores” or, more euphemistically, “in the film business.”
“They’re too embarrassed to even tell their families what they’re doing,” says Bante Kondanna, the priest at the Buddhist temple. With a master’s in social work from Fordham University, the reverend is well trained to observe and help remedy the pressures in the community. He says the sex store workers and owners are afraid of mixing with the rest of the community because “they think people will look down on them.”
Bante Kondanna’s congregation found its home only five months ago, in a large white house in the shadow of the Bayonne Bridge. The temple runs daily services in a large hall dominated by a golden fiberglass statue of the Buddha. On Sundays, there are Dharma classes for children and the Reverend even hosts a web page (www.sibv.org). The congregation is solidly working class, and several worshippers are porn store employees.
The more affluent Sri Lankans of Staten Island have dealt with this smutty secret by avoiding it. Many professionals prefer to attend services in a temple in the Queens neighborhood of Kew Gardens. (Another temple is being constructed in Hollis Hills.) But for people without cars–the bulk of the Staten Island community–that’s a journey of more than two hours. In effect, the commute forms a cordon sanitaire between the two groups.
“The community doesn’t like what [the sex store workers] are doing,” admits Hector Gunaratne, who followed his brother Leslie to Staten Island in 1973 and helped raise funds for the Staten Island temple. “They give the community a bad name.”
Their distaste, however, stays well within the confines of the community. In fact, the Sri Lankans have remained low profile. Like their Albanian Muslim neighbors in Tomkinsville, no Sri Lankans have yet made a play for seats on local civic bodies. “It’s a community that still has to find its direction in the borough,” says Joseph Carroll of Staten Island’s Community Board 1, who first became aware of the Sri Lankans in his area four years ago when he saw someone walk through the office building with an unusual implement that turned out to be a cricket bat. Sri Lankans and other immigrants from former British colonies compete for the Staten Island Cup in a tournament held in Walker Park.
Instead, community organizations focus on culture, arranging concerts by visiting troupes of singers and dancers on the Toronto–New York–Los Angeles circuit, where most North America-based Sri Lankans live. The community is too new and too small to count for much yet, says Buddhi Abeyasekara, a former president of the Sri Lanka Association. Efforts at political organizing may also be impeded by the steady flow of people who, like Leslie Gunaratne, move away to settle in other parts of the country.
But that churning is simply the way ethnic enclaves launch immigrants into mainstream American life, says Phil Kasnitz, professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. “Part of the mythic journey into assuming an American identity involves leaving the ethnic neighborhood,” he says. “The services that are available in the ethnic neighborhood, while they maintain an ethnic identity, also facilitate the transition into the American mainstream.” The very shops and institutions that make new immigrant neighborhoods so noticeable are also stepping stones to assimilation, how the trappings of home get translated into a new idiom.
Leslie Gunaratne decided to move on to Florida in 1979, and he now lives in Houston. He jokes that he’d had enough bitter New York winters. But he also thought he’d find more opportunities away from Staten Island. “When I return to visit my family on the island, it feels like home,” he says. “But there’s a whole country beyond New York.”
Of course, not everyone believes they have to leave Staten Island to become a real American. Hector Gunaratne, for one, gets a daily glimpse of the American dream when he looks across the water from his office window at the Statue of Liberty. “I’m reminded that this is a country of immigrants,” he says. “It makes me feel that this is my home.”
N.F.P. Fernandes is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.