Twenty Years Ago: Diversity in Queens

Print More

City Limits Magazine, January 1986, Volume 11 No. 1

Jackson Heights Copes With Diversity

“The coming of ‘Little India’: In the past year and a half numberous Indian sari and food stores as well as an Indian-owned Century 21 Real Estate agency have opened along 74th Street.”

Residents of Jackson Heights, Queens, love to boast about their community’s tremendous ethnic diversity. Within a few blocks they can buy Indian pakoras and Dominican empanadas, along with fresh bagels and borscht. Conversations in countless languages and dialects can be heard on the street. But existing side-by-side is different from functioning as a cohesive neighborhood. Often described as the city’s most ethnically integrated community, Jackson Heights may be a microcosm of relations throughout New York. …

Located just south of LaGuardia Airport, Jackson Heights was among the first co-op communities in the country. Following the completion of the IRT subway line around the turn of the century, the Queensboro Corporation started building in Jackson Heights. These original buildings were designed as co-ops affordable to middle-class workers who would take the subway to their jobs in Manhattan. The first radio commercial ever broadcast told the joys of living in Jackson Heights. From 1920 to 1930, it was the fastest growing community in the U.S., with a mix of co-op and rental apartments and private houses.

These relatively affordable buildings have long been attractive to each succeeding wave of immigrants coming to the city. But this is changing, not because Jackson Heights is any less desirable, but due to a blitz of co-op conversions that has hit the neighborhood in the last four years. A recent New York Times article detailed the doubling – or more – of the price of housing in the neighborhood in just 18 months. Vice chairman of the City Planning Commission Martin Gallent, a 20-year resident of Jackson Heights, describes this spate of co-op conversion as having a stabilizing effect. “But it’s harder and harder,” he acknowledges, “for middle and lower income people to maintain homes here.”

The Immigrant Influence

As residents who cannot afford to plop down thousands for a co-op struggle to keep pace with skyrocketing rents, economic and social relations within the neighborhood being to change. Some residents express annoyance because it is often first generation immigrants who are buying up the apartments and storefronts. It is not uncommon to hear such refrains as “What has happened to all of ‘our’ stores?” or, “They’re coming in with bags of money and buying everything up.” A human relations worker familiar with Jackson Heights believes that many of the second-or-third-generation Europeans in the neighborhood feel that these new immigrant groups “haven’t paid their dues.”

The largest “non-white” group in Jackson Heights is Hispanic. Beginning with the Cubans who moved to the neighborhood in the 1960s, there are large numbers of Columbians, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Venezuelans, Bolivians and Dominicans in the area. More recently, sizable numbers of Korean, Indian, Chinese and Russian families have moved into the neighborhood. According to Community Board 3, which could provide only “unofficial” figures, the neighborhood is 70 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic, 2 percent black and 8 percent “other.” …

Hispanic businesses are prominent throughout the neighborhood, especially along Roosevelt Avenue, and are involved in many phases of the community’s economic life. But this may give a false impression of Hispanic integration into Jackson Heights. While Community Board 3 District Manager Mary Sarro talks about the “positive effects on the community economy” of Asian and Russian immigrants, she fails to mention the Hispanic’s contribution, which seems evident just from walking down the street.

Similarly, the amount of businesses owned by members of other immigrant groups belies the nature of their acceptance into the community. Many people seem to agree with [Ted] Finkelstein’s description of ethnic interactions as “superficial.” Says Yeuh Lung Shadow Theater Director Jo Humphrey, “Most new ethnic groups in the community still live within their own social structure.” The tendency, among Hispanics as well, is to do business primarily with people of one’s own nationality and to not get too involved in the larger community structure. …

Diversity and Division

Community Board 3 Chairperson Judy Grubin describes Jackson Heights as “a place where people feel comfortable” and says that is has “never had any real racial problems.” But the experiences of some residents tell a different story. Called a “passive community” by [Haydee] Zambrana, Jackson Heights has not seen any major confrontations. At the local elementary school, which can sometimes be a good barometer of tensions, Principal Dr. Hadassa Legatt says, “If the children have a fight it’s not about ethnicity.” Still discrimination and racism exists. “I have been rejected from living in a building because of my name and accent,” claims Monge. He knows that “there are some buildings that won’t let in Hispanics.” Zambrana says the editor of a local newspaper was refused an apartment for being Columbian. Monge also says he has been called a “spic” on numerous occasions, and that this attitude is reflected throughout the community, including among some Board members.

Ted Finkelstein believes that blacks are the only group obviously discriminated against in the community. He sense that the attitude of some landlords is, “As long as they’re not black it’s okay,” though he agrees some of the older superintendents have probably denied apartments to Hispanics, too. …

Monge complains that the “white” community refuses to try and understand Hispanics, yet he candidly admits that Hispanics have the same prejudices against Koreans as “whites.” The desire for understanding still seems to be a one-way street. …

To a large extent, the community functions solely on the basis of similar class interests. Fred B. Kasner, executive director of the Jackson Heights-Elmhurst Kehillah, acknowledges, “If the social class distinctions were very great I think there’d be more hostilities.” He points to a “middle-class stability that transcends the ethnic distinctions.”…

Ironically, the fight to save affordable housing may prove to be a spur for improving inter-ethnic relations. The real-estate scramble spares no group.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *