From Astoria to Woodside: Inside the Biggest Borough

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The Neighborhoods of Queens, by Claudia Gryvatz Copquin, Yale University Press, $35.

As many people know from enthusiastic reports in the popular media, Queens is the most diverse locality in the United States. It’s been dubbed “the Gateway to America” by public officials, historians, journalists and Queens residents themselves. The borough’s superlative status is made evident in “The Neighborhoods of Queens,” written by Claudia Gryvatz Copquin, an immigrant from South America who grew up in Jackson Heights.

As stated in the excellent overview and introduction by author and Columbia history professor Kenneth T. Jackson – general editor of the Neighborhoods of New York City series, of which this is the second volume – “[T]he most important fact about Queens is not its size or its cultural institutions or its library circulation statistics, although all are significant by any measure. Rather, the borough is distinguished by the fact that 44 percent of its population is officially foreign born. (No one knows how many undocumented immigrants live within its boundaries.)”

The book goes on to document 99 identified neighborhoods from Astoria to Woodside, including “sub-neighborhoods” such as Beechhurst, in Malba; Locust Manor, in Jamaica; and Lindenwood, in Howard Beach. Each neighborhood chapter provides a general overview of the civic organizations and cultural institutions that inhabit the neighborhoods, and the history behind them.

Like an encyclopedia, “The Neighborhoods of Queens” gives a general education that can easily be used as a reference for understanding the physical structures, mapping, history, and demographics of the borough that is made up of distinct individual neighborhoods. Queens is the only borough where mail is delivered to the neighborhood address rather than the borough or county, as in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island.

Laid out in textbook style with black-and-white photographs – both archival and new – fact boxes (“Francis Lewis, a Queens native and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a vestryman at St George’s Episcopal Church [in] Flushing”), and “profile” boxes containing information on boundaries, police precincts, arts institutions, libraries, et cetera, the book serves as a kind of travel guide for the uninitiated, and a resource for anyone interested in fact-checking the borough’s complex and enigmatic 110 square miles.

The reader can find out the history of the parks, public buildings and institutions – as well as general history, going as far back as 7,000 B.C. when, according to a Queens Timeline in the back of the book, “Climatic changes following the last Ice Age force the borough’s earliest inhabitants, Paleolithic hunters, to leave in search of disappearing large game.” The timeline ends in 2007 with a note about the forced resignation of State Comptroller Alan Hevesi of Forest Hills, Queens.

If something is missing from this volume, it’s a sense of the complexity of the lives of the people who populate the neighborhoods. People who have lived in Queens for a long time, community organizers, housing lawyers, advocates for immigrants, human rights workers, teachers and other residents involved in reaching out to create dialogues across all of Queens’ glorious cultures will feel the lack of that deeper reportage.

For example, over the past few years in the eastern Queens neighborhood of Hollis, where there has been a fairly stable population of African-American homeowners, many homeowners have been faced with being pushed out due to overdevelopment and predatory lending. It’s been a subject of discussion at neighborhood meetings in the past several years, and has been covered in the press. These kinds of issues of housing, gentrification and perhaps cultural miscommunication are all part of the mix of how a borough changes. Although less “sexy,” and certainly more vexing, than a general embrace of diversity, to many Queens residents this is the real news of the borough today.

As an encyclopedia and an overview of New York City’s largest borough (in square miles; it’s second to Brooklyn in population), “The Neighborhoods of Queens” has tremendous research and reference value. It includes a detailed demographic breakdown of each neighborhood, with information from the 2000 U.S. Census. It appears that the Citizens Committee for New York City, which joined with Yale University Press and Kenneth Jackson to create the Neighborhoods of New York City series, has done the public a real service.

We learn that Queens has gone through several major population surges, the most recent being the result of the changes in immigration policy and law when the 1965 National Immigration Act changed the quota system that favored white Western Europeans, opening the doors to more and more people from the Southern and Eastern Hemispheres. Looking at these statistics and understanding how incredibly quickly the diversity has impacted the borough will give both Queens newcomers and old-timers a better understanding of how the borough has changed over the centuries.

Perhaps because there are so many individual neighborhoods, Queens has often been a difficult place to navigate and to look at as one borough. Having all of this information compiled in one book is a helpful tool for anyone interested in the dynamism of New York City.

Judith Sloan is an oral historian, radio producer, actor, educator and co-author, with Warren Lehrer, of the Queens book “Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America.”

– Judith Sloan

For more information on the book, click here.

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