Is Jackson Heights New York's Most Eclectic Neighborhood?
“74th Street-Broadway,” reads the white sans-serif lettering affixed to the walls of this canopied train station platform; as the Flushing-bound 7 Line comes to a jolting stop, riders begin to line up in front of the automated metallic doors. Like sprinters answering to the sound of gunfire, they zip past the sign at the sound of the chime, and funnel into the nearest descending staircase into the elevated mezzanine, leading into a pathway that connects to the largest transportation hub in Queens.
The facility, renovated in 2005 by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, is partially powered by rooftop solar panels and allows for an orderly flow of travelers wishing to gain access to local and express lines via the white-tiled walls of the underground mezzanine (which was refitted with boutiques and Bank of America ATMs), or to hop on any of the six bus routes that branch out to areas in Queens inaccessible by train.
At street level, the rumbling overhead of the passing 7 Line blocks out the chorus of honking vehicles, sirens and shouting street vendors, while pedestrians dodge flyer distributors, cyclists, smoke from food stands, and each other.
Stroll northerly onto 74th Street’s Little India, and you're welcome to leaf through the latest Bollywood films, stop for some Korean barbecue, inquire about the latest sari fashion or window shop for 22 karat jewelry.
Continue along 37th Avenue, and you'll find yourself enjoying empanadas in Little Colombia, admiring the decorative mehndi at the Gulzar Beauty Salon, waiting in line for a shape-up at Headz Ain’t Ready barbershop, or fancying a honey-mint limonata at local café and wine bar Espresso 77.
Welcome to Jackson Heights. Population: more than180,000 and counting.
Sitting in the northern part of Queens, this mini-city claims a total of over 60 percent foreign-born residents [U.S. Census Bureau 2010] that nourish its economy; it is a cluster of Asian- and Latino-owned restaurants, bakeries, specialty shops and beauty salons.
Now despite sharing congressional jurisdiction with contiguous neighborhoods, Jackson Heights maintains a distinct identity with clear boundaries. The area is confined by three of the oldest streets in Queens: Northern Boulevard to the North, Roosevelt Avenue to the South and the historic Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the West, the latter built in the mid-1930s as a commercial and non-commercial highway to alleviate local traffic and shorten transportation for businesses.
History and Development
According to New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, between the 1910s and the 1950s Jackson Heights introduced two new building types: garden apartments and garden homes, making the mini-city a national and international attraction.
Prior to this era, a visit to Jackson Heights would have been nothing more than a hike through marshy farmland.
Progress was imminent, nonetheless, with three major agents at play: the Queensboro bridge, the Queensboro Corporation and the unification of the subway system.
In 1998, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development published the journal Cityscape, which noted how in 1908, Edward McDougall, real-estate investor and president of the Queensboro Corporation, invested in a 326-acre parcel of undeveloped land that he envisioned a homogenous community — a community he christened Jackson Heights in honor of John C. Jackson, who laid out the first street in 1859, Jackson Avenue [now Northern Boulevard].
The opening of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909 and of the elevated subway in 1917 complemented MacDougall’s European-inspired garden city, and attracted an affluent crowd that was immured by the narrow, busy streets of Manhattan and sought out a more tranquil lifestyle.
1923 saw the first advertisements of the garden apartments, wherein the Queensboro Corporation touted the distinctiveness of the buildings.
“The rear yards are treated as a large interior park or gardens for rest and relaxation,” read a print taken from Vincent F. Seyfried and William Asadorian’s book Old Queens, N.Y. in Early Photographs.
These brick building complexes with interior gardens, which covered only half of the sidewalk and were arranged in uniform rows, are what Daniel Karatzas, author of Jackson Heights: a Garden in the City and board member of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, calls “vernacular architecture built in a neo-Georgian and neo-Tudor style.”
“They can be harkened back to styles seen in England, Spain and Italy between 1910 and 1930,” he added.
From the 1940s on, Jackson Heights underwent a transition in real estate development.
Post-Great Depression brought about the more practical and investment-safe, six-story elevator apartment buildings and cooperatives along with new transportation routes, highways, bridges and tunnels.
Also, reduced rent prices attracted a growing numbers of immigrants that were looking to settle within traveling distance from Manhattan.
In 2012, more than 200 of the original buildings erected during the heyday of the Queensboro Corporation remain intact and under protection by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee, which declared part of Jackson Heights a historic district in 1993.
So before strapping into Doc Brown’s time-traveling DeLorean, just schlep on through 76th and 88th Streets between Roosevelt Avenue and Northern Boulevard to visit the vintage streetscape of Jackson Heights.
Envisioning Jackson Heights a restricted suburban neighborhood for a white upper class would be a challenge for anyone who has walked through the area and encountered a hodgepodge of languages and dialects, including Hindi, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Mandarin, Korean, Spanish and, occasionally, English.
What happened since the Edward MacDougall era that transformed Jackson Heights into the mini-city that claims bragging rights for its cultural heterogeneity?
The first marker that revolutionized the demographics of Jackson Heights was the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, allowing immigrants working in the United States, specifically from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia, to bring over their families.
The second marker was the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which enforced housing discrimination laws already in place.
The third marker cannot be assigned to a particular movement or event, but rather to a convergence of civic and political groups, many of which are nationality specific, and which have formed throughout the years to address local concerns and conserve the integrity of the community.
One night in 1990, for example, a local bartender was beaten with a hammer and stabbed with a knife in a schoolyard because he was gay. That night Julio Rivera became a martyr.
The hate crime committed against him incited protests that led to the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project and numerous gay rights organizations.
Over the years this middle-class neighborhood has been home and haven for innumerable immigrants and their progeny, including some you might already know: Gene Simmons of KISS; Mets center-fielder and baseball Hall-of-Famer, Tommie Agee; actress Lucy Liu; and jazz legend Louis Armstrong.
Declared “most diverse” by Maggie Samways in the September 2008 issue of Timeout New York, the neighborhood has evolved from a closed-off community to a nerve center for shopping, dining and recreation.
For better or for worse, the Queensboro Corporation’s planned community served a transcendental purpose — to house a dense population of ethnic enclaves.
Yolian Cerquera is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.