On a Sunday morning in February, inside Jackson Heights’ only Starbucks, a young Filipino couple cuddled on the café’s couch and skimmed headlines on the front page of the Daily News. Three elderly ladies occupying a table near the front of the place chatted in Russian and picked at a pastry. A white man in a blue suit fiddled with his paper coffee cup and yammered into a cell phone, while a college-aged Indian student seated at the next table highlighted a passage in a textbook. Next to her, a group of Latino teenagers in baseball caps joked and laughed in Spanish.
Jackson Heights, a middle-class neighborhood in northwest Queens, is touted as New York City’s most diverse neighborhood. Residents relish the distinction, but some admit the community is not as integrated as it could be.
“What we want to see more of is assimilation of cultures,” said longtime resident Edwin Westley. “It’s difficult to accomplish. We made some progress but not enough.”
Westley is the president of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, which oversees the preservation of the area’s historic district. The group prides itself on welcoming participation from residents of all ethnic backgrounds. Members have elected a Latino director in the past and the organization currently has gay representation, but Westley admits that one of its “shortfalls” is that it’s “primarily white.”[flv:https://pavementpieces.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Final.flv https://pavementpieces.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Final.jpg 420 280]
Boundaries, but no racial tension
At first glance, Jackson Heights looks as if it is sectioned off into various ethnic enclaves. Indian and Bangladeshi business owners dominate 74th Street, informally dubbed “Little India” by residents because of the street’s numerous sari shops and Hindi movie stores.
Many South Americans and Latino businesses occupy Roosevelt Avenue where taco stands, Spanish-language store signs and advertisements for adult English classes are ubiquitous.
Asians generally live closer to Northern Boulevard, Jackson Heights’ northern border.
Jackson Heights was originally built as a haven for upper-class, white working families who wanted to get away from an increasingly crowded Manhattan but still be a 10-minute subway ride away from the center of the city. By the 1970s, a significant Colombian population had arrived in Jackson Heights, and scores of immigrants from all over the world have since moved to northwest Queens.
Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Argentineans, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Bolivians, Jews, Italians, Russians and generations of white Americans call Jackson Heights home today. By many accounts the groups coexist well but not necessarily as one.
“There is very little racial tension,” Westley said. “The reason the neighborhood works is that no one is in the majority.”
Immigrant groups struggle for clout
Recent immigrants are still struggling to make their voices heard in Jackson Heights. Some say they receive little help from community leaders and other more-established immigrant groups.
“It’s a challenge to get the city to understand the needs of the (immigrant) community,” said Martha Chavez, advocacy coordinator of the New Immigrant Community Empowerment program.
The organization represents mostly South American, Mexican and Caribbean immigrants who have flocked to Jackson Heights to live with relatives or to take advantage of cheap rent, which is half the price of rent in Brooklyn and a quarter of the price of rent in Manhattan. Chavez said many of them are undocumented, do not speak English, and have little knowledge of their work and medical rights.
Chavez says the organization’s goal is to empower immigrant groups to speak up for themselves instead of allowing advocates from outside agencies to communicate with city leaders on their behalf. She says the movement has been slow because different ethnic groups tend not to help one another.
“That’s something we face, too, that I don’t think there is a lot of unity,” Chavez said.
Sometimes second- and third-generation immigrant groups refuse to help new immigrants and often take advantage of their naïveté, according to Chavez, who emigrated from Mexico to the United States.
Parishioners worship the same, but separately
The Community United Methodist Church, located at the geographic center of the community, draws worshipers from virtually every ethnic group represented in Jackson Heights — and 18 different languages are spoken among parishioners. Banners that hang outside the historic-looking, stone building exemplify the diversity of the congregation. One poster advertises the meeting time of an Indonesian group, and another welcomes a Catholic congregation. The church even houses 82nd Street Academics, one of Jackson Height’s largest schools, which was originally established for Chinese students in 1985.
“We are representatives of community,” said the church’s senior pastor Enrique Lebron, who is Puerto Rican. “You will see Little Colombia and Little India. We have a lot of Hispanics, and even (people) from Russia, so I believe the church represents what is in the community.”
Community United Methodist offers three Sunday church services in English, Spanish and Mandarin, and provides space for many ethnic groups to worship in their own languages.
Lebron acknowledges that providing three separate services for parishioners could be viewed as segregation, but says doing so is the best way to give parishioners what they want.
“The reason we do things separate is because there is a need for people to celebrate faith in their own culture, and you have to respect that,” he said.
He added that it is a blessing for his parishioners to “celebrate their differences.”
On the brink of gentrification
Jeff Maskovsky, a sociologist and Queens College professor, argues that celebrating cultural differences is a far cry from integration.
He has seen that Jackson Heights is socially, but not spatially integrated.
“Residential integration is nonexistent,” said Maskovsky, who moved to Jackson Heights five years ago.
He says residents themselves are not to blame and contends Realtors and banks across the United States restrict residential integration. He argues that this is the case in Jackson Heights.
Maskovsky says the community is on its way to forfeiting diversity altogether because of gentrification.
He says developers are targeting a specific new group of people that could potentially price out existing renters and homeowners — young white families.
“(Developers are) targeting Jackson Heights as the new Brooklyn,” Maskovsky said. “The white hipster crowd.”
His evidence is a billboard on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that advertized the abundance of refurbished pre-war garden co-ops managed by Jackson Heights property firm MPC Properties. It’s gone now, but was up for nearly a year.
According to MPC Properties, 70 percent of people who have recently moved to into MPC buildings are from Brooklyn. The other 30 percent come from Manhattan or other parts of northwest Queens, such as Astoria.
The owner of MPC Properties, Michael Carfagna, says there is “no dominant group of people” that move into Jackson Heights and that he has sold co-ops to people of all “backgrounds and professions.”
Carfagna says Jackson Heights is just a microcosm of New York City, but Maskovsky argues Jackson Heights is becoming a microcosm of a wealthy New York City and points to real-estate stickers as proof.
According to the most recent Jackson Heights Real Estate Report, the median price of a single-family home rose to $800,000 at the end of 2007, though prices have dropped in the recession. The median household income hovers around $40,000, according to numerous demographic databases.
Maskovsky says Jackson Heights is now in a precarious situation, as similar diverse communities have either “flipped and turned into one minority population” or “become gentrified.”
He believes it is Jackson Heights’ diversity — the community’s self-proclaimed strength — that is attracting a wealthier, whiter population, which craves the multicultural lifestyle.
“The diversity is exactly what may de-diversify it,” he said.