Jackson Heights: Diverse and almost integrated

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.”

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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.


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Erika Pettersen says:

Elizabeth Wagner,

I am thoroughly distraught by your article about the neighborhood I grew up in and had been living in up until a few months ago. The conclusion you’ve drawn, that diversity in Jackson Heights is just a sham and that there are serious segregation issues, is overly simplistic and based on strange interpretations of the facts you’ve compiled.

Yes, there are “ethnic enclaves,” but to assert that the existence of such enclaves proves that groups are unwilling to integrate is ridiculous. The enclaves you speak of are commercial districts consisting of businesses that are catering to specific populations from within and without the neighborhood. “Little India” in particular is known for drawing South Asian customers from all over the Tri-State area. The fact that there are clusters of ethnic businesses says more about the store-owners’ desires to be situated in an area that is already attracting the consumers they are targeting than the lack of integration between people of diverse cultures living in the neighborhood. These commercial districts are distinct from the residential areas of the community, which are much more relevant to the question of how culturally integrated Jackson Heights is.

Admittedly, I have not done any statistical research on the cultural composition of apartment buildings in Jackson Heights. However, I have lived in two different apartment complexes and have friends and acquaintances in various other complexes in the neighborhood. In my experience, I have seen a huge amount of diversity amongst neighbors within these buildings. Many of these buildings, particularly the Co-ops, have committees where people from many different cultures work together to plan meetings and events that residents of the entire apartment complex are invited to partake in.

Another setting in which integration between cultures is clearly occurring is in the schools of the neighborhood. Because the residential areas are so ethnically mixed, children from incredibly diverse backgrounds are zoned for the same schools. When I was in elementary school at P.S. 69 (which was a while ago, but I can’t imagine things have changed so drastically) I had friends who were Panamanian, Irish, Filipino, Indian, Bolivian, Jewish, Puerto Rican, Korean, Lebanese, etc. The CYO Basketball team I played on at St. Joan of Arc and the Girl Scout troupe I was a member of at Community Methodist Church were both quite diverse as well. There are a large amount of organizations and activities where Jackson Heights children of varying backgrounds can, and do, “integrate.”

As for adults in the neighborhood, they don’t just interact when they live in the same buildings. There a various interest groups that bring grown-ups of various ethnicities together as well. For the past three years, Jackson Heights has hosted an International Food and Film Festival , drawing support from a diverse group of residents. There are also smaller groups, probably many more than I even know about, that celebrate the diversity of Jackson Heights. One group I do know of is the Jackson Heights Food Group, which makes monthly trips to restaurants (or even street carts) that serve varying ethnic cuisines. The members of the group are almost as diverse as the establishments they visit. I am not trying to say that everyone gets along in perfect harmony, but the divisions between people are not so clear-cut and glaring as you make them out to be.

There is more content in your article that I could address, but I’ll stop here. All I want to convey is that Jackson Heights is a truly unique neighborhood. Its ethnic diversity is not mere appearance, but a real part of the residents’ daily lives. Personally, I am so grateful for having grown up in such a special atmosphere. I don’t know that I can put into words, or even completely know, just how important Jackson Heights has been in formulating the way I see the world. What I do know is that this neighborhood is one of a kind and a true example what multiculturalism can strive toward.

I do share your concern about gentrification, and truly hope Jackson Heights’ distinctiveness is not compromised by the real estate market. However, I don’t see yuppies and hipsters, groups of people who are so focused on defining themselves as separate from others, having an easy time “assimilating” to Jackson Heights. Time will tell.

-Erika Pettersen (An Ecuadorian/Irish/Norwegian/Puerto Rican girl from Jackson Heights)

Latosha Arrizola says:

There is obviously a lot more to read about this. I think you made some decisive points in Features also. Keep working, good writting!

Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge!

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