Queens: All This . . .
Queens is New York’s own terra incognita, a huge uncharted territory right here within our own urban enclave. Experiment for yourself. Ask any Manhattanite whether they ever go to Queens—or even know where it is. Many will vaguely wave a hand eastward. Others will say sure, they go to baseball games at Shea Stadium, or they will describe an urban “adventure” to an ethnic restaurant, usually the Jackson Diner. Business travelers might say that if going to JFK and LaGuardia airports counts, they go to Queens all the time.
Underrated and overlooked for too long, the truth is, there’s a ton to see and do in Queens for other New Yorkers and tourists alike. You can find something new every time you go—whether you’re poking around the Asian shops in Flushing, tracking down Mae West’s drinking haunt in Richmond Hill, biking in Forest Park, or attending performances of Latin dance at the Thalia Theater. One measure of the value of a place as a destination is whether it gets more or less interesting the more you visit; in Queens you can keep peeling layer after layer. Admittedly, it can be frustrating to find your way around (and it’s no big secret that everyone does get lost occasionally in Queens, which is why we’ve included a chapter called “Getting to and Around Queens”). But for people who want to see the real New York, Queens—understated, upside down, and quirky as hell—is a knockout.
Were it to secede from New York City today, Queens would be the fourth-largest city in America. It’s a huge place full of interesting neighborhoods. About 120 languages are spoken in Queens; one of the top ten is a language few have even heard of: Tagalog, spoken in the Philippines. Queens officials claim that it is the most ethnically diverse county in the United States. Imagine if the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle of the world’s cultures were tossed around in a bowl and randomly spilled out in a borough of New York—well, that’s Queens.
Visitors can enjoy an amazing array of authentic ethnic food in both restaurants and groceries. It goes without saying that along with the Chinese, Korean, Thai, Peruvian, Argentinean, Colombian, Romanian, Russian, Polish, and Filipino immigration, among others, there is excellent and cheap Chinese, Korean, Thai, Peruvian, Argentinean, Colombian, Romanian, Russian, Polish, and Filipino food, along with the usual New York standards of Italian, Irish, Jewish-style, and so on. And that’s just for appetizers. . . .
There are major cultural institutions here, including several outstanding contemporary art museums, such as P.S. 1 and the Fisher Landau Center, which anchor a very interesting art scene in Long Island City. Queens has more parkland than any other borough, as well as miles of Atlantic Ocean beach and a National Wildlife Refuge in Jamaica Bay. You can drive along the waterfront under the Throgs Neck Bridge and feel light-years away from Manhattan. If you are shopping for unusual gold jewelry, saris, antique chandeliers, or the latest in Latino or Indian music, this is the place to go.
Idiosyncratic, jumbled-up Queens grabs at your heartstrings and even makes you laugh. It’s a source of some mirth that there are more dead than living people in Queens. As anyone who’s driven here knows, there are miles and miles of graves. More than 3 million souls are buried in about two dozen cemeteries. Graves are woven into the landscape; you see them along the highways, across from schools, and next to a gas station. Whether it’s the constant reminder of mortality or some other factor, in general, Queens is a humble, not showy place, a middle- and working-class haven. It’s a place where people are just living modest lives. Except, of course (there’s always a but when generalizing about Queens), that Donald Trump grew up here, too.
It’s that essential mixed-up-ness of Queens that’s seductive. It’s hard to pigeonhole or stereotype the borough. You can’t even say, for instance, that “Flushing is an Asian neighborhood” without adding that it’s mainly Chinese—both mainland and Taiwanese—but also Korean and Indian, plus some Jewish and Italian, and so on. Astoria has a reputation as a Greek community. It has recently drawn attention for an influx of young professionals and artists (always the canaries in the mine shaft of gentrification). But there are highly rated Italian restaurants there, too, and how about that marvelous little Middle Eastern strip of Steinway Street—with hookah shops, falafel joints, and a café straight out of Cairo? It’s not surprising in Astoria that while walking to a Brazilian restaurant you pass a Bangladeshi mosque, a sari shop, and a spice market. Astoria also boasts an old German beer hall and one of the best classic movie theaters and film museums in the country. Sure, you could say Astoria is Greek—and then some. And so it goes in much of Queens.
In the nineteenth century, Queens was considered “the cornfields of New York.” It was still largely a rural backwater with farms that helped feed a ravenously growing New York City. (Queens, like Brooklyn, joined up to create New York City as we know it in 1898.) As transportation from Manhattan became available—first trains, then in 1909 the Queensboro Bridge, and then more subways—Queens’ open spaces served as fodder for the dreams of utopian visionaries, urban planners, and entrepreneurial developers seeking to house the city’s burgeoning population. Queens residents still identify themselves not with the larger municipal entity of the borough, but with their neighborhood, say Forest Hills, Astoria, or Neponsit. (If you send a letter to someone in Queens, the address lists the town name and zip code, as though it were some independent village in Rockland County, not a part of the city.) It is one of many such Queens ironies that plunked down in the middle of this small-townishness are two big airports, one of which is the nation’s largest international jet portal to the world: JFK. Surprisingly, the borough is replete with experimental housing developments, some of which, like Tudor-besotted Kew Gardens and Forest Hills, are famous “garden communities in the city.” Sunnyside Gardens, too, was built with huge communal garden spaces as an alternative to cramped Manhattan apartments; Perry Como and Judy Holliday lived here. On the other side of the spectrum, the 1960s brought megadevelopment in the form of Lefrak City, billed as “the largest apartment house in the world,” and the low-income Queensbridge Houses, where rough conditions gave rise to more than one hip-hop star. These developments offer a kaleidoscopic historical view of ways to create community, or at least affordable housing, in the megalopolis.
The past is present here in a way that will endear Queens to hobbyist (and professional) historians. You can make a short foray to visit several historic houses, including a Revolutionary War–era farmhouse on New York City’s only remaining working farm and museum, where children can harvest pumpkins in the autumn. Rising from the flat parkland near LaGuardia Airport are vestiges of the old world’s fairs of the mid-twentieth century. Up close, the Unisphere (that enormous metallic globe we’ve all seen from Grand Central Parkway en route to LaGuardia or JFK airports) is eerily beautiful, an unsubtle reminder that we’re all in this world together. A stone’s throw away from Shea Stadium is the world’s largest scale model, a 9,000-square-foot minicity of New York circa 1965, called the Panorama. In a little museum near Rockaway Beach, you can see shards from old Hog Island, a party place of the Tammany Hall set that was washed away by a hurricane a century ago—and more.
A brief listing of famous Queens residents gives some hint of the borough’s creative and intellectual heft. Historically, Queens has been home to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Jack Kerouac and Jimmy Breslin, Mae West and the Marx Brothers, Helen Keller and Malcolm X, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ralph Bunche. It’s where Jerry Seinfeld, Donald Trump, and rap artists 50 Cent and LL Cool J grew up. It’s also where fictional characters Spiderman and Archie Bunker lived.
Architecture buffs will find in Queens a rich smorgasbord of styles, from beach bungalows in the Rockaways to factories adapted for reuse in Long Island City. There’s also an amazing amount of neo-Tudor architecture in Queens. The borough has an extraordinary number of early-twentieth-century homes and institutional buildings, Tudor and otherwise, that would be considered landmarks were they located in Manhattan. Like some living urban archaeological site, there are layers and accretions in Queen. It’s typical that at Kennedy Airport, JetBlue is building a big state-of-the-art terminal just about on top of the Terminal 5 TWA Flight Center, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. And the beat goes on today in the era of the so-called McMansion as older buildings (some historic) are torn down by newcomers who want bigger, brassier homes. The visual juxtapositions in the borough are so pervasive it seems fitting that artist Joseph Cornell, a surrealist collage artist who was a peer of Salvador Dalí, lived and worked in Queens.
Queens is on the upswing, but not in an all-shiny-and-new or corporate way. In Long Island City, old industrial buildings have been renovated into museums and art studios. A junk heap has been recycled into an award-winning waterfront sculpture park. A vast old public school building has become the internationally acclaimed P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center. In Jamaica, a Pentecostal congregation uses an extravagant art deco theater as a church.
Queens is rich in opportunities for visitors and has good ethnic food, interesting history, art, and architecture. What more could a day tripper want?
And Then Some . . .
In most guidebooks, this would be the end of the introduction, but Queens has something else special: Internationalism. Fully half of Queens residents were not born in the United States. The foreign-born men and women who flocked here (sometimes following family, friends, or faith communities) after the liberalization of U.S. immigration laws in 1965 have transformed entire neighborhoods. For example, Flushing was an Italian and Jewish neighborhood that went into decline in the post–World War II years. Today it’s thriving as an Asian community, and the City of New York is pouring money into new buildings and parks.
Did you know that simply by hopping on a subway, you can go around the world? The #7 subway has been called the International Express, a national historic trail, because at every stop along its Queens route you land at another ethnic community as the train squeaks and screams its way along a rickety overhead track.
Making a living and surviving in a culture that speaks only English when you speak Chinese or Korean or Spanish isn’t always easy, not to mention keeping one’s home culture alive. Some immigrants work hours the average American would consider way too long, for far too little pay. It’s a Darwinian myth that all immigrants are the “best and the brightest” who pull themselves up by their bootstraps in cheerful pursuit of the American dream; there’s plenty of heartbreak, cross-cultural tension, and dysfunction, too. While personal dramas play out on an individual level, on a broader level the diverse foreign cultures here are kept alive through a borough-wide flowering of cultural institutions—language and music schools, cultural centers, and religious institutions such as mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples—and in cultural celebrations such as the Pagbah Parade, Diwali festival, or Dragon Boat Festival in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park. Widespread immigration has brought world culture to the borough in a vibrant, tangible way.
The United Nations first convened in 1948 in that same Flushing Meadows– Corona Park in what today is the Queens Museum of Art while its headquarters building was under construction in Manhattan. Many things happened during the UN’s brief outer-borough stint, including the divisions of Palestine and Korea. During those early years in Queens, the UN also adopted the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, which states:
Cultural heritage in all its forms must be
preserved, enhanced, and handed on to future
generations as a record of human experience and
aspirations, so as to foster creativity in all its
diversity and to inspire genuine dialogue among cultures.
In a curious twist of history—for who knew then that a half century later Queens itself would become home to immigrants from all over the world?—that declaration seems to address both the richness and the challenges of contemporary Queens.
Queens has risen to the challenge of internationalism and embraced the newcomers. The Queens Public Library system is stocked with books in every language, and runs creative cultural programs. In Flushing Meadows–Corona Park you can see Latino immigrants playing soccer, Indian and Pakistani families out for a stroll, and cricket being played by South Asian and Caribbean men wearing proper whites, as though this were the British empire. Thousands show up for cultural festivals where Latin TV stars crack jokes and the music is from Buenos Aires. At Queens Theater in the Park, immigrant playwrights give voice to the ups and downs of the contemporary “melting pot” experience. The Queens Museum of Art mounts exhibits that open up the immigrant experience to the larger world, illuminating the richness of the cultures that foreign-born artists reflect. The director of that museum, musing on the remarkable lack of violent intercultural clashes in Queens, suggests that widespread diversity dilutes tension, that perhaps more diversity diminishes possible clashes of culture. Perhaps when so many cultures are present, the only logical way to survive is through tolerance. There are lessons to be learned from the Queens experience.
In a world that’s globalizing faster than most of us can grasp, Queens is a living laboratory of internationalization. Beyond a tasty ethnic meal or art museum, historic site or Atlantic Ocean beach, Queens is also a place where you can get a glimpse of what a more diverse, internationalized, multilingual America may look like in the decades to come. If you want to see the face of globalization, you don’t need a round-the-world airline ticket. You can see it for a two-dollar subway fare to Queens.
Is Queens “The Next Brooklyn”?
The buzz over the New York grapevine is that Queens is the “next Brooklyn,” meaning that it is poised to undergo the same extraordinary gentrification that in the past decade has attracted young professionals and artists, boutiques and cafés that have transformed whole swaths of that other outer borough: Brooklyn. As the author of three editions of a popular guidebook to Brooklyn, I took a particular interest in this question.
Indeed, Queens has the three magic ingredients essential for greater visibility and the popularity that spark gentrification: good transportation, affordable housing, and urban livability. Queens boasts fast public transportation—less than 30 minutes from midtown Manhattan to neighborhoods such as Jackson Heights, Astoria, Long Island City, Sunnyside, and Woodside. Queens has a spectrum of housing options, too. It’s true that Long Island City is being marketed as “Manhattan East” and half-million-dollar apartments are rising on its East River banks. However, Queens also has many interesting neighborhoods with affordable housing. On the livability front, Queens boasts great recreation and cultural life, including first-rate museums and parks, live music, movies, marinas, three public golf courses, horseback riding, circuses, outdoor performances of Shakespeare in the summer, not to mention Shea Stadium and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
And hey, it’s closer to the Hamptons.
Like Brooklyn of the 1990s, the image of Queens today is on the uptick. If much of Queens still seems a quaint backwater—ethnically interesting, yet curiously undiscovered—well, it’s just how Brooklyn looked, too, way back when.
Why Is Queens Called Queens? Or, the Saga of
the Queen Catherine of Braganza Statue
Why is Queens called Queens, anyway? For years, logically enough, people assumed that the borough was named after Queen Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese-born bride of that fellow, King Charles of England, after whom Brooklyn (Kings County) was named. In 1988 plans were made to celebrate the borough by erecting a sculpture of Queen Catherine at a prominent site in Astoria. A competition was announced, an artist chosen, work begun, but just before the completed thirty-five-foot statue was to be put in place, a royal brouhaha erupted over the queen. Some local historians asserted that there was no proof positive that “Queens” referred to that particular queen, noting that Catherine was unpopular in her day and, anyway, hadn’t appeared in historical records until about two hundred years after her death. African-American leaders noted that Catherine had been involved in the slave trade. Irish residents had a beef with the idea of paying homage to a British queen (even if she was Portuguese), and so on. After much public airing of such laundry—to the glee of local newspapers—the Queen Catherine of Braganza statue was quietly exiled to upstate New York. Ever since, nobody’s 100 percent sure why Queens is called Queens.
Copyright © 2006 by Ellen Freudenheim. All rights reserved.