BY JON CRONIN
During the past few decades, Queens has become known as one of the most ethnically diverse counties in all of the United States.
But Jack Eichenbaum, the official Queens borough historian, would take issue with the use of the words “diverse” or “mosaic,” a word that Mayor David Dinkins used to describe the borough.
“I prefer tapestry,” said Eichenbaum, who is a geographer by training.
He added that a tapestry represents the communal sense of an interwoven fabric. As a geographer, he said he has studied how people and events are connected spatially, rather than in time-oriented, linear circumstances.
Queens has long been known for inclusion. The Quakers settled the borough in the mid-17th century and, later, abolitionists snuck runaway slaves through via the Underground Railroad into Canada. Eichenbaum said that a free black community was formed in South Jamaica during the 19th century and as industrialization came to Queens, European immigrants found factory jobs in Jamaica.
In the 1920s, southern and eastern Europeans— particularly Jews and Italians— were commonly branded as separate “races,” which, if unchecked, would “dilute the purity” of the majority, Eichenbaum said. Catholics, who had high birth rates and papal obedience, were often derided in their new home in the United States. By 1924, immigration reform placed strict quotas on immigrants originating from outside northwestern Europe.
The next boom arrived post-World War II after when immigrants began to suburbanize and South Jamaica became Queens’ largest and most concentrated African American neighborhood.
Eichenbaum said that Elmhurst became the most “inter-racial community” in the 1950s and that tolerance in the community stemmed from the wives— rather than husbands— in the neighborhood.
“The wives met each other at the park, on the street and in the grocery store,” he said. “It was the men who were more prejudiced.”
However, Eichenbaum believes that the most critical time for immigration came in the mid-1960s as the World’s Fair was in full swing in Queens. At the time, skilled laborers from countries represented at the fair came to Queens to work there, especially Taiwanese and South Koreans.
“Many stayed as new immigrants and formed the core of the new skilled immigrant communities now centered in Flushing,” he said.
He pointed out that this was during the height of the Cold War and the U.S.’s alliances— mainly those belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization— were the only ones represented at the World’s Fair.
Emmanuel Cellar, a congressman representing Queens and Brooklyn, was vehemently opposed to immigration quotas imposed in the 1920s. The Hart-Cellar Act opened up immigration in the U.S. for skilled laborers and eventually led to the snowball that became an immigration avalanche.
Eichenbaum said that Colombians and Latinos relocated to Queens to practice law and medicine, catering to the growing Spanish-speaking population. Health professionals had been in short supply after the advent of Medicare, he said.