By Kulsoom Khan
Upon stepping out of the Roosevelt Avenue train station, the smell of fresh Kababs, deep fried samosas, and momos (steamed dumplings) welcome visitors into the busy and bustling neighborhood that is Jackson Heights.
If you’ve always been curious about South Asia, but could not afford a plane ticket to hop across the pond, then all you need to do is jump on the E, F, R, M, or 7 train and make your way over to this northwest Queens neighborhood to get the same kind of experience.
Immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Tibet make up a big portion of the population. Since the 1980’s, Jackson Heights has been dubbed “Little India” and it’s easy to see why. Indian jewelry shops and colorful sarees on display in store windows can be seen throughout 73rd and 74th street. Customers can even try their hand at bargaining with the shopkeepers just like people in the old country.
Amongst South Asians, Indians were the dominant group, but in recent years an influx of Bangladeshis have also immigrated and made a presence in the area. Kabir’s Bakery, a Bangladeshi-owned bakery is full of a wide variety of South Asian delicacies such as both chicken and vegetarian samosas, chicken puff pastries, Kheer (rice pudding), and gulab jamun (fried spongy balls dipped in a rose-scented syrup).
Billboards and posters depicting Bollywood stars can be found on windows and walls of stores and restaurants. A-list Bollywood actors such as Shah Rukh Khan and Abhishek Bachchan have even visited in the past. A Pakistani drama serial titled “Jackson Heights” which aired in both Pakistan and India in 2014 follows the lives of Pakistanis living abroad in Jackson Heights. In 2015, filmmaker Frederick Wiseman directed, produced, and shot a documentary in Jackson Heights titled “In Jackson Heights”.
A walk few blocks further down towards 82nd street, transports visitors from South Asia to Latin America. Taco stands, blaring Salsa music, and people speaking Spanish left and right is the typical picture. Columbians, Bolivians, Argentinians, Ecuadorians and Mexicans make up the majority of the Latin population in Jackson Heights. La Pequeña Columbia located on Roosevelt Avenue offers authentic South American cuisine including empanadas, fried plantains, paella and ceviches. Immigrants from Columbia were among the first Latino group to begin arriving to the area in 1960’s.
In the 1900’s, Jackson Heights was mostly farmland. The transformation began in 1908 when a group of bankers and Real Estate Developers known as the Queensboro Realty Company purchased the land. Jackson Heights was named after John C. Jackson, who built Jackson Avenue, which is now known as Northern Boulevard. Garden apartments that were built between 1917 and 1940 are a signature landmark of the neighborhood and were the first planned cooperative apartment community built in the United States.
Jackson Heights also boasts one of the largest and most thriving LGBT communities in the country. A number of LGBT families have moved to the neighborhoods, attracted, as families before them, to the neighborhood’s large apartments and schools.
Several blocks of the neighborhood between 35th and 37th avenues have been preserved as an historic district, protecting the mid 20th-century aesthetics of the neighborhood’s apartment buildings on those blocks. Most notable are the neoclassical design of the apartment blocks on 80th Street, reminiscent of the posh Kensington section of London.