Queens’ Quintessential Qualities

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BY JOE MARVILLI
Staff Writer

Queens is well-known for its diverse cultures and nationalities, but a day-long event at Queens College last week displayed how the Borough is just as diverse in many other fields, including its neighborhoods, its entertainment scene and more.

“Quintessential Queens: Celebrating America’s Fourth Largest City” was a special conference held on Oct. 4 at LeFrak Concert Hall on Queens College’s campus. The event was an exploration into what Queens is and a celebration of its diversity, vitality and heritage. Made up of a series of lectures that looked at the Borough from every angle, the seminar was part of Queens College’s 75th anniversary.

The “Quintessential Queens” conference at Queens College included a lecture on Louis Armstrong’s life and a performance that looked into the lives of immigrants from the Borough.  Photos by Ira Cohen and Joe Marvilli

The “Quintessential Queens” conference at Queens College included a lecture on Louis Armstrong’s life and a performance that looked into the lives of immigrants from the Borough.
Photos by Ira Cohen and Joe Marvilli

“I felt like this was an opportunity to engage the community of Queens and to connect them more strongly to Queens College,” John Waldman, a biology professor who coordinated the event, said. “I felt one of the lingering questions about Queens that I hoped would emerge today would be just what is the identity of Queens. This is really in its own right, its own metropolis.”

The various speakers for “Quintessential Queens” discussed topics that looked at the Borough from many angles. There were panels about Queens’ natural landscape, Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats from the Borough, its place in American history and its growing literary scene today. Theatrical performances, poetry and comments from elected officials rounded out the day.

Diverse People

Some of the lectures focused on the element that helps to make Queens unique: the variety of nationalities found in every community.

Andrew Beveridge, a professor of sociology at Queens College, talked about the massive changes in the Borough’s demographic throughout the last few decades. When the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was signed into law, it forever changed the racial makeup of Queens and the nation. Many immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Africa made their way through the doors that had opened up, with a large number of them settling in Queens.

“Queens is really heavily foreign-born,” Beveridge said during his address. “Only 40 percent of the people who lived in New York in 1993 still live here. The turnover is just incredible.”

According to Beveridge, the top five countries that immigrants come to Queens and New York City from today are China, Ecuador, Guyana, Columbia and India. Chinese immigrants have mostly settled in Flushing and Bayside.

Ecuadorians found their home in Jackson Heights. Guyanese immigrants headed to Richmond Hill. Those from India planted their roots in Sunnyside.

“There’s a whole bunch of different groups, and the real trick is to try to have all these different groups live together,” he said.

While Beveridge looked at the various facts and figures on how Queens’ population had changed, Judith Sloan and Warren Lehrer went for a personal perspective, telling the stories of the many different immigrants they talked to over the years.

Acting out excerpts from “Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America,” the two speakers looked into the extraordinary tales of immigrants.

Among the performances was the story of a dancer from central Asia who started her own dance studio in the entrance to the 63rd Dr. – Rego Park subway station. Another one came from the perspective of the owner of Kebab Café, one of the first Egyptian eateries in the neighborhood. Its decorative storefront is well-known in the area.

Diverse Neighborhoods

Just like every ethnicity in Queens has its own unique culture, every neighborhood in Queens has its own distinct looks and characteristics. As it is often said, people in Queens will list their neighborhood, not the Borough or City, when they are asked where they are from.

Nicole Steinberg, the editor of “Forgotten Borough: Writers Come to Terms with Queens,” went over the qualities of a few different neighborhoods throughout the Borough, taking the audience on a tour of several of its biggest communities.

The trek started in Long Island City, where Steinberg mentioned landmarks such as Silvercup Studios, 5Pointz and PS1 MOMA.

“Once home to factories and industrial buildings, the neighborhood has experienced a residential boom over the past 20 years, with high-res condos, bars and restaurants popping up all over,” she said.

From there, the tour moved to Astoria. Steinberg said that one of the first things noted about the neighborhood is great Greek food, though she also mentioned its unique “old world meets hipster vibe.” Its affordability has attracted many young professionals and creatives, who are mixed in with its aging Greek and Italian population.

Jackson Heights was next, a neighborhood Steinberg said was a national historic district. Originally built and labeled as a “lusher alternative to Manhattan,” many immigrants began to flock to the area due to its low rent. Steinberg said this led to it becoming “one of the most diverse residential areas in the entire country.”

She next focused on Jamaica, once an Irish immigrant stronghold that is now mainly Black, with more ethnic groups moving in every day. When major retailers left the neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s, the neighborhood suffered from high crime and a drug epidemic. However, Steinberg said the situation has continued to improve recently as developers have moved in.

The discussion then moved to Forest Hills and Rego Park, neighboring communities that are similar but also hold notable differences. Forest Hills is an upper-middle class neighborhood whereas Rego Park has more working-class residents. According to Steinberg, many Holocaust survivors settled in Rego Park after World War II.

Diverse Challenges

While much of the conference focused on the present and past of the Borough, one lecture looked towards the future, to see what challenges lie ahead.

Jonathan Bowles, the executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, gave a speech called “Queens 2030: Imagining the Future,” where he talked about both what Queens is doing right and what problems have to be tackled.

Bowles began by praising Queens’ economy for its variety and balance. Five different job sectors account for eight percent of the job total in the Borough. New big corporations in Queens increased from 7,100 in 1991 to 16,000 in 2011. However, the economic stats are not all good news.

“We’re really struggling to create middle-income jobs,” he said. “But Queens has managed to retain blue collar jobs more than any other borough.”

Some of the biggest problems Bowles outlined dealt with quality of life. He said quality of life is reflected in its schools and transit system, which he said were overcrowded and had poor connectivity, respectively. He also said Queens’ population is one of the oldest in the City, a problem that will grow in the next decade.

If the Borough is to thrive in the future, he added, it needs to be more forward-looking and aspirational to meet these challenges.

“There’s so much to build on in this Borough,” Bowles said. “Maybe the next 20 years can be the time of Queens’ rise.”

Reach Joe Marvilli at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 125, jmarvilli@queenstribune.com, or @Joey788.