Stepping into Queens, New York, is akin to stepping into another dimension. It is the most diverse and most multi-ethnic community in the United States of America. No other community in the world showcases a conglomeration of languages, cultures, ethnicities and religions than Queens. And, according to H. Carl McCall, State Comptroller, some 138 languages are spoken in the borough which leads the rest of the city in economic diversity.
In the 2000 Economic Review he stated: “The signs of ethnic diversity in Queens are abundant. Neighborhoods reflect the languages and cultures of Ireland, Italy, Greece, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, the Middle East, Russia, Eastern Europe, and many other regions.”
Queens has the second largest population of all counties in New York and is sometimes called the gateway to immigrants. Or more apt, an immigrant’s paradise. It acts as a launching pad for immigrants who which to establish a new life in America. The American dream. Perhaps?
Life in Queens progresses slower than in Manhattan and other big cities. Therefore it’s easier for immigrants settling here to adjust to the lifestyle and politics of American society. A slow integration prepares them for the climatic changes since many immigrants are from countries with two seasons; rainy and dry. And it also helps them to adapt to societal norms and values at a gradual pace.
One needs only to glance around Queens to experience the immigrants’ presence. They’re every where. Immigrant settlement began in Queens more than a hundred years ago and continues unabated. Today the growing influx of immigrants who opt to live illegally in the borough has become a worry for Immigration authorities and the U.S. Government. Still, they come, undaunted, setting up home and shop as history will attest.
Present day celebrations and infrastructural changes, ethnic schools and banks, mandirs and gurdwaras, specialised stores catering exclusively to immigrants needs, are facts of their determination and their successes in recreating some aspects of their lives. Many, however, continue to struggle to integrate their religious observances into mainstream society rather than conduct them as discreet affairs. For example, after many years of lobbying the Hindu Festival of Lights, Divali, was designated a national holiday in New York in 2006, to the satisfaction of local Hindus.
Queens is a massive stage where life continues to change and adjust, where people gravitate to their own corners and burrow into niches. It’s really a niche culture, with the majority of immigrants from certain countries gravitating toward their own kind with few straying from the fold.
Areas in Richmond Hill along 101 Avenue and environs are pooled largely by immigrants from India, along Liberty Avenue and environs, one will find immigrants from Trinidad, further along 107 through 109 Avenues would yield a strong Guyanese presence, and these are only a few of the areas where the gravitational pull is strong. Areas of Elmhurst boasts a strong Hispanic population and that too where people from certain Spanish speaking countries have their own niches. Jackson Heights is commonly known as the home of Little India, and only a few blocks away an Italian commercial hub with restaurants, bakeries, delicatessens thrive, and yet further down is an Asian community, all cohabiting in their niches. Immigrants tend to live in little pockets where they can communicate in their own lingo. And so continues the history of immigrant Queens.
Trains traversing some 42 miles of subway lines take visitors to every corner of the 109 square miles of Queens. Yes, 109 square miles which accounts for 35 percent of New York City’s total land space. It incorporates some 96 neighbourhoods, ranging from Astoria to Broad Channel, Far Rockaway to Glen Oaks, Howard Beach to Kew Gardens, Long Island City to Middle Village, Ozone Park to Rosedale and Sunnyside to Woodside.
Just take the A Train from Brooklyn or Manhattan to the last stop, Lefferts Boulevard, step out and experience the vibrant immigrant population. Almost every island in the Caribbean is represented in that one spot, if you stand long enough to witness it. A trek down Liberty Avenue will expand into other regions of the world; India, China, Japan, England, Colombia, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Barbados, Guyana, Malaysia, and others.
All of these immigrants had at one time uprooted themselves and their families from their homes and countries to replant their lives in this bustling American community. Some of them wanted to escape poverty others wanted an improved life than they had left behind and yet others wanted to escape abuse, to seek employment and to give their children a better future than theirs. The stories of how they arrived here and how they adjusted to an alien lifestyle and built their lives and dreams are intriguing and in some instances heart breaking. But there are many waiting to be told. Some will undoubtedly find their way on to these pages.