Written by Barbara Magnoni, edited by Jim Luce, photos by Marta Magnoni.
The Number 7 train was dubbed “The International Express” by Hillary Clinton when she was first lady to call attention to the positive aspects of the diverse immigrant community in New York City.
The train, which runs from Flushing, Queens into Manhattan’s Times Square, passes through one of the most diverse communities in the country, perhaps in the world – Queens’ residents come from over 100 countries.
Get off the grey steel train at either the 82nd Street Station (Jackson Heights stop) or 74th and Roosevelt Avenue to visit colorful Jackson Heights – the center of Queens, and to some, the Center of the World.
Jackson Heights is an ever changing neighborhood where today’s new immigrants from Burma, Malaysia, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Mexico, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Bangladesh have joined older generations of Indians, Colombians, and Poles. Here, they seek opportunities and make lives for themselves and their families in the U.S.
Jackson Heights boasts a level of ethnic and racial tolerance that is impressive, perhaps explaining why the largest gay community of color has also claimed the area as their own.
You will have the opportunity to taste Jackson Heights on October 24th, during the Fourth Annual Jackson Heights Film & Food Festival. I encourage you to attend, bring friends and family – and spend the day in this global neighborhood before the event.
The intersection of Roosevelt Avenue and 75th Street in Queens is dubbed “The Center of the World”
To learn more about Jackson Heights, I had the opportunity to visit with a local community organizer, attorney Bryan Pu-Folkes.
Bryan himself represents the center of the world. A Queens native, he boasts that his parents come from opposite ends of the globe – Burma and Jamaica. He is the embodiment of the multicultural diversity of his neighborhood.
His immigrant family history has inspired much of his activism as a legal advocate for immigrants. His education and energy bring to the community a new type of activism, one that is conciliatory and multidimensional.
Bryan wants to ensure that his community maintains green spaces and draws investment, while striving to preserve the authentic immigrant diversity and small town feeling of Jackson Heights.
Throughout our “tour,” people on the street would walk up to Bryan to update him on an event or community activity, or just to catch up. He takes the time to talk to everyone. A Burmese-Jamaican-American mensch.
Bryan’s laid back demeanor and sincere approach have clearly played a role in bringing the community together on the issues that matter to him.
Bryan Pu-Folkes with Jill Yardley, a member of the Jackson Heights Beautification Project
who was born and raised in what is now the Historic District of the neighborhood.
We began our tour in “Little India,” which is rich with restaurants, grocery stores, sari shops and jewelry stores. The rhythmic drone of the 7 train is replaced by the quiet bustle of shopkeepers and shoppers.
Little India is a feast for the senses, where even the bags of rice at the famous Patel Brothers Grocery store are beautiful.
Bags of Basmati Rice from India and Pakistan at Patel Brothers in “Little India.”
At the Film & Food Festival, you’ll have a taste from the renowned Jackson Diner, famous for its Northern Indian specialties and buffet-style dining will participate. Sweets from India will be featured as well. Rajbhog Sweets has been a perennial festival favorite.
Jackson Diner began as a small “mom and pop” shop and has now expanded to become one of the largest distributors of Indian sweets in the country with over US$30 million in annual revenues.
Subzi Mandi is a Bangladeshi grocery store in Jackson Heights.
Grocers from East Asia – particularly Bangladesh and Pakistan – have expanded into the neighborhood. Bryan tells me that Jackson Heights has been a “starter” neighborhood for many immigrant groups historically.
This began in the 1950-60s with German, Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants. Then, Indians and Colombians in the 1970s, and today drawing immigrants from Mexico, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Tibet.
As immigrant communities become more settled, they tend to move out into more middle class suburban communities, leaving room for new immigrants to move in.
Today, “Italian Farms” grocery store is owned by a Peruvian. “Monik’s Polish Meat and Deli” is owned by a Dominican.
New Mexican immigrants have contributed to the local scene with a variety of foods, including fast food stands that sell traditional tacos and Mexican sandwiches “tortas.”
Jackson Heights’ historic district with its spacious apartments, large gardens, and comparatively lower sale prices has attracted a growing segment of non-immigrants to the neighborhood.
Many have ventured out on the 7 train from Manhattan where housing prices have soared and green space is scarce.
Children play in an enclosed garden in the Berkeley apartment complex in
the Historic District. Large pre-war buildings with green spaces have attracted
many families from Brooklyn and Manhattan seeking both space and value.
High-end shops such as Espresso 77 and Rudy Volcano – which imports lovely Guatemalan handcrafts – have maintained the multiethnic feel of the neighborhood, while catering to a higher income customer.
Lety’s Pastry and Cafe, which boasts the best Italian pastries and gelato in the area, will be participating in the Festival this year, as will Espresso 77.
The entrance of a new Starbucks into the neighborhood has been a cause for both hope and concern, as new money brings with it the risk of diluting the strength of Jackson Heights’ diversity.
Rudy Volcano brings a sense of hipness and style to traditional Guatemalan handicrafts.
In addition to the tastes of Jackson Heights, the festival will feature short and feature length international films that explore the depths of issues of culture and immigrant identity.
The Film & Food Festival will be hosted at the Jackson Triplex Theatre at 82nd Street off of Roosevelt Avenue.
The Feature film, Soy Andina, a documentary that follows two New Yorkers – a modern/hip-hop dance dancer raised in Queens, and a folkloric dancer from the Andes – on a journey through Peru in search of roots and a world of folkloric dance.
A dancer from the film will be at the Festival for a Q&A session. The short films will be Grace and Team Taliban.
A walk in Jackson Heights remind us of the importance of food in the immigrant experience.
Bryan hopes that the Film & Food Festival will serve as a way to engage the community as well as to draw attention to its rich history and cultures.
Venture out on the International Express for your own tour of the neighborhood and its riches. But, be warned, after a day in Jackson Heights, you may just decide to immigrate there yourself.
The Film & Food Festival is made possible by its generous sponsors Queens Council on the Arts, Capital One Bank, and Noah’s Ark Pet Clinic.
Jim’s note: I lived in Jackson Heights from 1992 until 1994, and think that – along with the East and West Villages – it is the coolest neighborhood in NYC. I know stores such as Rudy Volcano’s intimately. Attorney Bryan Pu-Folkes is a personal friend and has done all of the immigration work for my adopted son Mathew. He is a pillar of that community and I cannot recommend him more highly. Newly elected NYC Council Member Danny Dromm is a friend from those days as well. My thanks to Barbara and Marta Magnoni for taking this story idea and bringing it to life!