Queens: On the radar
NEW YORK CITY — Recently, Lonely Planet touted Queens, New York as the hottest new destination in the US. As a Queens resident of close to two decades, I suppose I am expected to be overjoyed by this anointment. This is New York City’s largest borough, with the second largest population (approximately 2,300,000): If Queens were a stand-alone city, it would be the fourth largest in the country, after Brooklyn—both of which are located on Long Island. Many folks living in this immigrant-dominated borough (close to 50 percent are foreign-born) reacted with undisguised elation. I completely understand and do not begrudge for a single moment my fellow Queenites’ moment in the sun. For too long, Queens has labored under the shadow of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Yet I harbor ambivalent feelings about such a designation. For one thing, what seem to attract the fulsome praise of Lonely Planet are those developments that render Queens a kind of neo-Brooklyn, or a faux Manhattan. The emphasis isn’t so much on how different (very) but how similar Queens is to the two aforementioned boroughs, an implicit nod towards an assimilationist bent clad in the familiar dress of gentrification.
Lonely Planet highlights the rise of craft breweries and boutique hotels as two reasons for the designation of Queens as flavor of the year. You’d get the impression that there was no good beer in the borough until these microbreweries rose up to slake the thirst of parched Queens throats. That will be news to the habitués of myriad bars and pubs stocked with excellent drafts, including Guinness, and bottled brews from all over the world.
As for hotels, it isn’t so much their affordability but their proximity to Manhattan that renders them desirable. So exploring the borough in which these hotels are located isn’t the point. Long Island City (LIC) and Astoria, the two Queens neighborhoods zeroed in, are again just across the East River from Manhattan, with LIC right next to Greenpoint in Brooklyn.
The guidebook remarks on a beach that New Yorkers have long patronized: “Speaking of beaches, Rockaway has become NYC’s favorite seaside destination of the summer. Locals looking for sun and sand but without the Hamptons’ fuss (the prices, the traffic, the ‘tude) have begun flocking to this beach in outer Queens [Emphasis added].” Note the use of the present perfect tense, with its rather dim-witted assumption that only recently has this beach been discovered by New Yorkers. On the contrary, Rockaway and Coney Island in Brooklyn have been for generations of the city’s denizens low-cost, easily accessible escapes from the heat and humidity of summer.
Queens is where a significant, probably a majority, of New York-based Filipinos live, particularly in the working- to lower-middle-class neighborhoods of Woodside and Elmhurst. Informally known as Little Manila, these are where Pinoys congregate, both for affordable housing, and for the small businesses and restaurants that cater to them. Guesstimates have close to 10,000 Filipino residents. From 59th to 70th streets along Roosevelt Avenue, beneath the 7 train, can be found Pinoy small businesses and restaurants, from Ihawan and Renee’s Grill to Krystal’s and Engeline’s. Two Manila-based fast-food chains have outlets here: Red Ribbon and Jollibee.
In short, it isn’t the gritty Queens Lonely Planet sings about. The guidebook’s praise is far from a Whitmanesque ode to a largely working class borough, to the multiple immigrant communities speaking 160 different languages—the borough is arguably the world’s most diverse county—with their vegetable and fruit stands, their bodegas, their turo-turos and food carts dispensing cheap eats, ranging from momos (Tibetan-style meat dumplings) to tortas and tacos.
In a real sense, Queens is the matrix of the city, for two of the region’s busiest airports are located here: the John F. Kennedy and La Guardia airports, rendering the skies over the borough one of the most congested. And thus one of the noisiest: on certain days, in our neighborhood of Jackson Heights, practically a stone’s throw from La Guardia, the flight path of departing planes is directly overhead and one gets the distinct impression that the plane will fly straight through the buildings. La Guardia and JFK are the immigrant gateways to the city and much of the Northeast, modern-day versions of Ellis and Angel islands.
With surprisingly little hype, the guidebook does write up two important world-class cultural institutions: the Queens Art Museum and the Museum of the Moving Image. These are noteworthy venues, well worth visiting, and essential to the vitality of the Queens art scene. But under the radar, as to be expected, one finds a myriad of arts groups and nonprofits, with more direct connections to their respective communities. Two that anchor the Filipino-American scene in Queens are Topaz Arts and Bliss on Bliss Studio.
(To Be Continued)
Copyright L.H. Francia 2015
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