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Thread: Seeking Urban Essence and Finding Queens

  1. #1

    Default Seeking Urban Essence and Finding Queens

    November 3, 2002

    Seeking Urban Essence and Finding Queens

    By JAMES O'GRADY

    Western Queens is a demographer's dream and a census taker's nightmare. Its people come from dozens of countries and speak just as many languages. It contains a moving mass of legal and illegal immigrants, renters and homeowners shot through a dense weave of multiethnic neighborhoods. It is a glorious, shifting mess.

    As such, it will stand in for urban America when the Census Bureau conducts a major test in 2004 in preparation for the 2010 census. (In the test, Tift County, Ga., will represent rural America, and Lake County, just north of Chicago, will play the role of a suburb.)

    But don't expect to see enumerators toting clipboards and pencils on the teeming streets of Woodside and Astoria. The point of the test is to try out sophisticated hardware like hand-held computers with global positioning systems and new techniques like telephone interviews conducted both by humans and machines.

    If such innovative methods survive the rigors of western Queens, the thinking goes, they will probably work in any American city.

    "Every possible problem that could come up is there," said Andrew Beveridge, a sociologist at Queens College who specializes in demograpy. "It's really quite audacious of the bureau."

    The question is whether the new techniques will complicate those problems or simplify them.

    Jim Dinwiddie, a spokesman for the bureau, said his agency hoped to use electronics to cut down on the large amounts of paper that the census generates. "The mobile computing devices would capture data at the source," he said, and thus could replace the scanning of millions of paper forms, as was done in the 2000 census, with downloads to a database.

    Will the devices hold up in the often gusty weather of early April, when canvassing for the actual census is done?

    "Everything will be tested in field conditions," Mr. Dinwiddie said.

    During the test, the bureau will also introduce questionnaires in Spanish. And it will experiment with a form that does not include the category "Other Race," one that tended to prompt Latinos to describe themselves as whites.

    Some 125,000 to 150,000 housing units will be visited during the test, which will be conducted by 1,000 temporary workers. After judging what works and what doesn't, the bureau will hold a dress-rehearsal in 2008. Showtime is early 2010.

    Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, whose district includes much of western Queens and who has criticized the bureau's counts, praised the idea of Western Queens as an urban testing ground. After all, she said, with a nod to America's ur-cosmopolite, Frank Sinatra, "If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere."

    Copyright The New York Times Company

  2. #2

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    December 29, 2003

    Authors Never Left Queens on Three-Year Trip Around the World

    By COREY KILGANNON

    At a certain subway station in Queens, a highly decorated dancer from Tajikistan runs a Bukharan dance studio.

    At a Jackson Heights table tennis club, a former member of the Chinese national team banters with Jamaican players. And then there is a Chinese woman whose husband may be the only Jewish man in New York who hates Chinese food.

    These are snippets from the profiles in a new book called "Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America" (W.W. Norton, $35). With first-person accounts from 79 immigrants in Queens, the 400-page book is an offbeat ethnic tour of one of the country's most ethnically diverse counties. It does not point out trendy kebab palaces or obscure taco stands, but rather tells riveting stories about a new wave of immigrants to America.

    "This is definitely not the Fodor's version of Queens," said Warren Lehrer, who illustrated the book. He and his wife, Judith Sloan, both documentary artists from Queens, wrote the book and named it after the borough's major thoroughfare, Queens Boulevard, sometimes called the Boulevard of Death for its high rate of pedestrian fatalities.

    A Russian immigrant in the book posits that many of those deaths were of immigrants hit while worrying to distraction about how to survive in a new land. The authors call the boulevard a symbol of the dangerous crossings many immigrants made fleeing their home countries and navigating a new culture.

    Mr. Lehrer, 48, said he grew up in Bayside when the borough was still "Archie Bunker's Queens," with neatly apportioned neighborhoods of Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants. After moving away, he met Ms. Sloan, 47, who was from New Haven, and years later moved back to Queens, where an estimated 138 languages were being spoken.

    "It had become this crossroads of the world," he said. "It's now such an ethnically diverse place that no matter who you are here, you're a minority."

    They turned their beat-up Subaru onto Queens Boulevard and "spent three years traveling around the world without ever leaving Queens," explained Ms. Sloan, an actress who teaches theater arts at New York University and the International High School at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City.

    On a recent visit, the authors sat in an Egyptian restaurant called Mombar, on Steinway Street in Astoria, next to a group of Egyptian men eating dates and braised lamb and sipping mint tea. Across the street, men played backgammon and smoked sweet-smelling tobacco from large water pipes.

    The authors documented how a nearby coffee shop was vandalized by a group of young men just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. After the owner chose not to press charges, the youths returned to apologize and help clean up the damage.

    On a lighter note, Mr. Lehrer recalled interviewing an immigrant from Togo who said he learned English in New York by reading the tabloid newspapers and listening to news radio.

    An exhibit based on the book is at the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park through March 14, with photographs, taped narratives, music and performances by several artists profiled in the book. There is also a kiosk, which will be taken around the borough, where visitors may tell their stories about immigration, as they can at the Web site www.crossingtheblvd.org .

    The book, which contains a compact disc of original music inspired by the recorded interviews, has already affected the lives of some of its participants, the authors said. Amy Li, 36, was imprisoned and tortured for participating in Falun Gong, a movement banned by the Chinese government. She finally fled China, leaving behind her daughter, Doudou. After Ms. Li sent photocopies of her profile in the book to the United States Consulate in China, Doudou, now 8, was permitted to move to New York, the authors said.

    The authors recently visited Malika's International Dance School, just off Queens Boulevard in Rego Park, to chat with the owner, Malika Kalantarova, once a dancer in Tajikistan. The studio is in a small plaza of Bukharan shops in the 63rd Street subway station, along with a barber from Uzbekistan, a jeweler from Bukhara and a shoemaker from Tajikistan.

    Ms. Kalantarova demonstrated the head and arm movements of traditional Bukharan dance to a dozen Bukharan girls from the Forest Hills area, which the girls referred to as Queensistan or Bukharan Hills. A teenager here needs to be able to dance Bukharan style, as well as Beyoncé style, explained Yafa Iskhakova, 14, switching from Bukharan to English with a strong Queens accent.

    Mr. Lehrer called Queens a bellwether of change in America. "There is a definite interest in Queens outside of New York," he explained, "because soon this is what their neighborhood is going to look like."

    Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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    Christian, thanks for the preceding post.
    The site included this public event which caught my eye (and ear):
    Saturday, March 13, 3 pm:
    Tour of Crossing the BLVD with Sloan and Lehrer, followed by an acoustic concert with members of NYC’s gypsy-punk-cabaret band Gogol Bordello. Call (718) 592-9700 x 222. NYC's gypsy-punk-cabaret band Gogol Bordello? :shock:
    I have absolutely no idea what strange aural explorations I'm in for, but God willing, I'll find out on March 13.
    WiredNY, you're amazing!

  5. #5

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    I second fioco's thanks to Christian for letting us all know about the "Crossing the BLVD" book. It shines light on the place where my wife and I may be moving. I've been a citizen of the world/wondering am I really American?/ all my life as a diplomat's son. So Queens, whether it's Flushing or Astoria.. could be home soon.

    Hope more people find out about this site and can benefit from it.

    NYR2B Matt

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    BBC News -- World Edition
    22 March 2004
    New York's place of passage
    By Matt Wells In New York



    When Elina Vasiliadis first saw New York 15 years ago it was too dirty, too noisy, and made her depressed. But then she arrived in the Astoria neighbourhood of Queens, and felt instantly settled in a place that has been the epicentre of Greek life in the city for a generation. Like millions of other naturalised New Yorkers before her, she settled into a place where the language, food, stores and relationships were familiar.
    But she and her husband Haralambos, have been witness to the other half of the city's cycle of immigration - Astoria is not the same place it was in 1989.

    Since then, thousands of Greeks who used to live within walking distance from where we are eating together, have moved out to the quieter suburbs.
    "We have a saying that you arrive in Astoria, get baptised in Bayside (the upscale neighbourhood of Queens where the couple now live) and have your funeral ever further east," jokes Haralambos, as we tuck into plates of Greek seafood.

    'Dynamic process'

    New York's successful identity as the chief embarkation point for US immigration throughout its history, rests on the cycle of rebirth that is now so evident here.
    Just two streets away, is a strip of diverse businesses and services that have earned the local sobriquet "Little Egypt".

    "We all came from somewhere else, so why should we feel resentful now it's someone else's turn?"
    Gregory Soldatos
    "When I first came it all seemed to be Greek. The landmarks remain - like this place, our favourite restaurant - and we all still come here for the Greek clubs, but now there are lots of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Lebanese, as well as Egyptians and Moroccans," says Elina.
    "It's a dynamic process," says Haralambos: "Some of the older people feel strange to see it, but that is the beauty of New York."

    He mentions that his mother's local store owner, who is Korean, decided to learn Greek in order to keep his customers sweet. In a city where the impetus is on economic advancement, successive waves of immigrants have adapted to their local environment while helping each other survive, and then thrive.

    "There is no tension between us and the newcomers," says our host, the owner of the Esperides restaurant, Gregory Soldatos, who has lived in Astoria for 20 years.

    "First there were the Italians, then Greeks. Five years ago there were only a few Egyptian places, now there are many.
    We all came from somewhere else, so why should we feel resentful now it's someone else's turn?"

    Feeling of security

    Getting from the Esperides to the Mombar restaurant, one of the pioneer eateries of Little Egypt, is a four-minute walk.
    Inside, owner Moustafa Rahman is preparing food in anticipation of a busy Friday night ahead.

    I teach my kids there are no gaps between people... We are all the same
    Moustafa Rahman
    On the way, you pass several hookah cafes - the sweet shisha pipe that is ubiquitous throughout the Middle East.
    Some Italian and Greek outposts remain, but Arabic community centres, a Mosque and the Quoran Bookshop are now in the foreground.

    Moustafa, 48, opened his place in the early 1990s, and he has felt completely comfortable, living and building a business in the neighbourhood. "We feel secure here, and there is an affinity between we Mediterranean peoples. We are all warm feeling, and our food is not so different," he says.

    There was brief tension following the 9/11 attacks, when a small gang confronted one Muslim cafe owner and began to vandalise the place. The police were called but the owner refused to press charges and the gang members returned a few hours later to apologise, and help clear up.

    Moustafa believes that the ever-evolving immigrant communities of Queens are far less tribal than the stark neighbourhood divisions of Manhattan, where downtown is white, moving to an Hispanic belt, then black.

    "I teach my kids there are no gaps between people. We are all the same."

    New York is unique - it's a real United Nations... If you can't find what you want here, then you won't find it anywhere
    Nassef Nasseif
    As a classic symbol of New York integration, he introduces me to a co-worker, Nassef Nasseif, an Egyptian Christian, who spent more than a decade in Italy before coming to Queens where he has married a Greek American. He talks to his two young children in English, and their best friends are the African-American kids who live next door.

    "New York is unique - it's a real United Nations. If you can't find what you want here, then you won't find it anywhere."

    Coalitions

    A short drive from Astoria I meet the author and self-styled documentary artist Warren Lehrer, who together with his wife Judith Sloan, produced a highly-praised book last year all about the saga of new immigration in their home borough of Queens, called Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America.

    No-one lives in Queens unless they have to, and it's a place of passage where people come and try to get out as quickly as they can
    Warren Lehrer
    There are 138 languages spoken around the borough, and in their own words, images and audio recordings, around 30 different nationalities took part in the book project which is also a major exhibition at the Queens Museum of Art, until the end of this month.
    "Ellis Island used to be the port of entry for old New York, but now it's the two main airports, and they are both in Queens," says Warren.

    "No-one lives in Queens unless they have to, and it's a place of passage where people come and try to get out as quickly as they can¿ It's an incredible crossroads of the world." Although the cycle of renewal is as old as the city itself, Warren says that sheer accessibility and power of technology in this era of globalisation, has changed some aspects of immigration for ever.

    It used to be that Astoria was dominated by first Italians and then Greeks, but now "no group can have that kind of influence with the diversity of people who are arriving", he says. "They have to form coalitions." "In just one building in Queens you can have Nepalese on one floor, with the floor above largely occupied by Colombians. The enclaves are getting so much smaller, they are really ending up mushed together. It forces people to live side-by-side."

    With affordable satellite television, cheap air travel and the internet, it is possible however to recreate a daily culture in places like Queens, that resembles home more than ever before. Although it is detrimental to learning English effectively, Warren believes it will benefit America in the medium term. "It means that in places like Queens there's now no singular definition of what it is to be an American. "There is a more diverse sensibility. Where people might have said five years ago to a newcomer: 'Why are you still walking round with that thing on your head?' - now, you don't have to take it off."

    Story from BBC NEWS:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/h...as/3556939.stm

    Published: 2004/03/22 10:23:04 GMT

    © BBC MMIV

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    Hey... I am born and raised in Queens and wish to stay, not because I have to.

  8. #8

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    April 2, 2004

    THE CITY LIFE

    Proud Borough Needs Bard

    By FRANCIS X. CLINES

    Word that the city's benignly overlooked borough of Queens was urgently scratching about for a new poet laureate seemed counterintuitive. What could be more challenging as the theme for a true poet than the borough's defining spirit of restlessness? Its horizon swatchwork of grays and lack of pretension in the face of mortality begs a surfeit of lyricists. Anyone who wanders Queens — or sleepily commutes through it — can sense what a perch it offers a poet groping for life's meaning. As a onetime resident, I cherish it as a land rich with life's strivers, caught in what Allen Ginsberg called "the dearness of the vanishing moment."

    Imagine what Robert Lowell could have done with the borough's sprawling carpets of cemeteries? There's a baker's dozen created as the repositories for people from more crowded boroughs. Muse, hello: We're talking storehouses of afterlife! What more seductive allusion, particularly when played off the flesh-and-blood thrum of modern Queens — the revitalized old hamlets and precincts booming with fresh waves of immigrant life, a multiethnic whirlpool of skin tones and tongues regenerating the city itself. "Just as much as you," Walt Whitman timelessly foresaw, "Each has his or her place in the procession."

    So why the dearth of poet applicants? The departing laureate, Hal Sirowitz, wrote that Queens is the forgotten borough, squeezed between Manhattan and Brooklyn "like the inside of a sandwich that has too much bread." But lunch meat it's not. The borough's first laureate, Stephen Stepanchev, a well-regarded poet, obviously finds Queens a powerful, if unassuming, place. In "Losses," he writes: "I draw a pail of stars/From the East River,/which turn to tears./My friends have all died or moved away./The sky is snowing ash."

    But lo! as the poets say. There is news from Queens College that a story in The Times by Robert Worth on the laureate search has bestirred all manner of wordsmiths. "A miracle — 40 applicants and more," exulted David Cohen, a legendary Queens College librarian and teacher who leads the laureate search. "I'm thriving on this," said Mr. Cohen, who at 94 has invested his life in the borough's spirit. He promises a new laureate by next week, singing to the borough's four corners.

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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    For Changing Queens, Lessons in Talk of the Streets



    Man-Li Kuo Lin leads the weekly Mandarin class, whose students include Frank Sygal, center, who is 85
    and speaks at least seven languages.



    By ELLEN BARRY
    Published: May 28, 2007

    Something extraordinary happened to Maria Farren of Flushing, Queens, on a recent trip to the grocery store. From the familiar background chatter of people speaking Chinese, a syllable leapt out from nowhere. It was not that she understood the word — she didn’t — but the sound was familiar. That was enough of a surprise that she paused in mid-aisle.

    “It’s just a din of noise,” Ms. Farren said, “and all of a sudden you recognize something.”

    So on a rainy Wednesday evening, she was back in the basement room of the Queens housing project where two dozen adults gather every week to learn Mandarin. The free classes at the James A. Bland Houses draw a motley assortment of students; the current session includes an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, a black woman who grew up in the housing project and the practical-minded daughter of Hungarian immigrants.

    They have in common these two attributes: They have lived in Flushing since before it was Asian, and they have decided that the time has come to adapt.

    “Kind of like, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,’ ” said Ms. Farren, whose Italian-American relatives cannot fathom why she hasn’t left for New Jersey.

    Pitched battles have been fought over language in Flushing, whose white ethnic population has receded as Korean and Chinese immigrants have arrived. In the late 1980s, when City Councilwoman Julia Harrison proposed a bill requiring businesses to post signs in English, a public divide seemed to open: On one side were the waves of Asian newcomers; on the other, longtime residents who felt displaced and alienated.

    But Man-Li Kuo Lin’s weekly Mandarin class — arranged by Ms. Harrison’s successor, Councilman John C. Liu — provides a different view of Flushing. Ms. Lin’s students filter in after finishing a day’s work as paramedics or elementary school teachers. They set up chairs under pipes labeled “hot kitchen/bath” and “chilled water supply,” which are periodically traversed by mice. Some eat supper discreetly out of paper bags. Then they stumble, with boisterous good humor, over the basics of Mandarin grammar.

    In the center of the front row, every Wednesday, sits an old man with a freckled scalp and a frizz of white hair. This is Frank Sygal, 85, a retired stockbroker whose enthusiasm in pursuit of Mandarin amazes and amuses his classmates.

    His first question of the night during one recent class, delivered in the accent of his native Poland, was followed rapidly by several dozen follow-ups: “Why do you say two words for ‘bladder’? I have one bladder! For one bladder it’s two words? What is word for state of Israel? What is word for ‘oral surgeon’? If I go to study medicine in China, what do they teach me?”

    “Nobody taught you in Poland to speak Chinese,” Mr. Sygal said.

    Mr. Sygal grew up outside Krakow and lost his parents on an August day in 1942 when German soldiers rounded up Jews, stripped off their jewelry and machine-gunned them. His facility with languages helped him survive: He spoke Russian with the Russian soldiers, Ukrainian with the Ukrainians and German with the Germans, reserving Hebrew for private spaces. Once he arrived in New York in 1949, there were two more languages to learn — English and Spanish.

    Now, at 85, he has embarked on his last great linguistic effort. His progress has been maddeningly slow; at one point, Mr. Sygal approached “dozens” of Chinese people, he said, in a fruitless attempt to translate the word “ka-ching,” a term he had seen in a headline in The New York Post and assumed to be Chinese. He hopes that he will be able to carry on a conversation in Mandarin by the time he is 95.

    “If I be around,” he said, “I be able to speak.”

    To his left was Cathy Stenger, driven to this class by the stubborn silence in her building’s elevator. She bought an apartment in a Flushing co-op in 1986 and has since seen 90 percent of the units go to Korean and Chinese families. She has a mute bond with a woman from the sixth floor, who embraces her every time they meet, and with an elderly man who soulfully grabs her hand.

    “The fact of the matter is, I can’t talk to them,” said Ms. Stenger, 65, whose parents immigrated from Hungary.

    Her interest is not casual. Her co-op board is threatened by a breakaway group of Asian tenants, she said, who are challenging bylaws about subletting or dividing units. A downstairs neighbor manufactures medicinal herbs, and though the woman added ventilation after Ms. Stenger complained, the scent sometimes wafts up through her radiator connections. And when gas leaked into a hallway recently, Ms. Stenger said, one of the neighbors hesitated to call 911 because she was afraid that she would be charged for the service.

    Still, none of the changes have made her consider leaving Flushing.

    “A lot of my friends it bothers,” she said. “My friends moved.”

    The Mandarin classes, now in their second 10-week session, were the brainchild of Donald Henton, 73, a retired city bus driver who has lived in Flushing since 1968.

    Mr. Henton asked Councilman Liu to sponsor the lessons last year during a community meeting at which most of the comments were made in Mandarin. He feels a responsibility for the classes’ success; on Tuesday nights, he calls 40 people just to remind them to come.

    There have been moments of disappointment for Mr. Henton, who expected the classes to be standing-room-only. He has met cold shoulders among his own neighbors in the Bland Houses, where 78 percent of the tenants are black or Hispanic. On a sunny afternoon in the housing project’s courtyard, Robert Winston, whose family moved to New York from Jamaica, responded to the idea of studying Mandarin with a long belly laugh. Anita Garcia, whose parents moved from Puerto Rico, practically spat.

    “I was born here,” said Ms. Garcia, who is 44. “Why should I learn their language?”

    For years, tenants in the Bland Houses have worried that they would be priced out of an increasingly crowded and prosperous neighborhood. From the bench where he sits with his friends, Mr. Winston said, he can see both the Asian-dominated playgrounds and the basketball court used by the Bland Houses’ old guard.

    Mr. Henton, a longtime supporter of Councilman Liu, agreed that big changes are coming. It’s time to adjust, he tells people at Bland Houses. But only one of his neighbors is attending the second session of Mandarin classes, he said, even after he slipped 400 fliers advertising the lessons under tenants’ doors.

    “You know what they say? They didn’t get it,” he said.

    Still, students return week after week. At break time, Ms. Lin leads them — a clumsy, giggling corps de ballet — in dance sequences from Chinese opera. A vivacious woman who volunteers her services, she peppers the class with small revelations: Under Chinese etiquette, when you sneeze, a person will pretend he or she did not hear you; Chinese people will not ask or answer the question “How are you” for fear of hearing or prompting a lie; the fourth of the tones used in Mandarin — known as the “high falling” sound — is so difficult that if you say it too many times, as she put it, “you will feel hungry.”

    After six lessons, the students have begun to come to class with stories of progress: words overheard on the subway, characters recognized on signs. Dolores Morris, who has lived next door to a Chinese family for a year and a half, finally approached her “lovely neighbor.”

    Affection has grown between the two families, despite the language barrier. The neighbors take out the Morrises’ garbage to save her husband, who is 75, the physical strain, and they send their daughter to the Morrises’ door with steaming plates of food. Ms. Morris, 63, decided to begin Chinese lessons as a surprise. After a few lessons, she “took a big deep breath” and went up to her neighbor in the back yard.

    Nervously, she repeated the Mandarin phrase she had learned — “I am learning to speak Chinese” — and proudly showed her textbook to her neighbor, who looked surprised and disappeared inside. Though Mandarin is the dominant dialect in Flushing, the woman’s daughter emerged from the house and explained that her mother never learned to read or speak it; a native of Fujian province, she only spoke Fuzhounese, the dialect spoken in the city of Fuzhou and its region.

    Ms. Morris laughed, telling the story. She said she has no immediate plans to begin studying Fuzhounese.

    As it stands, when the neighbors bring gifts of food, “I’ll point to my mouth and rub my stomach and smile,” she said. “We’ll probably keep doing that.”





    Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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