When Fi2W heard about Streetwise New York, a new company offering tours of “immigrant New York,” our interest was immediately piqued. Could tour director Andrew Silverstein really tell us anything we didn’t already know?
I couldn’t count the times I muttered to myself, “I didn’t know that.”
It began with the dollar van. You can’t go wrong with the dollar van if you’re on the Lower East Side and need to go to Queens to satisfy an Asian buffet craving. A cab is too expensive for most and the train too stressful for some. Turns out, a dollar van from one Chinatown to the next is reasonably comfortable.
We found our van—now 2 bucks per passenger—at the corner of Elizabeth and Hester Streets in old Little Italy, where Vietnamese immigrants are slowly encroaching. (“Saigonizing,” some call it.) After a short wait time for more passengers, our tour group was on our way to New York’s largest borough.
The smiling driver regaled us with stories about where to find the best banh mi in Elmhurst, how he came to the U.S. in the 1980s after living as a refugee in the Philippines and learning English there. In that sentence, he mentioned my country of origin! This tour of Queens suddenly became more personal.
[slickr-flickr tag=”streetwiseny” id=”40459851@N00″]
Slideshow by Sarah Kate Kramer.
Queens had been my home for five years after arriving in the U.S. in late 1990s. But like many new settlers, work and other obligations prevented me from getting to know the borough intimately. Taking the train to work and back home was the routine and on weekends there was just the occasional Queens mall shopping excursion. On this five-hour Streetwise New York tour, listening to tour guide Andrew Silverstein’s fascinating factoids about my first American neighborhood, I finally began to learn and absorb Queens’ history.
Queens, after World War I, was a vast farmland with plenty of areas for potential housing. Middle-class German and Dutch families in Manhattan were drawn to the wide spaces and the borough’s looming possibilities for commerce. The 1920s and 1930s saw a building boom with rows of garden apartments rising in what we now call Jackson Heights. At the center of each housing complex were trees that gave the residences the luxurious feel of European apartments.
“Gardens were built in the middle of the apartment buildings to attract the WASPs, the Fifth Avenue crowd,” Silverstein said. To this day, leafy garden apartments hold court on 37th Avenue and 80th Street, though they don’t house the upper echelon of the city’s wealth.
The developers of this enclave were quite snobby, with some buildings posting signs like “No Jews, no blacks, no Catholics.”
“When they said ‘No Catholics,’ they were actually referring to new immigrant Catholics like the Italians and Irish,” explained Silverstein.
Listen to Andrew Silverstein tell the story of the Eagle movie theater in Jackson Heights, Queens:[audio: tour_JacksonHeights.mp3]
The 1965 family-based immigration law opened the floodgates to new immigrants, many of them working-class Hispanics and Asians finding their way from California to New York and into Queens. The population growth soon put the housing stock in Jackson Heights over capacity. Silverstein brought our tour group to Elmhurst to show how many of the borough’s newest immigrants live: in cramped, subdivided one family homes.
“You can tell from the multiple mailboxes or multiple garbage cans,” he said, pointing to a house with three satellite dishes. A single-family unit, said Silverstein, can be home to a couple of quiet, middle-age university professors, or a pack of 40 immigrants sleeping in shifts.
One would think this kind of perilous housing condition would attract regulatory attention from City Hall, but they don’t always get there in time, said Silverstein. In 2005, a fire on Denman Street in Elmhurst killed three young children and their 87-year-old grandfather. The family was one of many living in a single-family home that had become crammed full of immigrant families. When telling this story, Silverstein made a connection to the squalid tenement housing of immigrants in the early 20th century on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“Stories like this are quite common. You don’t know how many people actually live in one house,” said Silverstein. “Affordable housing is a big problem.”
The plants grown by homeowners tell another story. Asian homeowners often plant bamboo in their tiny front and backyards. Greeks grow grape vines, and Latinos cultivate vegetable plants like hot peppers and tomatoes.
“Where I used to live in Jackson Heights, there’s still the grape vines from the Greeks who moved out over 25 years before,” said Silverstein.
Listen to a snippet of the tour in Jackson Heights, in which Silverstein talks about Orlando Tobon, the real-life travel agent who was featured in the film Maria Full of Grace:[audio: tour_mariafullofgrace.mp3]
On reaching the commercial district, Silverstein pointed to storefront signs advertising phone cards, remittance services, immigration lawyers and notary services—or notarios.
The notary public, as we know it, is quite different from notarios outside the U.S. In Mexico, for example, a notary public is one of the most influential types of lawyers who is involved in important legal procedures. Not so in the U.S. where their role is generally reduced to rubber stamping official documents.
“In Mexico City in 2005, there were only 243 notarios publicos in the entire city of over 9 million people,” said Silverstein.
This is why, according to him, some Latino immigrants fall victim to fradulent ‘notarios’ who pass themselves off as immigration lawyers and collect money from vulnerable people even though they’re not licensed to practice immigration law.
Again: I didn’t know that.
We talked about how food chains from immigrant countries have found a niche in Queens’ vibrant neighborhoods. “Pollos a la Brasa Mario” from Colombia, “Pollo Gus” from Ecuador, and “Jollibee” from the Philippines are among the many imported chain restaurants specializing in fried chicken. They serve immigrant communities with food that’s familiar and eases the loneliness of New York in winter.
The abundance of ethnic street-food in Queens is well known, but this tour provided undercover information about the vendors. It’s common to hawk goods without a permit, but Silverstein told us it matters what side of Roosevelt Avenue you are on to avoid police attention. Roosevelt Ave. is the dividing line between two police precincts, one that hammers on vendors with no permits, and the other that just looks the other way. On the side where a women sell elotes (Mexican corn) and pinchos (kebabs), the authorities apparently think there have more important things to do, then to write summonses to people who sell food grilled over a heap of coals in a shopping cart.
Streetwise New York can be reached at 347-327-6063. Silverstein knows where the clean public toilets are – and they’re not all in McDonalds.