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The Changing Face of Queens

Demographics play an important role in our lives, determining the outcome of elections, media advertising, store locations, the type of food available in stores and restaurants, the disposition of federal, state, and local funding, private grant funding, the type of entertainment, including music, television shows and movies, literature, the composite of neighborhoods, and so much more.

On a trip to Cuba, this month, a prominent University of Havana sociology professor, Dr. Marta Nunez, had difficulty explaining the specific racial composition of the island nation originally settled by the Spanish and supplemented by West African slaves to work the sugar fields and Chinese to build its railroad network. Nunez explained that over the years, interracial marriage had resulted in a complex mixture of its people making it difficult to pinpoint people as white, mixed, or black compounded by many people of mixed heritage identifying as white. Simply put, the blurred demographic reflects a unified culture with everyone proudly identifying themselves as Cuban. While the sight of many mixed couples on the streets and in restaurants suggested a lack of prejudice, it plainly exists with the darker skinned people living in the run down areas along with few blacks attending the more prestigious universities.

Here in the U.S., census data paints a clearer picture, though here, too, people get to choose their ethnicity. A few years ago, preparing for a speech to the Queens Historical Society, I researched the available data on the changing face of Queens County, New York, where I grew up in another era. The demographic data has changed significantly with the new immigrants, as they did in the last two centuries, clustering together until their subsequent generations begin to discover and intermarry with other ethnic groups. Overall, it’s a fascinating picture of a nation poised to change dramatically, much to the chagrin and opposition of those who yearn for a day that will never return.

A Foreign Visitor’s Perspective
In my 2012 memoir, 1954 - Adventures in New York, the book’s introduction tells the story of the ethnic mix of Queens from a different perspective, that of a young girl from Vietnam I encountered one day at lunch in the United Nations (UN) cafeteria.
As the permanent representative to the UN of an organization of governments involved in agricultural production and trade I visit New York twice a year to consider issues pertaining to the arbitration of international commercial trade disputes. Whenever we adjourn for a break in our talks, I head for “Windows of the World,” the UN cafeteria that looks out onto the East River. As I explained in that memoir:

“I always take a seat next to the window so I can look out and watch the river traffic and reminisce about my first job out of high school in a red brick building on Vernon Boulevard that is visible from the cafeteria.

I was doing just that, when a young Asian woman, pointing to the vacant seat across from me, asked in broken English, ‘May I sit here?’

I smiled at her, ‘Of course you may.’

‘Hello, my name Nguyen, I am intern.’

‘Where are you from?’

‘Vietnam. Did you fight there?’

‘No. My military service was in the late 1950’s.’

‘Were you soldier?’

‘No. Sailor. I was in the Navy.’

She was charming, and all through the meal she chattered away about life in Hanoi, her studies at the University of Missouri, and her desire to be an international diplomat. Along with her quick mind came a great sense of humor. She was also perceptive. Whenever the conversation lulled she would ask me why I always looked over at Queens. When I told her that is where I was born and raised, she shook her head in disbelief – ‘Not possible, you from Queens. Everybody there Spanish, Korean, and Chinese.’ I laughed at first and then explained how at one time it was mostly Irish, German, Italian, and other European derivations. ‘Where all the people go?’ she asked. I told her that they died after their children moved on. I explained that New York continually recycled itself. That new people were always coming, and that the City, especially Queens, was always in transition.

I asked her where she lived, and she told me that she lived with a Spanish family in Flushing, noting it was one of the few remaining Spanish families in Flushing.

I pointed to the red-brick building across the river where I used to work, telling her that many years ago in 1954; I once made women’s hats. She laughed and questioned my credibility. ‘How could you work in that kind of place, and now be speaking at meetings in the Trusteeship Council Room?’

‘It’s a long story,’ I told her. ‘That was the year I began to change my life around.’

‘That’s what I like about Americans,’ she said. ‘They can forget quickly and do, what you say, the right thing?’

‘Yes, you could say I did the right thing, but it took some time.’”

Immigration Law Kept Queens Ethnic Mix Static
Few places in the world have changed as much as Queens in the last 50-years. Certainly London and Paris have changed dramatically by absorbing the citizens from their former colonies in the Indian Sub-Continent and Africa, but Queens has done it differently.

The U.S. was never a colonial empire save for the territory it acquired in the Spanish-American War namely Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and the Philippines. Except for the Philippines, which was granted its independence in 1948, the others are U.S. Territories and its inhabitants are U.S. citizens free to come and go as they please, which many from Puerto Rico did in the late 1940s and 50s. They came to New York in large numbers, mostly settling in Manhattan and the Bronx.

For the first 65 years of the 20th Century, the ethnic mix of Queens was primarily, Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Czech, and African American. I should note that the influx of the Irish, Germans, and Italians came in large waves from the mid-1850's through the years before World War I. Around that time the U.S. Congress adopted a National Origins Formula, which stemmed the massive arrival of immigrants by giving preference to Northern and Western Europeans over Southern and Eastern Europeans and by excluding Latin Americans, Asians, and Africans. As a result of this policy, the ethnic mix of Queens remained static – remained essentially whites of European origin.

Repeal of National Origins Formula Changed Face of Queens
The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 dramatically changed the Queens ethnic mix by abolishing the National Origins Formula.

During the time that immigration was limited by the National Origins Formula, the population growth from immigration was only 10 percent. By 2010, the U.S. population growth from immigration had risen to 37 percent. As a result of the change in the immigration law as well as illegal immigration, the non-Hispanic white population in the U.S. has decreased. It is now 63.4 percent and by 2050 it’s projected to be in the 45 percent range. The effect is that the majority population will become the minority population.

The recent U.S. Government data estimates there are 11.7 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. today, with 50,000 attempting to gain entry every month, some 1,667 each day. Though we are deporting 1,000 illegal immigrants per day and spending $18 billion per year to employ 21,000 Border Patrol Agents, people continue to come because of the opportunities provided here.

Rapid Change in Ethnic Mix of Queens
The U.S. statistics, even the New York City statistics on our increasing ethnic mix, do not match those of Queens. The changes here are the most significant. From 1960 through 2010, the percentage of foreign born residents of Queens rose from 18.5 percent to 50 percent. The other New York Boroughs do not even come close to that rate of immigration growth - Brooklyn is 40 percent, Manhattan and the Bronx are 30 percent, and Staten Island is 17 percent.

The Center for Urban Research’s data on the recent changes in Queens specifically details the turnabout in many of the Queens neighborhoods. In its overview it shows that from 2000 to 2010, the White population in Queens declined by over 116,000 people while the Asian population increased by an equivalent amount - 119,000. The Latino population in Queens also increased, though by a smaller amount - 57,145 people, while the Black population declined by 26,950 people.

The demographic shifts within the neighborhoods in the 2000 to 2010 period reveal significant changes in both the White and Black populations in Queens.

The Center for Urban Research’s data shows a decline in the White population and an influx of Asians in three predominantly White communities: Douglaston – Little Neck by 20 percent, Glen Oaks by 21 percent, and Bellerose by 35 percent.

Perhaps the most dramatic change has happened right here in Flushing, which is now a predominantly Asian community. The concentration of Asians in Flushing grew from 52 percent in 2000 to 69 percent in 2010.

The growth in the Asian population also increased in the three neighborhoods adjacent to Flushing. In Murray Hill the Asian population grew from 39 percent in 2000 to 52 percent. In East Flushing the Asian population increased from 41 percent in 2000 up to 59 percent; and in Queensboro Hill the Asian population grew from 48 percent in 2000 to 65 percent.

The concentration of Blacks declined in 2000 to 2010 in several areas with high Black population proportions, especially in southeastern Queens. In Baisley Park the Black population has declined from just over 88 percent to 77 percent; and in South Jamaica the Black population declined from 85 percent Black to 72 percent.
The Black population also fell substantially in East Elmhurst. The core of East Elmhurst was home to a Black population plurality in 2000. But by 2010 this area had switched to predominantly Hispanic. Overall, in East Elmhurst, the Black population fell from 48.3 percent in 2000 down to 25.4 percent.

The Spanish speaking population in East Elmhurst grew from 42 percent in 2000 to 64 percent. The Hispanic population also showed significant growth in Corona and North Corona increasing its share from 52 to 63 percent in Corona and from 78 to 85 percent in North Corona. That population also grew in Woodhaven, East Elmhurst, Glendale, and College Point and almost doubled its presence from 8 to 15 percent in South Jamaica.

The numbers are interesting. They reveal that each of you is constantly adjusting to changes in your neighborhood and adapting to them in going about your everyday life these past 50-years. And, the recent newspaper and television reports of older Korean born residents literally taking up residence at a nearby McDonald’s on Parsons Boulevard, is a vivid example of how your new neighbors have difficulty adjusting to your customs and way of life.

Employment & Infrastructure
What draws people to Queens? Aside from being close to their relatives and people from their home country, people are drawn to Queens by its affordable housing and excellent public transportation. The other attraction is jobs. Queens has a high concentration of light manufacturing and warehousing, particularly in Long Island City, along Newtown Creek into Maspeth, and out Northern Boulevard to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Most of the jobs in Queens are in the service sector, albeit most of them low paying: health care, auto sales and servicing, construction, finance, airline and ground transportation, and the countless retail establishments and restaurants that are found on almost every block.

Another factor drawing immigrants to Queens is that its original development and its efficient transportation infrastructure follows the major west to east corridors, Northern Boulevard, Roosevelt Avenue, Queens Boulevard, Jamaica Avenue, and Metropolitan Avenue facilitating people going from home to work.

Lower Incomes of Foreign Born
That said, Queens’ foreign-born residents work for comparatively lower wages than the U.S.-born residents of Queens and those in the other boroughs. As in white families, both spouses in most foreign-born families are employed with many of them holding down two jobs.

Black and White households in Queens average $53,938 and $53,392 respectively, while Asians and Hispanics households average $52,352 and $50,224 respectively.
The median individual income for Queens’ residents is $31,307, almost $1,000 less than the New York City average. Broken down by sex, males make almost $5,000 per annum less than the New York City average, while females make $1,260 more. Also, total household income is $1,100 less than the New York City average.

Queens – A Novel Setting
Though I have lived in Washington or Maryland these last 50-years, I have returned continually on business every six to eight weeks, and for the past 20-years I have stayed at my sister Carol’s house on 32nd Avenue in Woodside. It is my preferred hotel, not only because of its excellent rate, but for its location in the old neighborhood where I came of age. As a result I have come to know Dao Han Chen, her wonderful and generous Chinese-born next-door neighbor. And, last year, I transplanted beans, snow peas, and squash from his garden into my vegetable garden.

I ride the subways and walk the streets and take in the changes. I look around the subway car at the sleep-deprived faces of an ever-changing place. I see new people setting down roots and working all hours like my parents did to create a better life for their children.

Thirteen years ago, on the suggestion of a friend, I began to write. “Someone has to write about this place,” she said, referring to the Boulevard Gardens, the housing complex where I grew up.

I started that book and kept putting it aside. Since then, I have written eight works of fiction. Six of those novels are mostly or partially set in Queens, as is 1954 Adventures in New York, that memoir I kept putting aside. Recently, I completed, Moments of Truth, a book of over 100 short stories, all but one are non-fiction, and many are about Queens.

Sugar Time, my first novel, published in 2003, is the story of the unsolved Queens Plaza subway station holdup of the Jack Frost Sugar Refinery payroll messenger. Except for portions set in Cuba, the story is mostly set in Long Island City where the refinery was located on Newtown Creek, and in Astoria, Woodside, and Sunnyside. My sixth novel, The Night Clerks, a thriller, is partially set in Astoria and Woodside. Both of these stories took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, therefore, the ethnicity of the characters were essentially, Irish, Italian, Polish, and German, reflecting the ethnic composite of Queens and New York City at that time.
In my writing, I have moved from the 1960s into the current era. To do that, I had to consider how Queens had changed. I now have Hispanic, Asian, and Eastern European characters to write about.

In 2007, I wrote Kitty’s Rules, a novel that a favorable review described as a fast-paced thriller set in Queens laced with sexual high jinx, mayhem, murder, and humor wherein an attractive psychopathic sexual predator lures two NYPD detectives into her controlling web.

When I was researching the story, I spent two days in the Queens County Courthouse on Queens Boulevard in Kew Gardens. One morning, I sat fascinated during the jury selection process. Before the lawyers began their voir dire, the judge looked over at the potential jurors and informed this representative cross section of today’s Queens that the case involved a policeman; and that anyone with a relative on the police force through blood or marriage would have to disqualify themselves from serving. He also requested that should anyone of them have had a personal involvement with the police, or if a relative or close friend had such an involvement, then, they, too, should also disqualify themselves.

To my surprise, a tall Sikh man stood up and in a New York accent said that his brother was a cop, and an Asian man with a similar accent stood up and said his brother in law was a detective. I begin that story with a description of Queens noting that:

“Queens is the largest of the five boroughs or counties that make up the City of New York. Its western border begins at the East River, which also becomes its northern border until it merges into the Long Island Sound. To the south, Queens hugs Brooklyn all the way to Jamaica Bay and the Rockaways as it makes its way twenty miles east to the Nassau County line. Its spine, and its main street, is Queens Boulevard, which begins at the foot of the 59th Street or Queensboro Bridge and traverses through gritty neighborhoods rich in ethnic diversity bordered on both sides of its wide path by ill-designed and decaying apartment houses and ribbons of retail stores, bars, fast food restaurants, auto tire and repair shops, and service stations until it reaches Forest Hills and Kew Gardens, where it is bordered by upscale stores and higher priced, though architecturally underwhelming apartment complexes. Beyond Borough Hall and the Court House the Boulevard’s borders are the greenery of parks and cemeteries.

For part of its journey to its terminus in Flushing, the ‘7’ Train runs above Queens Boulevard at it roars above Long Island City and Sunnyside before shunting off to Roosevelt Avenue and then on through Woodside, Jackson Heights, Corona, and past the Arthur Ashe Tennis facility and Shea Stadium before its last stop at Flushing’s Main Street, the center of Korean life in New York, if not America.

Underneath Queens Boulevard, from Broadway in Elmhurst out towards Jamaica, the ‘E,’ ‘F,’ ‘G,’ ‘R,’ and ‘V’ trains run to and from Manhattan and Brooklyn. On its southern border with Brooklyn, the elevated lines of the ‘J’ ‘M’ and ‘Z’ trains cut into Queens in Ridgewood and Cypress Hills running into Glendale and out to Jamaica. The longest subway line in the City, the ‘A’ train, which runs from high up in Manhattan’s Inwood Section down into lower Manhattan’s financial district, then, into Brooklyn under the narrowest part of the East River, where George Washington made his daring midnight escape from Brooklyn Heights as he fled from the British, and winds its way into Queens in Ozone Park on its journey to Kennedy Airport and then on to its terminus in the Rockaways.

Visitors flying to New York flow through La Guardia Airport on Queens’ North Shore at the mouth of the Long Island Sound and Kennedy Airport on Queens’ Rockaway peninsula, which separates Jamaica Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. Queens is just a pass-thru to Manhattan for such people, their only thoughts as they whisk through it on parkways (designed by New York’s grand planner, the late Robert Moses, to accelerate traffic through what can be mean streets) towards their meeting or hotel, are the heavy traffic, the constant clicking of the taxi meter and its rapidly increasing fare – am I being ripped-off, will I be late, or will my room be ready. For millions of New Yorkers, however, Queens is where they go about surviving – where they are born, live, love, work, and then die and are laid to rest in one of its numerous cemeteries.

Queens is an ever changing place. Originally settled by the Dutch and English it was soon populated by others of European stock, Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles, Greeks, and Czechs. That was its composite well into the 20th Century when things began to change. Now it’s a polyglot of 140 ethnic groups with over 100 languages and many more dialects spoken on its streets and in its stores and restaurants.”

In my 2008 novel, Slamming the Close, I use Flushing as a refuge for the femme fatale in the story, a young Chinese woman on the run from both the law and from those she had enticed, corrupted, and defrauded. She was able to hide in plain sight because she looked the same as everyone else in the neighborhood.

The Turkish immigration into Sunnyside and Woodside is noted in my 2011 novel, Lonely No More. A Turkish Cultural Center is now located on Queens Boulevard and 45th Street. There is a mosque on 45th and Skillman Avenue along with numerous Turkish stores and restaurants on Skillman Avenue, and 25 percent of the students at the local public school, P.S. 150, are Turkish. At one time this neighborhood was 95 percent Irish.

Settlers Give Queens Its Passion
Queens in many ways is a depiction of E.B. White’s classic 1949 essay, Here is New York, where he described New York as three cities - the city of those born here, the city that some commute to, and the city of those who come from afar.

White wrote that: “Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.” He described a “settler” as a “person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last--the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York's high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.”

Today, Queens is vastly different than New York in the 1940s and 50s. The simple fact is that with 50 percent of its residents foreign born; Queens today is considerably different from the other boroughs. Its current passion derives from so many different worlds and cultures each gradually getting to know each other. That is not an easy adjustment. Come fifty years from now it will still be sorting itself out, but it will be a different place than it is today, just as my yesterday was a different place, albeit a passionate place.

Those of my generation experienced that passion on the streets of Queens
in the 1940s and 50s. It was the passion of first and second generation Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles, and Czechs.

Were he alive today, White would experience the passion of people from some 140 other countries, each with its own language, food, dress, and customs. It’s a different passion now, but albeit a genuine passion, one that keeps luring me back. The buildings are essentially the same but the people living in them are the new settlers who through their vitality and customs keep Queens an ever-changing place.

There is little doubt that where you come from makes you who you are. Novelists tell you who they are through their life-time of experiences. Their words provide a setting and a context for their stories. In It all boils down to the long reach of where we’re from. In my case, Queens is always a principal character. Queens is a place I can’t say goodbye to.

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