Visitors to New York City may visit Central Park or Times Square, but there is no better spot to feel the city’s DNA and comprehend how it began than Jackson Heights.
Roosevelt Avenue runs through the neighborhood’s southern boundary across Queens like a backbone. When the seven train rattles overhead, the talks don’t stop; they only get louder. Tibetan phone repair businesses with improvised shrines placed between plastic iPhone covers are next to Latin American bakeries selling pillowy almojábanas (Colombian cheese bread) and crispy empanadas. During a recent visit, a woman shouted over the clamor, selling tamales that sent pillars of steam into the frigid air. A man selling counterfeit gadgets nearby was practicing his disappearance when he saw a police officer. It’s scary at first because there are so many languages and so much for sale, but once you get into the frenzied beat of the area, it becomes addictive.
Like New York City, Roosevelt Avenue is a buzzing, dizzying vortex of cultural interchange and business. It’s messy and only sometimes lovely, but magic may be found if you know where to look. In other words, it’s the embodiment of New York City: a clamorous, capitalistic environment attracting individuals worldwide who have come to try to better their own and their children’s lives.
While visitors may be more inclined to visit the Statue of Liberty or Central Park to view the Big Apple, there is no better spot than Jackson Heights to feel the city’s DNA, comprehend how it began, and see where it may be headed.
Following the crowds east from Diversity Plaza, a pedestrian zone at the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue subway entrance, Little India (a bit of a misnomer given the equal number of Tibetans, Nepalis, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and other ethnicities who live here) transforms into Little Colombia (and Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and Uruguay). This, in turn, merges into the pulsing core of Queens’ LGBTQ community center, Friend’s Tavern, Queens’ oldest homosexual pub.
Jackson Heights becoming a place that celebrates variety is poetic justice. According to Jason Antos, executive director of the Queens Historical Society, before World War One, the area was primarily desolate marshland called Railroad Meadow, where locals would hunt foxes and geese. In 1914, Edward A MacDougall’s Queensboro Corporation purchased the site to establish a place where middle- and upper-middle-class white Americans could live in beautifully outfitted English-style courtyard apartments while being accessible to Manhattan. It was also a “restricted neighborhood,” which banned people of color, Jews, and other underprivileged groups from acquiring land.
In the latter months of WWI, the IRT subway line (now the seven train) was extended down into the heart of Jackson Heights, attracting many white residents. But, MacDougall’s vision lasted only a short time. Following years of resisting and protesting the racial segregation laws of the time, New Yorkers were finally able to desegregate the area after World War II, eventually resulting in today’s Jackson Heights.
Visitors to Jackson Heights of days prefer to come hungry, and its reputation as one of the city’s gastronomic meccas is understandable. People here rave about food carts and restaurants with a zeal you won’t find in Midtown Manhattan’s sports bars and chain restaurants. Bridget Bartolini, an oral historian and founder of the Five Boro Story Project, which strives to enhance neighborhood relationships via storytelling events, is originally from Queens but relocated to Jackson Heights in 2016.
Chef Esneider Arevalo chose Jackson Heights as the starting point for his Culinary Backstreets food-focused walking tour. He arrived from Colombia in Jackson Heights 34 years ago, where he joined his mother, the Arepa Woman, who has transformed her business from an unauthorized food stand to a growing collection of brick-and-mortar eateries.
Aside from the family company, Arevalo is especially enthused about the Pacific Coast specialties available at Mister Cangrejo.
The diversity of Jackson Heights
But, the neighborhood is more than just a microcosm of New York City due to its gastronomic and cultural diversity; it also symbolizes how New York is fast changing. Rising prices are jeopardizing New York’s essence in a city that has historically acted as a global neighborhood for individuals worldwide. The Economist Intelligence Unit named New York City the world’s most expensive city to live in for the first time in December 2022, and as rampant gentrification and shifting demographics have led some to fear it’s becoming “the world’s largest gated community,” neighborhoods like Jackson Heights that are home to recent arrivals are especially vulnerable to losing their unique character.
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MacDougall reportedly imagined an ideal town, complete with cash signs in his eyes. Instead, what has emerged is far more utopian: a living, breathing global microcosm of different pieces that have found a home along a boisterous strip of concrete, metal, and brick, a “window into what the future looks like,” as Arevalo put it.