According to Plato, the Greek philosopher, “those who tell the stories rule society.” In contemporary terms, this means that individuals and organizations with voice have the cultural authority and power to unilaterally define “problems” and to propose “solutions” on the voiceless majorities. This approach recently hit the ground, with a loud bang, in Jackson Heights’ South Asian immigrant community. And in a city characterized by ethnic diversity and growing economic inequality, the formulation of “problems” and “solutions” that affect immigrants negatively calls for an analysis of the storyline’s framing, construction and presentation.
An aside and point of clarification. In preparing this column, I reached out to the author of the article discussed below, but my request for an interview was ignored.
In an article entitled “Jackson Heights’ Tale of Two Plazas,” penned by Mr. Len Maniace, the president of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group (JHBG), he defined Diversity Plaza – located on 37th Road, in the center of the South Asian immigrant retail district – as a “problem plaza” in need of a “solution.” While the 78th Street Plaza – located in the residential core of the rapidly gentrifying Jackson Heights Historic District – was defined as the proverbial “good plaza,”
The article’s storyline was organized around stereotypical geographical assumptions which suggest that South Asian immigrant New Yorkers lack the appropriate civic values – of public order and sanitation – that drive existing neighborhood standards. And as a geographical and ethnic counterpoint, the 78th Street Plaza – and the adjacently located Travers Park and the Greenmarket – were presented as civic examples of meaningful civic engagement and neighborhood socio-economic revitalization.
These crude stereotypical assumptions framed the generalized meaning of “good” and “problematic” places, demeaned local immigrant cultures, demonized hardworking immigrant entrepreneurs, and implied that South Asian New Yorkers were unassimilated outsiders. Such divisive distinction undermine the carefully cultivated script – so beloved by local politicians, real estate agents, and gentrifiers – that Jackson Heights is a diverse immigrant neighborhood that prizes ethnic pluralism and respects cultural differences.
Mr. Maniace’s narrative is a morality story that advocates what urban sociologists call a “civilizing mission,” in which top-down ‘solutions” are presented as simplistic recipes for remediating cultural and ethnic “backwardness.” The article’s storyline is about civic moral regeneration. It’s not a tale of what could be, but a tale of what should be. This simplistic top-down approach brings to mind the observation made by H. L. Menken: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
All morality stories include and exclude elements that validate the supposed commonsensical nature of the message. As such, for the sake of clarity, let’s unpack and discuss what was strategically excluded from Mr. Maniace’s immigrant polemic.
First, gentrification is the proverbial elephant in the room and it was excluded. To ignore the economic tsunami that is transforming northwestern Queens, is at best simplistic, if not disingenuous. The Jackson Heights Historic District is an exemplar of the gentrification that is sweeping through our neighborhoods, and brutally expelling immigrants and working-class residents.
In short, the emergence of the 78th Street Plaza and the middle-class cultural amenities associated with Travers Park and the Greenmarket ultimately support the sanitized up-scaled real estate marketing of this iconic immigration neighborhood. In this regard, Diversity Plaza’s “problems” are seen as barriers to ongoing hyper-gentrification and the growth of windfall housing values by local residents and would-be gentrifiers. In this context, Mr. Maniace’s comments on “… troubled public spaces that were revived,” is coded language for gentrification.
Secondly, local neighborhood constraints on South Asian immigrant civic engagement was excluded. Dating back to the late 1980s, the economically dynamic South Asian business node – which includes 74th Street, 73rd Street, and 37th Road – has been dismissively painted, by a subset of influential native-born activists, as a generalized problem area.
These xenophobic attitudes and practices placed South Asians in a reactive defensive position that constrained the development of informed, proactive, and politically meaningful forms of civic engagement. Therefore, to argue that recently arrived South Asian immigrant entrepreneurs – which represent the overwhelming majority of small family business in and around Diversity Plaza – are lacking in civic neighborhood values is both unfair and myopic. Unfair because it ignores the preexisting ethnic and racial barriers that frame the local context of immigrant reception. Myopic because this perspective fails, by omission or commission, to recognize that newly arrived entrepreneurs established their firms under difficult circumstances: lack of access to credit lines for business start-ups; slim and unstable profits margins; and the post-9/11 and 2008 economic crisis which undercut and diminished their market base.
These business constraints, along with unfamiliarity and fear of the “stranger” – to use President Obama’s term – limits the scope and effectiveness of immigrant entrepreneurial engagement in local civic and political landscapes. The perceived “problem” isn’t the result of an immigrant cultural deficit, it’s the result of a constrained opportunity structure that limits civic engagement.
During these times of national intolerance towards immigrants, and as residents of an ethnically diverse city, we must collectively resist the demonization of our Newest New Yorkers. We must embrace our “better angels” and jointly struggle for an economically just and socially convivial city that incorporates immigrants as informed agents and valued members of the larger community. This requires moving away from depreciating immigrants and moving towards a storyline that builds on the progressive creed of E Pluribus Unum – The one out of the many.
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is chairperson of the Newest New Yorkers Committee of Queens Community Board 3. He has taught courses on immigration, entrepreneurship, and globalization at Barnard College, The City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, Pratt Institute and at various universities in Colombia, S.A.