On August 30, 2020, the New York Times published an article entitled “Jackson Heights, Global Town Square.” This descriptive narrative — crafted by Michael Kimmelman, the NYT architectural critic, and Seketu Mehta, a well-known NYU professor – was structure around a walking tour of immigrant Jackson Heights.
The piece, unfortunately, is seriously flawed. The narrative lacks a historical backdrop. It’s a reductive homage to an idealized pluralism that erased the neighborhoods racist encounter with non-white migration from the global south. And by overemphasizing a New York version of “American Integrative Exceptionalism” it totally ignored the Corona virus’ overwhelmingly negative impact on Jackson Heights’ immigrant landscapes.
The adage “the past is prologue” is particularly applicable when discussing Jackson Heights’ immigrant landscapes. History matters, but unfortunately, the NYT piece lacked an informed historical backdrop. Ethno-racial exclusion frames the neighborhood’s past and present. Racialist distinctions between insider and outsider are ongoing themes that morphed over time.
At its inception – in keeping with the 1920’s versions of unfettered Americanism, white-supremacist and anti-immigrant sentiments – Jackson Heights was planned as racially restricted community that excluded Jews, Blacks, and recently arrived immigrants. Nonetheless, the authors’ disingenuously claim that Jackson Heights was established “… to entice white middle-class Manhattanities seeking a suburban lifestyle.” Historically this is grossly inaccurate. The overarching aim was the establishment of a restrictive Anglo-Saxon refuge from immigrant New York.
During the 1960s, busing and the desegregation of public schools emerged as the new racial fault line. Discourse and practice shifted from an overarching nativism to explicit anti-Black exclusion. Anti-segregationist pushback triggered angry townhall meetings and the establishment of white only “educational academies.”
The segregationist mode of racial exclusion had long-lasting effects. According to the census, today only 230 people of African descent are enumerated as residents of Jackson Heights. So, when the author’s cavalierly state: “The neighborhood is an incredibly hospital place, where a person from anywhere … can gain a foothold in America” they are grossly misrepresenting Jackson Heights’ racially exclusionary dimensions.
The 1965 Immigration Act opened the door to non-white migration from the global south. Mass migration fostered a rabid ethno-racial response that stood on the shoulders of the preexisting racialist insider/outsider discourse. Immigrants were branded as violent, uncivil, and unassimilated interlopers. Local elected officials, the Community Board 3 leadership, and native-born neighborhood activists were complicit in the design of public policies, discourses, and practices that monitored, controlled, and marginalized immigrant newcomers. Along these lines, local elected officials and white stakeholders called for state-sponsored immigrant raids throughout the neighborhood. The nativist firestorm reached such a feverish pitch that at one-point – Roosevelt Avenue, a densely-packed immigrant retail corridor – was occupied and surveilled by squadrons of quasi-militarized NYC police units. These militant nativist policies and practices functioned to curtail immigrant incorporation, impede civic engagement, and truncate socio-economic development.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, gentrification emerged as the Trojan horse of immigrant exclusion. The cruder version of anti-immigrant nativism transmuted into less abrasive and the more neutral sounding “quality-of-life” concerns. Anti-immigrant concerns were repackaged as a neighborhood movement to formally designate Jackson Heights as a historic district. Elitist Eurocentric aesthetic architectural concerns were pitted against the “garish” and “out-of-context” signage that identified immigrant retail establishments. This shifted the arch from a nativist narrative to a more benign historical and cultural discourse that lauded European-inspired aesthetic embellishments in the built environment.
The historic preservationist movement was characterized by a culturalist patina. Yet it was also animated by economic concerns. Historic designation triggered a rise in real estate values, which significantly increased the cost of residing in Jackson Heights. The neighborhood’s gentrification thwarted the incursion of working-class immigrants into the neighborhood. Increasing spatial segregation functioned to drastically reduce immigrant opportunity structures and heightened the economic gap between the haves and have-nots.
To wit, the authors downplay the noxious effects of gentrification by referencing, Amanda Burden, NYC’s former planning commissioner, comment that gentrification is like cholesterol: “There’s good gentrification and bad gentrification.” This optic, naturalizes, neutralizes, and legitimizes a class-based process that adversely impacts immigrants and workers. Burden’s assertion, in effect, minimizes, mystifies, and sanitizes gentrification.
The threats of gentrification activated immigrant mobilization. First- and second- generation immigrant youths – via Queens Neighborhoods United – took a direct interventionist position on gentrification and its negative offshoots i.e., the predatory corporatization of local landscapes, the frontal attack on small-immigrant business, and the city’s harassment of immigrant street vendors. As such, when the author’s reduce urban activist movements to the “… pioneering car bans on local street” – an initiative largely supported by gentrifying condo and coop owners – they relegated the anti-gentrification youth immigrant struggle to a non-event. What does that say about the viability of the so-called pluralistic “Town Square” when immigrant political voices are scrubbed from the narrative?
The pandemic’s devastating impacts on immigrant Jackson Heights have been closely monitored and reported by QueensLatino – the local Spanish/English media platform. As such, I’ll keep the comments to a bare minimum.
Towards the end of the NYT piece, the following question was posed: “How do you think the pandemic will change things?” The reply: “It’s an open question whether gentrifiers will continue moving into the neighborhood or whether they’ll now prefer to leave the city….” This crass statement ignores the pandemic’s impact on immigrants. It says nothing while saying everything. It’s a stark assertion that clearly demonstrates the ethnocentric and class-based myopic storyline that belies the article’s representation of Jackson Heights’ contemporary immigrant reality. Enough said!
Arturo-Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is an urban planner and the former chairperson of the “Newest New Yorker Committee” of Community Board 3, Queens. He has taught at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell