I am working on a few interesting projects right now, but I wanted to get through a sort of raw profile/information dump of my first day time hike/fact finding trip for a project I’m on in Queens. We spent a few days planning out what we hoped to do here and searching for books on the history of the area. Besides food books and “Eat Your Way Through Queens: The Guidebook,” the Strand carries very little on the history of Queens. We ordered a book from their warehouse on Jackson Heights (our subject for today) and found a book capturing Queens through photographs and narratives from the 1930s. We have an interesting narrative to build from here… This first piece is my raw impression of the area we explored and what stayed with me. I want to allow you to see how this evolves over time, because its a fascinating place and project.
Now we find ourselves on set in… three, two, one:
In what looks like it will be a long term project, I spent this morning walking through Jackson Heights getting to know the area. This wasn’t my first time visiting, but it was my first time seeing it during the day. My first trip was as a member of a midnight tour group — we walked up Roosevelt avenue taking in the busy scene of the street, the 7 train roaring overhead and the community gathering and passing time together on the sidewalk.
I am writing about informal economic communities, and this was the beginning of a very interesting trip. It felt totally different — far few consumer directed informal businesses on the sidewalks and off the side streets. Instead, it was a lot of people commuting to and from work, passing through with their children or grandchildren, older people gathering for lunch and enjoying the beautiful summer weather… all of this.
Walk with me:
The layout of this particular part of the city was fun. We started on the edges of Jackson Heights, on the part of Roosevelt where there is still a strong Indian population. The area is very orderly and full of wonderful bright colors, sari stores, grocery stores with specialty spices, Ghee and Naan, costume golden jewelry and other odds and ends. Scattered between some of these stores, we saw the occasional Chinese owning, advertising legal services and medical services, among other things.
We had the repair-all tech stores, offering to “unlock” your cellphones [this is a service directed, typically, at phones that are either stolen and resold and therefore need to have the previous user’s information wiped off them or it allows you to remove the factory settings on iphones to use them in ways the initial software would not let you. It made me smile because it reminded me of some of the underground economic activities of college campuses — I definitely knew people who would “jailbreak” iphones for other students and get paid for the service. Usually it was for more of the techy crowd that wanted to write code for their phones and build apps. Some of them were the variety of hackers who enjoy breaking everything into little pieces to examine all of it while they put it back together. Sort of like design thinking… but through someone else’s preexisting model.
The series of streets after the low 80s is predominantly Colombia and Ecuadorian. Slightly further up, we found a lot of Mexicans. They helped us navigate this transition and understand where we were through the particular branding mechanisms that they offered. The stores owned by Ecuadorians had the country’s flag somewhere in the images on the front or inside of their stores. Colombian stores followed similar branding schemes — both groups sometimes included some version of word play about the products this business offered and country of origin of its owners.
Perhaps my favorite moment of “I really am in Queens and this is the coolest immigrant community in New York” happened when I was wandering around the Indian mega-grocery store (Patel Brothers) and found Northern and Southern Indians working there next to a Mexican man who was rearranging different types of amazing curry powders in 3lb bags, a Puerto Rican family was going through the MASSIVE bags of rice deciding what they wanted to purchase, and a few other Latin Americans scattered between enormous glass jars of Ghee, an aisle of Goya offerings and the frozen Indian dinners section. I found the aisle with Naan and Paratha, which, of course, smelled wonderful. And… it was quiet. There was space between aisles for me to walk comfortably without being afraid I might bump into someone coming around a corner or end up juggling and dropping things I was carrying. What a special place to find in this city!
We did spot a few cool examples of informal business.
I found a group that sells “herbal remedies” made in-house for everything ranging from immediately good luck, love potions, potions to help exercise spirits and hexes, to connect with the dead… you name it! They managed to create their own products, sell products that were clearly manufactured somewhere (aerosol cans… of love or retirement potions????) and they offered “spiritual consulting services.” We did not exactly figure out what the last one was from this particular trip.
We saw computer classes, offering basic computer skills at $2/hour. We also noted a number of other medical offerings, many of which offered services like dentistry, massages, and basic medical care within their own homes. I found a “freelance” tow truck operator who also offered general maintenance/repair services. We spotted a few “cars for sale by owner,” and independent video/production design for people who “had something to say and wanted help shaping it.”
There were also a number of people advertising with sandwich boards for recruiters. This photo is one of the offerings with full transparency in the rates they were offering to potential workers. The list includes help in kitchens, cleaners, Deli men and Pizza men. The highest paying offer was for a pizza guy at $700. They also hire for “factory” though we did not end up getting an answer on which factory/where and that position offered the lowest pay of the group of offerings. We noted one woman had at least 2 offices on Roosevelt Avenue not too far apart down the same street. I was given a card for her office by someone handing them out on the street.
The neighborhood is a different creature during this “shift.” People were working in the stores and advertising their services in the streets. There was only one particular street that was walked down where the hawkers shouted about their wares offering us passage into their stores. This seems to happen less than I would expect in Jackson Heights, given the number of businesses competing very closely together.
It feels totally different after 8pm, when many more vendors come back to the neighborhood and sell food along Roosevelt Avenue. The vendors are completely unfazed while the trains roar overhead, rattling everything nearby. The streets are full of families and workers sitting down along window ledges eating their take out. It’s beautiful and smells completely divine. But that is a story that will have to wait for another day!