A Tree Grows in Queens

by Philip Kasinitz

FUTURE OF US ALL: RACE AND NEIGHBORHOOD POLITICS IN NEW YORK CITY • by Roger Sanjek • Cornell University Press • 465 pp • 1998

Northern Queens is a part of New York City that fashionable Manhattanites rarely visit. Too often it is thought of (if it is thought of at all) as a stretch of unremarkable houses glimpsed through a taxi window on the way to the airport. Lacking either the old-neighborhood nostalgia of parts of Brooklyn or the fearsome reputation for crime and poverty of parts of the Bronx, northern Queens conjures up vague images of lower-middle-class, thoroughly middlebrow, and generally unremarkable folk: Archie Bunker lived there, as did George Costanza's parents. So perhaps it is not surprising that when, about thirty years ago, an extraordinary drama of racial transformation began to unfold there, much of New York's elite did not notice.

Luckily, Roger Sanjek did. A Queens College anthropologist with an eye for detail, an instinct for a good story, and an apparently inexhaustible capacity for absorbing the minutiae of local politics, Sanjek has been studying the Elmhurst-Corona section of Queens since the early 1980s. In The Future of Us All he documents not only the community's remarkable racial and ethnic diversity but also how its residents have come together across racial lines to build a vibrant civic life. As immigration makes the United States a more diverse nation, it is a story from which we can all learn.

In 1960, 98 percent of Elmhurst-Corona's 88,000 residents were white. By 1990, the neighborhood's population, which had soared to 137,000, was 45 percent Latino, 26 percent Asian, 19 percent white, and 10 percent black. These categories only hint at the real level of diversity. The Latinos include South Americans, Mexicans, and Cubans, in addition to Puerto Ricans and Dominicans; the Asians are from more than a dozen different nations; the whites include recent immigrants, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, and even (a real rarity for New York) old-line Protestant Americans of English and German descent; and the blacks are about equally divided between immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa and native African Americans. Dozens of languages can now be heard on the streets and in the overcrowded schools. Churches, which often hold services in five or six languages, stand cheek by jowl with mosques and a Hindu temple. On the neighborhood's commercial strips, Indian spice stores, Korean groceries, and Cuban restaurants stand side by side with storefront garment factories, bars, brothels, and businesses wiring money orders around the world.

It is a diversity that no one planned and, truth be told, that few longtime residents actually wanted. Most Elmhurst-Corona whites never intended to live in a racially mixed community, and few were moved by a vision of multiculturalism. During the 1970s and early 1980s, whites often derided incoming blacks as welfare tenants, although most had higher incomes than the whites they replaced; they also dismissed Latinos as "illegal immigrants," although the vast majority of them were legal. In the scramble over scarce resources, racist demagogues attacked the "Kims," "Wangs," and other "green-card holders" as they sought to protect preferences for "our own people." Yet, in contrast to the familiar white-flight scenario, and despite the scare tactics of real estate speculators, many long-term white residents stayed. Over time the definition of "our own people" expanded. Coming together on PTAs and block associations, residents concerned with practical issues such as controlling drug dealing and prostitution, fighting service cuts, and putting pressure on local politicians formed working relationships across ethnic lines.

There are a number of reasons that Elmhurst-Corona avoided the devastation and disinvestment that so often accompanies racial transition. The very diversity of the newcomers prevented the emergence of hard "us versus them" dichotomies. The rate of home ownership was high, at least by New York standards, and many older residents felt strongly attached to the area. (The one important exception, the huge Lefrak City rental apartment complex, did experience classic white-flight, going from virtually all white to virtually all black in less than a decade.) Most of the newcomers were lower middle or upper working class, much like the people they replaced. Most important for Sanjek, however, were the community's surprisingly vibrant civic groups and block associations, churches and political institutions; he is particularly impressed by the local community board and school board (both established during the decentralization struggles of the late 1960s), which provided forums for people to come together. Local rituals and group celebrations, which at first glance appear balkanizing, ironically turned into occasions for inclusion, as even ethnic festivals inevitably turned out to be pan-ethnic in practice.

Over time, an interracial leadership cadre emerged. The race baiters never completely went away, but by the 1990s their voices, dominant twenty years earlier, were marginal. When potentially explosive situations occurred, such as confrontations between African American customers and the Korean owners of a small supermarket, local leaders were quickly able to diffuse them.

The Future of Us All documents this process in extraordinary detail, perhaps more detail than many readers actually need. The local activist who jokingly asked Sanjek, "Are you our Margaret Mead?" was more right than he knew. A traditional ethnog rapher without a postmodern bone in his body, Sanjek never reduces his informants to symbols or texts to be deconstructed. Instead, he does his work the old-fashioned way, watching and listening over a long period of time as conflicts unfold and group boundaries gradually shift. The image of the community that emerges is less a "gorgeous mosaic" with hard-edged tiles than a pointillist painting, with blurry edges and myriad combinations. "Like it or not," Sanjek writes, "people were caught up in countless scenes and encounters where cultures flowed into one another."

The picture is far from perfect. Even as it copes with unprecedented diversity, Elmhurst-Corona often stumbles over America's oldest and most intractable racial divide. Many whites clearly prefer immigrants, no matter how exotic, to African Americans, and many immigrants feel they have little in common with native minorities. Sanjek quotes a building owner discussing his preference in tenants: "Afghanistan is okay. Anything, but not black." Still, while racist attitudes are rarely abandoned all at once, Sanjek argues that through daily contact they are gradually eroding. It is also true that, thanks to citizenship, the age of the various populations, and some artfully drawn electoral districts, whites and (surprisingly) African Americans continue to exert influence over local politics far out of proportion to their numbers. Indeed some districts are now almost "rotten boroughs," where small numbers of older white and black citizens monopolize political participation despite being outnumbered by younger, often noncitizen immigrants. Yet this too, Sanjek argues, is changing. Many immigrants have become naturalized, while others have developed informal links to the political process.

When it comes to the bigger picture of New York politics, Sanjek's usual grasp of nuance sometimes abandons him. Drawing on Jack Newfield, Paul DuBrul, and Robert Fitch, he writes of New York's power structure as an almost conspiratorial coalition of Manhattan financial interests and outer-borough "kleptocrats." According to Fitch, New York City politicians use the government to commandeer a cut of the action "until retirement or incarceration, whichever comes first" (in fairness, that description does fit a number of Queens politicians). Following these sources, Sanjek sometimes underplays the connections between his heroic neighborhood activists and the larger political structure--a topic worthy of more exploration. It is certainly worth noting that some of Sanjek's favorite neighborhood leaders seem to have a far more charitable view of local "machine" politicians than he does. Still, it is on the streets of Queens that Sanjek's real story lies, and there he tells a complex tale with empathy, subtlety and wit.

What lessons does Northern Queens have for the rest of the nation? While Sanjek acknowledges that few communities will ever be as diverse as Elmhurst-Corona, he argues that, as immigration makes the United States a "majority-minority" nation, the neighborhood offers a glimpse of things to come. Sadly, I am not convinced. I wish that Elmhurst-Corona did represent the "future of us all." Yet the civic forums and public spaces that were central in bringing people together there are increasingly rare in most of the country. I fear that suburban Southern California, which has responded to an equally impressive diversity with gated communities and Proposition 187, may be more typical of America's future. Yet this hardly detracts from Sanjek's achievement. In Elmhurst-Corona he has found a rough-and-tumble model of diversity that puts the torturously self-conscious multiculturalism of elite college campuses to shame. It is a story that more Americans should know and one that should give New Yorkers a lot more to think about on their next ride to the airport. •

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