Photo by Doug Turetsky
A group of Asian teenage boys with shaved heads slows down in front of me. It is around 7 pm, not yet dusk, not really day, and we’re passing by a series of low brick row houses with bar-covered windows on 73rd Street in Jackson Heights. The boys look kind of tough, but they are polite as they let me pass by; one of them looks me in the eye, smoking a cigarette and nodding. I appreciate the gesture, since I get anxious behind slow walkers, and I nod back.
Then I notice it above an apartment building’s entrance: a ceramic evil eye, almond-shaped and swirling, warding away harmful spirits. This sight calms me, knowing that someone creative decided to add a little flourish to the blocky brick non-descript building. In a way, the evil eye is its own kind of eye contact.
A crestfallen creative person, I am on my way to find my favorite block after a long day of teaching, exhausted from seven summers of instructing ESOL college students how to pass a formulaic essay exam. Needing to get some fresh air and exercise, I rouse myself from my apartment with the image of bark falling from trees in long sheets, revealing a velvety blond-chartreuse wood beneath. Those trees line a block of linked houses with shared terraces, a pseudo-Tudor fairyland with wind chimes clinking in the blowing leaves. I know it’s a stone’s throw from the arid vacuum of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway off-ramp, but I can’t remember exactly where it is on the grid. As I wander about in a drowsy daze trying to find it, I take in some interesting sights that get me thinking about the meaning of “diversity” – that superficial buzzword often associated with this neighborhood.
Though visitors and residents alike tend to mentally trisect Jackson Heights into South Asian, Latin American, and White areas, it’s also true that on any given block a jumble of people live together. A few blocks from the evil eye, I peer into windows, spotting what appears to be a red and gold Confucian shrine in one living room; a few doors down, photos of an Indian guru grace the wall and chanting emanates into the street. Meanwhile, some vato is fixing his car and Reggaeton is blaring from his speakers, vibrating the trees from their roots: another religious experience.
This is a block of attached, three-story homes, tall and narrow. Next to an ugly house with sparse vegetation and faded magazines pasted into the windows, there is a beautiful house with a huge tree, lovingly tended garden and ivy growing up the brick. Care besides neglect seems to be its own kind of beauty in contrasts. As I walk this block and beyond, I wonder who fixed up their place, who let it slide, who left it in a state of transition and why?
The weekend before, I went to a lecture presented by the local Beautification Group, and a historian told the story of the Queensborough Corporation that built most of Jackson Heights through the teens and twenties of the last century; co-ops on corn fields, advertised as garden apartments, sold exclusively to wealthy white people. They lived and died and the people of color moved in. He claimed that it’s been hard for Jackson Heights to get Landmark status to protect the history of these buildings because it has long been a working immigrant community ignored by the Landmark Board, compared to Park Slope, in Brooklyn, where wealthy white residents have been vocal in getting historical designations. But Park Slope used to be a largely immigrant community, too, and I can’t help but think of the prices he cited for homes on blocks nearby me: close to a million dollars. I keep looking at the people on the streets where I am walking, wondering if they are millionaires. A South Asian mom, her two kids, and their auntie are taking care of the grape vines, suspending them with an elaborate web of strings and sticks in their tiny front yard; next to them an elderly Latino lady with a hoe is digging at the corner of her lawn. Landmark status or not, when I take this walk a year, two years, three years from now, will wealthy white people be buying up all the homes of the people of color, who can no longer afford to live or buy here once a generation passes on? Will it be like Park Slope?
I am also thinking of my students. They come from all over the world, from Algeria to Myanmar, but we don’t get to talk about that. Instead, we read newspaper articles, and they struggle to write about them. I’m tired of doing this. I’m tired of not teaching them from their subjective reality: where they come from, why they came here, what religions that they left behind or still practice in rooms like the ones I am now spying upon.
There is something beautiful about creating an altar: it’s like art. I’ve never been religious, but it is uplifting to see the living room shrines, like viewing the gardens, like witnessing the patchwork of humanity from housing lot to garden plot.
I remember the man who gave the lecture on Jackson Heights said that it was beautiful because of the uniformity. Many of the garden co-op buildings match each other harmoniously, which is exactly what I can’t stand about it. With all these six-story brick buildings taking up entire blocks, I can never figure out where I am in the maze. There is hardly any visual stimulation on 35th Avenue, mostly because such large buildings lack stoops and front yards and people hanging out; instead they are designed around private courtyard gardens where I imagine the elite exclusively lounge about, deep within their monoliths of stately elegance.
The commercial strips are another matter. On 37th Ave, Roosevelt, even Northern, there is so much to look at, take in, and ponder about: little children, parents, old people, single people in all configurations from East to West, North and South, buying and selling, going out and going home, buying fruits, vegetables and greens from the tropics. Languages flit into the air, solicitors call out in English with sing-song combinations to buy gold, sell a sari, or see a psychic. Nothing is predictable here and it moves in bright, multicolored flashes. Although there is visual stimulation galore, it’s no place to take a walk: too much gets in the way.
So I’ve stuck to strolling along the residential streets where I’ve come to find visual diversity among the single family homes fronted by little gardens. Here’s where I can feel human beings and see individuality, like on my favorite block: it turns out to be on 70th Street between Northern and 34th. As I listen to the windchimes, I realize that it’s always been my dream to spend time in gardens and other people’s houses. I don’t know if I like looking at them so much because it’s similar to the experience of taking in works of art, which I don’t always have the time or money to see in this city. Or is it because I feel envious of the greener grass, wanting one perfect place for my self to stay inside, read, look out the window and wander into the garden.
As I make my return home down 35th Ave through the low 70s, I peer inside the doors of South Asian shops. A woman is grooming a little dog, and they both stare up at me with the same curious expression. At a tiny vitamin shop, a large man in a suit is laughing with a couple, another man in a suit and a woman in a sari. I wonder what it would be like to sit with them and chat. Perhaps my curiosity to look is really just the desire to connect: to get inside of someone else’s life to hear their stories.
Artists are attracted to diversity, as a general concept, because it’s stimulating. In contrast there is surprise and multiple perspectives colliding into complexity, causing inspiration. But artists are also outliers, trafficking in loneliness, solitude and wonder, positioning themselves as critics and questioners.
I’ve often felt that the elements of my identity contribute to my outsider status: as artist, Armenian, bisexual, and introverted. But I’m sure there are many people in this neighborhood who also feel they don’t fit in. According to the last census, 83% of the neighborhood speaks a language other than English at home, and about 60% was born someplace other than the U.S. I know from the stories of my grandparents and my students that those who come here from another culture often feel different once they arrive, and as they stay and adapt, they grow apart from where they came from, separated from their origins, their family, and their past.
Come to think of it, artists have a lot in common with immigrants since both take leaps to unknown places. I once read an article about how the Neanderthals died out because of Homo Sapiens, who interbred with them, then took over the world. According to evolutionary anthropologists, what distinguished us from them is that we went across open water. Neanderthals were like, Um, it’s kind of crazy to try to go across that huge mass of wet blue god-like stuff; who knows what’s on the other side?– if there even is another side. But humans had something Neanderthals didn’t: restlessness, collective problem-solving, and a desire to dominate. Mostly it was some kind of madness (which some might call faith) that compelled us to confront the unknown. Taking risks, a given of good art, is actually asignifying trait that defines us as human.
It used to be that artists were the ones to ignite a process of change in a neighborhood. They moved into low-rent areas that were deemed undesirable by mainstream society – industrial buildings or the ghetto. They saw the value in these places, enhanced their beauty, fixed up houses and planted gardens, and then the business people would gradually come in to make money. Now, real estate developers make the leap before artists even get to work. I can tell you from my experience as a teacher, paid a low wage by the city university of new york, that I’ve had to follow the low rent from neighborhood to neighborhood, and I feel like I’m always on the crest of the wave, just as gentrification is about to crash into the shore.
The last time I moved, I wasn’t even contemplating Jackson Heights. It just made the most sense after I looked at smaller more expensive apartments in nearby Astoria and Sunnyside. I also realized that the only way to live in New York on a limited income was to find a cheap, rent-stabilized apartment and stay put. So when my roommate moved out after a year, and I couldn’t afford the rent on my own, I decided to make good use of the space by teaching writing from my home, where the people in the neighborhood could write their own stories. Two years later, many important tales that have been told and connections among people of various backgrounds have been made, but there have also been contrasts that have verged into tense conflicts. I hope this hasn’t caused more erosion.
A new breed of artist has developed now since our systems have been degrading; the social practice artist moves away from the outskirts of society into the center to talk to people, to understand history, to maintain and restore what has been working. Such community engagement can improve neighborhoods, but this may backfire as certain powers take advantage of it, stunting social progress.
Over on 82nd Street, a Business Improvement District of property and business owners have used their membership fees to sponsor better signage, street cleaners, trash receptacles, improved lighting and cultural festivals; they have also recently welcomed a Children’s Place and a Gap outlet whose presence threatens to jack up the rents and push out the non-chain businesses on the block: a sort of retail ethnic cleansing or corporate colonization. The proposed expansion of this BID for thirty-two blocks – which would be the longest BID in the city – has understandably been met with opposition from mostly Latino-owned small businesses, fearing their interests won’t be protected as the democratic process shifts from local government to profit-motivated property owners, developers and investors. There is an actual battle underway to protect the diversity of the neighborhood as I wander around my block becoming inspired by its diversity.
I am not sure whether I am a small business owner, an outlier-observer, or a social practice artist, but today, as an overworked adjunct, I feel like a worker. Caught in the system, I want to shift gears, slip out of the grind, and put more time into teaching in community. But in order to respect the cultures of the neighborhood and stem the tide of gentrification, I will need to cross chasms to make deeper connections with people.
I realize this more fully as I complete my walk. The streets are now cloaked in the deep blue color of dusk and I still feel tired but much more connected to my neighborhood. Something about the exhaustion has made me look more closely than I ever have before. As I near my block, an Asian delivery guy on a moped, wearing a round, shiny silver helmet, a cigarette dangling from the stickiness of his lip, makes a U-turn, almost running into me. We make eye contact, and he says, “Sorry.” He reminds me a bit of the boys I saw at the beginning of my walk, but his eyes are very tired, I imagine like mine. If this were another day of being so busily entrenched in my own life, I might have cursed under my breath at the obstacle in my way. But now I say, “It’s okay,” as I turn around to watch him drive down our street, the deliveries hanging precariously from his handlebars, white plastic bags stretching slightly and swinging gracefully with weight.
Nancy Agabian is the author of the poetry and performance collection Princess Freak (Beyond Baroque Books, 2000) and the memoir Me as her again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter (Aunt Lute Books, 2008). As the founder of Heightening Stories, she runs creative writing workshops online and from her living room in Jackson Heights, Queens. For more info, visit nancyagabian.com.