Jackson Heights Lecture Draws Packed House
Is Jackson Heights sustainable? was the question posed by Arturo Ignacio Sánchez Ph.D at a presentation that addressed the economic crisis, changing demographics and the quality of life in that particular Queens neighborhood. Held at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, Thursday, August 5 at 7 p.m., the event was sponsored by the North Central Queens Working Families Party and City Councilmember Daniel Dromm. Moderator Gerrard Bushell introduced Sánchez to a capacity crowd of more than 100 as “a sincere, thoughtful educator” who is active in the CUNY system, has taught at Columbia and the New School, is currently a professor at the Cornell University Department of City and Regional Planning and Latino/a Studies, and who has been a member of Community Board 3 for 13 years.
Sánchez began the PowerPoint-assisted presentation by providing a history of Jackson Heights since the 1920s. At that time, he said, Jackson Heights was making a shift from industrial to urban. It emerged as a planned community with garden apartments that appealed to the new members of the middle class. Jackson Heights, Sánchez said, was initially a restrictive community, with a very small Jewish and African American popoulation.
By the 1970s, Sánchez continued, statistically 18.2 percent of the population of Jackson Heights was foreign-born. At that time, he maintained, the area was rife with drugs, prostitution, illegal conversions and a heavy police presence. The rising immigrant population and the drop in quality of life occurred at the same time as the withdrawal of resources from the area due to New York City’s economic crisis, and in some people’s minds, were connected. Sánchez stated that by 2003, however, the immigrant population had grown to 35.5 percent and simultaneously things had improved. Now, events such as the Jackson Heights Beautification Group Halloween Parade and other cultural parades, as well as the presence of the Latino LGBT community, are important political statements, he emphasized, bringing with them needed political activism.
Sánchez quoted Marshall McLuhan: “We live in a global village,” illustrating the idea by noting that people from other countries come to New York, sell their goods on the streets of Jackson Heights, then return home and transform the political economics of their own countries. He referred to their work as “informal entrepreneurships”, and stated that they provide affordable food and products to low-wage workers in the community. Other ethnicities, who come to the U.S. with capital to spend, establish more traditional businesses such as delis and fruit and vegetable markets. This type of “informal economy”, he added, has led to Jackson Heights being an affordable place to live.
Enter what Sánchez termed the “New Gentry”–people young, white and drawn to the diversity of the area. They tend to attract the presence of large chain stores, which in turn have a negative impact on the family-owned immigrant businesses. “One thing I love about Jackson Heights–it’s a neighborhood,” Sánchez said. He agreed that small, “gentrified” businesses such as cafes and boutiques may be good for the neighborhood, but must be balanced with the long time resident butcher, shoemaker and other small businesses.
Now, Sánchez said, area businesses are closing because real estate values have risen dramatically and only the chain stores can afford the rents. “This is the transformation of Jackson Heights,” Sánchez stressed. “As it becomes more livable, with a higher quality of life, it becomes more attractive and real-estate values go up. You see a displacement of long-term residents. If you’re a senior citizen and you rent, you may lose your apartment.”
Sánchez also commented on the negative impact, in Jackson Heights and elsewhere, of apartment buildings he calls “Fill”, which are new, pricey, often poorly constructed, do not fit with the character of the neighborhood, and which drive out affordable housing. He said that this type of “corporate driven” mentality in New York City does not benefit the average person, but rather the elite, adding to the “increasing fragmentation and polarization of the city”. At the same time, however, he claimed that Jackson Heights is seeing social movements, green movements and sustainability revolving around issues of social justice, bringing positive change and an involved citizenship. And yet, he added, “If we’re going to push things like greenmarkets and the closing of streets [for pedestrian enjoyment]…these ‘best practices’ could bring about unintended consequences [such as increased gentrification]”.
“Will Jackson Heights live up to its legacy?” he queried. “Jackson Heights is the new Lower East Side. Is this, the most diverse neighborhood on the face of the earth, living up to the challenge?” He is hopeful, he said, because of people like Councilmember Dromm. Sánchez’ final question to the crowd was: “How can we do these good things and find balance?”