Queens may be home to diverse communities representing almost every country in the world, but if there’s thing that unites many of these immigrants it’s Roosevelt Avenue, a 5.8-mile corridor that runs east/west underneath the elevated tracks of the 7 subway line. Running through neighborhoods with some of the highest concentrations of immigrants in the borough, Roosevelt Avenue might be one of the most culturally – and culinarily – diverse commercial thoroughfares in the United States.
In 2015, Noah Allison, a PhD candidate in Urban Policy at The New School, had the brilliant idea of walking the length of Roosevelt Avenue in order to map all of its restaurants. We recently caught up with him to talk about the project and his findings.
How and why did you decide to start your project of walking along Roosevelt Avenue to document its restaurants?
This idea evolved from previous projects carried out in Los Angeles starting in 2011. After finishing school in urban planning, I decided to combine my passions of eating as an outlet to understand “others” and looking at urban conflict through the lens of neighborhood change, planning, and historic preservation, and created a website called good food preservation.
Most of the neighborhoods that I investigated were primarily home to immigrants but were communities that were quickly changing demographically and socio-economically. I learned a lot from studying these diverse communities, got to know some of the hardest working people, ate tons of delicious food and ultimately had a blast doing it.
When I started a PhD program in urban policy at The New School, I knew that I was going to focus on urban-related issues connected to food but was unsure of the exact angle. The first time I visited NYC I came with a Colombian friend, and we stayed with his family in Flushing. I remember seeing lots of Latinos on the 7 train and thinking that it wasn’t so different from LA. But as I first started exploring along Roosevelt Avenue shortly after I moved here in early 2014, I was astonished by the vast diversity of the communities that the corridor bisects. The first time I walked along Roosevelt Avenue, my anxiety grew, as I knew that in order to better understand this environment, I had to try all of its restaurants. Therefore, I quickly decided to use this avenue as the focus for my dissertation, which would undoubtedly allow for opportunities to dine at many of these eateries, but understood it as an important place to study the region given its super-diversity, especially at a time when the nation’s president is indefatigably instilling fear in “otherness.”
While I could have scraped all of the restaurant data from various sources and plugged it into Geographic Information Systems, I knew I would get to know the corridor and surrounding areas better by documenting each restaurant on foot and bike. Understanding the diversity of food options along the corridor also highlights the region’s ethnic diversity as well as the importance of utilizing cultural traditions of taste as a means to earn a living. Documenting the restaurants along Roosevelt Avenue was also a way to better understand the everyday activities that take place around this extremely heterogeneous thoroughfare.
Can you give us a sense of what were some of the more interesting observations you gathered along your walk?
In addition to the hundreds of restaurants along and near Roosevelt Avenue, you also notice dental offices, discount clothing stores, shoe shops, banks, accountants, law and doctors’ offices, bars, cell phone repair stores, dry cleaners, laundromats, tattoo parlors, hair salons, massage spas, driving schools, delis, grocery stores, pharmacies, toy shops, furniture outlets, sporting goods stores, pawn shops, cash advance spots, bakeries, cafes, botanicas, karate dojos, florists, barbershops, elementary schools, gyms, automotive speaker stores, impounded car lots, pocket parks and dozens of empty storefronts.
No matter the time of day, the sounds of cars honking and the cries of trains screeching and cracking on the elevated tracks perched above are constant. In the evening, and especially on weekends, the noise level is unsurprisingly amplified, as there is significantly more car congestion, revelers, loiterers and vendors filling the sidewalks out to the street. It is also not uncommon to hear banda or cumbia blaring from speakers near the entrance of storefronts as a tactic to lure customers in. The worn-out voices of men and women operating the shops and carts shout their best deals of the day, mostly in Spanish, but also in English. Well-groomed South Asian men will try to convince you that you are in need of a haircut. You may also be propositioned for a massage, and in the later hours of the evening, you may notice people standing on corners in revealing outfits who resemble what society categorizes as prostitutes.
When traversing these sidewalks, depending on the day, time and season, you may find yourself not moving very quickly, as they are typically congested by pedestrians of all ages. Storefront alterations and varying widths of sidewalks disrupt circulation flows and perpetuate crowding. Despite such traffic, which is amplified on the weekends, it is not uncommon for skateboarders or cyclist to use the walkways as their own paths. Bicycles and motorbikes seem to be chained to every pole and rack in sight and are noticeably more prevalent near restaurants and take-out food joints. Plastic fold-up tables set up near the curb are scattered with belts, hats, beanies, toys, CDs, sandals, shirts, jewelry and flags for sale, many of which bolster brightly colored umbrellas providing shade for the hawkers. Permanent and mobile food carts of all sizes agglomerate near subway nodes, but can also be found haphazardly dotted along the blocks steaming, frying and grilling foods common in Central and South America as well as East Asia.
The sheer variety of foods on both the street and in the restaurants aligning the corridor mixed with the unforgettable perfume of sterilized mopping solution ubiquitously used in these restaurants creates a perplexing aroma that is difficult to untangle.
Did you come across anything that surprised you?
Despite the celebrated multiculturalism in Queens, lauded by myself and many New Yorkers, it is not a utopian wonderland where people from all over the world happily intermingle, particularly in the neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona. For example, recently there have been a number of hate crimes towards immigrant transgender women in the area, which is surprising given the large number of businesses aligning that corridor that cater to the LBGTQ community. Also, while one might see people of different ethnicities lounging around Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, I have observed little intercultural exchange and mixing among the different groups who tend to congregate together and remain segregated.
Another variable that was striking when I was first traversing the corridor was the absence of black people. Also, like many city streets in large metropolises, the activities that take place during the day on Roosevelt Avenue are strikingly different than those at night, when illegal activities are common. Street food vendors are present throughout the day, inadvertently operating in two very different semi-public spaces, thus becoming permanent features along the corridor and illustrating that their livelihoods are critical components to the liveliness of the city.
How would you describe the role that the immigrant-run restaurants and food vendors along Roosevelt Avenue play in the social and economic life of the city?
This is precisely one of the questions that I seek to address in my study: How is difference negotiated through eating, working and [running a restaurant]? In other words, given the coexistence of different behaviors, customs and traditions among the diverse groups of people in the area, I would like to understand how restaurants facilitate the negotiation of different beliefs, values, customs and behaviors that members of society use to cope with their world and with one another.
Immigrants have helped revive many communities throughout the city, making New York the global city it is today.
[There’s a] secondary question that stems from this bigger one: Do everyday encounters in restaurants in super-diverse communities contribute to tolerance and mutual respect between groups, or does the fact that people from different backgrounds meet and interact in restaurants have little significance for intergroup attitudes and relations?
Lastly, it will also be important to understand the impact and influences of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) – geographical areas where local businesses oversee and fund the maintenance, improvement and promotion of a commercial district, and which have been found to drive up commercial rents – on restaurants, as there currently are two BIDs along Roosevelt.
These questions primarily address the social side to question four, which ties in with economic factors. As noted in the GAFS piece, there are approximately 24,000 restaurants in New York City which contribute billions of dollars to the city’s tax revenue every year. Given that nearly 70 percent of restaurateurs in New York City are foreign born, their presence illustrates that immigrants utilize cultural traditions of taste as a way to achieve upward mobility and to integrate into the city.
If we look at the bigger political picture in the US today, what message do the restaurants and food vendors of Roosevelt Avenue send out regarding immigration policy?
In regard to immigration policy, it is premature to accurately answer this question. Nevertheless, it is important to note that immigrants are a key component in the reversal of the declining population in New York City, which had a relatively stable population of about 8 million in the early post-WWII period. This dramatically changed in the 1970s when, during a recession, the population declined to 7 million by 1980. Interestingly, when looking at the city’s immigrant population at the same time, there is an increase from 1.4 million in 1970 to 1.6 million in 1980, a result of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which did away with immigration quotas based on national origin.
Although New York’s population has since rebounded, reaching a new peak in 2015 (more than 8.5 million residents), today 37 percent (around 3.1 million) of those are foreign born (15 percent undocumented), making it the largest immigrant population in the nation. They, along with the New Yorkers who remained in the depopulated, derelict and often crime-ridden neighborhoods, have helped revive many communities throughout the city, unquestionably impacting the economic, social and cultural institutions that have played a vital role in making New York the global city it is today. During this time, the immigrant food entrepreneur has additionally played an essential and constitutive role in urban and consumer culture, illustrating how American cities are vitally dependent on the labor and cultural traditions of the “other,” subsequently highlighting how food is essential to these concerns of people, place and politics.
Was there one food spot along Roosevelt Avenue that stayed in your mind, someplace with exceptional food that you discovered while doing your work?
I was really impressed by House of Inasal in Woodside. While pancit, lumpia and lechon baboy were familiar foods for me growing up, as my family has friends from the Philippines, it was at House of Inasal where I first had sisig na bangus, which consists of chopped milkfish amalgamated with onions and garlic and topped with Thai bird chilies. Simple ingredients, with lots of depth and a hint of heat. I have returned to House of Inasal many times for this addictive milkfish hash, as well as for the tokwat baboy (fried tofu and pork belly in soy sauce vinaigrette) and Chicken Inasal, all of which were always washed down with a Gold Eagle lager.
(Top photo: Sarah Khan. The maps originally appeared in an article in the Graduate Association of Food Studies Journal.)