As the calendar year turns over, we’ve grown accustomed to the barrage of lists telling us where to travel during the next 12 months. Oftentimes these places are a country or even a whole region – you could spend an entire year exploring just one of the locations listed and still barely make a dent.
We like to travel on a smaller scale. Forget countries and cities, for us the neighborhood is the ideal unit of exploration. Celebrating neighborhood life and businesses is, of course, essential to what we do as Culinary Backstreets. Since our founding in 2012, we’ve been dedicated to publishing the stories of unsung local culinary heroes and visiting them on our food walks, particularly in neighborhoods that are off the beaten path.
But this year we are planning to dive even deeper into the cities we work in. Getting off the beaten path leads to fresh experiences, but more importantly, it’s a way for us to contribute to the economies of neighborhoods otherwise neglected by the tourism industry. Tourism is an important economic force in many cities, as it should be, but if it is not dispersed responsibly, it can devastate the urban ecosystem, one that’s based on the sound health of all of a city’s neighborhoods.
With that in mind, we are happy to declare 2018 as “The Year of the Neighborhood,” one in which our focus will be on lesser-visited neighborhoods and the people and places that keep them going. To get things started, below is a compilation of the less-visited areas that our correspondents are planning to explore this year:
Less than a half-hour by rail from midtown Manhattan, the working-class neighborhood of Elmhurst, Queens, seems like another world. After leaving the shadows of the elevated 7 train, we find that the rooftops are lower, the sunlight brighter, the breezes fresher. Long ago this was a Native American hunting and fishing ground, settled in turn by the Dutch and the English; the paths of wide colonial roadways are traced today by bustling Grand Ave., Broadway and Queens Blvd. Yet much of Elmhurst has a small-town feel, thanks to a grid of quiet side streets. In the years before World War II, these streets were populated with modest housing for a largely Jewish and Italian population.
Many of those residents, newly affluent in the 1950s and ‘60s, moved to the New York suburbs. Their departure made room for new “settlers,” of modest means, from around the world, speaking an untold number of mother tongues and following nearly as many culinary traditions. Today, Elmhurst – and the streets immediately surrounding it, in Corona, Jackson Heights and Woodside – is rich with restaurants, cafés, bakeries and markets featuring cuisines from all across Latin America as well as South, East and Southeast Asia, with a variety of European and American establishments for good measure. Moreover, the neighborhood’s Chinatown is blossoming: A massive indoor food court with nearly three dozen vendor stalls and hundreds of seats is expected to open in 2018. (To be sure, a recruitment poster solicits potential vendors in English, Chinese, Spanish, Hindi and Vietnamese – all in a day’s eating for Elmhurst.)
For the culinary explorer, edible rewards abound. Pay a call, if your timing is good, on the neighborhood’s monthly Indonesian bazaar, where a vast archipelago of diverse gastronomic traditions are on display in a single parish hall. On Fridays and Saturdays, pull up a stool outside the Iglesia La Luz del Mundo to savor hot, griddled-to-order pupusas stuffed with fresh herbs hand-carried from El Salvador. Indeed, every day you can walk the streets and witness countless stories of immigrants who sell food from “back home” as a first step toward success in their new home. Small businesses like these, whether conducted from a storefront or from a pushcart, are quickly vanishing from much of New York, but they’re as lively as ever in Elmhurst. – Dave Cook
Click here to read the full neighborhood guide.