The New York City neighborhood that shows the challenges – and potential – for America’s urban future

82nd Street in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, NYC. Image: Marcus Woollen/Wikimedia Commons.

When you exit the elevated number 7 subway at the 74th Street station in the Jackson Heights section of New York City, a walk northward immediately puts you in a Little India. Bhangra music blares and shop windows display saris, while a halal restaurant features beef ribs, fried chicken and daal.

Head east from the same station, however, and, within a few blocks, signs of South Asia give way to Mexican taco stands, Colombian, Peruvian and Ecuadoran restaurants, and the rhythms of Latin music.

Jackson Heights, Queens is one of the most diverse places in the US. Half of the neighborhood’s residents speak Spanish. Others speak Chinese, Urdu, Hindi, Russian, Portuguese, Greek or Korean. Altogether, the neighborhood is said to be the home of 167 languages.

And it’s this medley of cultures that is the subject of Frederick Wiseman’s 190-minute documentary In Jackson Heights, which, with subtlety and humanity, explores life amid these sharp ethnic juxtapositions.

The film also tackles two big facets of urban life in America: economic change and immigration.

The 21st-century city

Americans have long held conflicted ideas about cities. Thomas Jefferson feared that city life, in contrast to that of a farmer who worked his own land, led to economic dependency that was incompatible with democratic citizenship.

Progressives in the early 20th century railed against the poverty and corruption of cities, but they also saw them as dynamic places that could, with reform, become crucibles of a vigorous democracy. African Americans who left the rural South with the hope of building better lives in northern cities discovered the limits of their country’s democratic promises.

And while Donald Trump fulminates against Mexican immigrants, he fails to acknowledge that Latino immigrants prevented New York and other cities from experiencing catastrophic population losses in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, cities and their surrounding regions are sites of great ethnic diversity, driven by immigration and deepening economic inequality.

Yet even as immigrants head for the suburbs in ever increasing numbers, it is in cities – with their dense populations and vigorous street life – where the trials of becoming an American, and the pains of globalization, are playing out in real time.

The view from the pavement

“In Jackson Heights” gets at all of these issues through its exquisite attention to the minute rhythms of life in one neighborhood.

Wiseman’s opening shot looks down on a grid of streets beneath the number 7 elevated subway train. Then he quickly descends to the street level. His film lyrically depicts multicolored shops, men praying in a mosque, a meeting of LGBT residents at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights and a gathering at the local office of Make the Road New York, an organization that fights for Latino and working-class communities.

Most of my ventures into Jackson Heights in Queens over the last 30 years have been to eat Indian food on 74th Street. Wiseman’s film, however, shifted my attention to the Latinos of Jackson Heights and their precarious economic situation, which is threatened by gentrification.

The film’s genius lies in its attention to individual speakers’ eloquent descriptions of their predicaments, translated in subtitles where necessary. In one scene, a woman recounts a harrowing border crossing. In another, a man says to other Latinos, “We give our lives and our sweat so this nation moves forward! Let’s be proud of ourselves, of our work, and of our countries.”

At one point, a small businessman explains how economic development plans for the neighborhood can backfire: they raise real estate taxes, which then lead to rent increases that drive out small businesses – the very economic engine that sustained the neighborhood in the first place.

Uniting around a cause

In heterogeneous Jackson Heights, getting city dwellers to organise around common goals is one of the great challenges of democratic politics. The past is a reminder, however, that solidarity reaps rewards.

In the early 20th century, Jewish and Italian garment workers marched together to win better working conditions. During the Great Depression and World War II, immigrants and their children in New York City – led by mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and supported by federal New Deal programs – made Gotham a more just and egalitarian city.

The urban New Deal order collapsed under its own contradictions (it didn’t serve blacks as well as it served whites). Still, as I learned while researching my book “Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City,” upper Manhattan was saved from housing decay, arson, high crime and the worst effects of poverty by the combined efforts of Dominican, Jewish, Irish and African-American activists.

As Wiseman details in his film, the accomplishments of LGBT activists in Jackson Heights have allowed the community to learn to live with differences and oppose violence.

I was dimly aware that Jackson Heights had a history of anti-gay violence. But I was shocked to see memorials to two murdered gay men – Julio Rivera, killed in 1990, and Edgar Garzon, slain in 2001 – barely four blocks from the street where I had dined for years in Indian restaurants. Those killings sparked community organising and political action that led to the election to the city council of a former public school teacher named Daniel Dromm.

In Wiseman’s film, Dromm ably reconciles the specific needs of his constituents with his generous commitment to social justice. From leading community meetings to marching in the Queens LGBT Pride Parade, Dromm’s concrete achievements and unfinished struggles suggest the capacity of ordinary New Yorkers to embrace ideals of inclusion and equality that seemed very distant only 30 years ago.

A marcher participates in the Jackson Heights gay pride parade. Image: JoeInQueens/Flickr/Creative Commons.

The looming specter of gentrification

In the shadow of gentrification, however, economic diversity – and justice – seem far less assured. The hard work of the immigrants who animate “In Jackson Heights” is not, by itself, enough to ensure their future in New York City.

The immigrant workers in Jackson Heights face not just the kind of chiseling bosses that could be found in sweatshops a century ago, but the new challenges of globalisation and gentrification. Where the LGBT movement could change the neighborhood by gaining political power and changing attitudes, it’s clear that addressing the economic inequalities that bedevil immigrants will require even more elusive structural changes on a citywide, regional, national – and even international – scale.

Of course, no single neighborhood is New York City in microcosm. A film about another part of the city – southeast Queens, for example, with its large African-American communities – might be able to say more about the racism that continues to blight African-American urban life.

Nevertheless, by looking closely at one neighborhood, Wiseman has revealed some large and important truths about the many ways in which immigration, in all its human diversity, is creating a new United States of America.

Contrary to Jefferson’s concerns, these New Yorkers have more than enough energy to support themselves without falling into dependency. In their meetings and events, they tend to the public life of a democracy with energy and care. Their labour sustains the city and the nation’s economy.

When “In Jackson Heights” closes with the elevated number 7 subway speeding toward Manhattan as fireworks burst overhead, it seems that the urban future of the American dream is in good hands – as long as the people of Jackson Heights don’t get priced out.The Conversation

Robert Snyder is associate professor of Journalism and American studies at Rutgers University Newark.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.