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Feature Stories July 16, 2009  RSS feed

Culture Tour Through Roosevelt Ave.

Trip Along Major Roadway Adds Insight On Ethnicities
by Ralph Mancini

There's more than meets the eye as cultures collide along the Roosevelt Avenue strip.

Tour guide Dr. Jack Eichenbaum (pictured at center in shorts) delves into the history of Jackson Heights' garden-style residences. Tour guide Dr. Jack Eichenbaum (pictured at center in shorts) delves into the history of Jackson Heights' garden-style residences. Queens historian Jack Eichenbaum recently guided a two-mile tour of the area from Jackson Heights to Sunnyside, beginning at the Manuel de Dios Unanue triangle at 84th Street and Roosevelt Avenue.

He provided the history behind the triangle's name, detailing how the Cuban-born de Dios helped uncover local Columbian drug activity in the 1970s and '80s.

The crusading journalist was ultimately gunned down and killed in 1992.

Eichenbaum described how a change to national immigration laws in 1965 served as the catalyst that sparked a mass infusion of new immigrants to inhabit Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Woodside and Sunnyside.

The Cubans were the first Latin American group to move in after World War II, followed by Hungarians, Poles and Jewish immigrants in the 1950s.

The late 60s, however, saw large numbers of Columbians moving in, particularly in the areas extending from the 70s into 83rd Street on both the Elmhurst side of the boulevard to the south and the Jackson Heights portion to the north.

The sections occupied by Columbians, he said, are now highrent districts.

"Once you get to 90th Street, then you get the poor Latinos of Corona, including the Ecuadorians, the Mexicans and the Dominicans," explained Eichenbaum.

Areas of Jackson Heights in the low 80s, on the other hand, were originally built for the upper middle class.

Back in 1916, according to Eichenbaum, Edward A. Mac- Dougall's Queens Corporation followed the arrival of the No. 7 elevated subway line between Manhattan and Flushing.

MacDougall went on to develop garden-style apartments for Manhattan residents, who wished to be surrounded by larger expanses of land than they were used to in Gotham.

Rules dictated that only 70 percent of land could be built on, which explains the reason behind several narrow structures.

Top-dollar towers and chateaus can be seen walking down 81st Street from 34th to 37th avenues.

"In the eighties you'll see nicer buildings, but there were restrictions, banning blacks, Jews and sometimes Catholics from the neighborhood," added the tour leader, who holds a Ph.D in urban geography and teaches on a part-time basis at Hunter College.

The gathering of listeners learned that a variety of private schools and country clubs sprouted throughout the exclusive area, along with golf courses in the 1920s.

European cities at the time, such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, also had similarly built garden complexes.

"One of the ways to develop the outer boroughs was by building rapid transit, bridges and tunnels. It's much easier with one central planning office and one government entity to prepare the bonds ... rather than dealing with separate little towns or counties," he explained as New York City slowly absorbed separate townships in Brooklyn and Queens.

The restrictive covenants barring people of certain race, ethnicities and religious groups from moving in were eventually dropped after 1965, but Jackson Heights faced a new set of problems, including illegal drug activity and economic hardship.

Eichenbaum noted how rental fees increase the closer a location is to the subway.

From the 82nd Street subway station into the 70s, the Flushing native highlighted the various Peruvian shops offering shipping services, numerous Mexican restaurants which are found throughout most of the thoroughfare, bars, and legal offices specializing in helping illegal aliens obtain documentation.

"Twenty years ago, the first Mexicans arrived. At first, we didn't have any good Mexican restaurants in this area, but that's no longer true," commented the 67-year-old scholar, who listed the Mexican population as the third largest ethnic group in the borough after the Dominicans and the Chinese.

While 82nd Street was originally intended to be the entrance to the Roosevelt Avenue shopping district, the areas below it aren't quite as densely populated with retail centers.

Although the three-mile stetch from 111th to 52nd streets was described as the largest Latino shopping stretch in the city, a variety of Tibetan restaurants, Korean businesses and Indian sweet shops can be found from 82nd Street to the 74th Street train stop and a block or two further down.

The larger parcels of land available along the 10-block extension reportedly brought in large garages, furniture stores and businesses that needed a lot of space.

Many of the residences consisted of single-family homes, which are now one and two-story mixed-use edifices.

Those on the tour discovered that the convergence of the E, F, G, R and V subway lines allow one million people to be only 20 minutes or less away from the 75th Street stop and other stations on Roosevelt Avenue.

The Asians and South Asians, in particular, took advantage, of the convenience of Roosevelt Avenue's central location, and opened ethnic clothing stores, music shops and restaurants.

Although the businesses in the area indicate a very heavy South Asian influence, most Indians and Pakistani business owners and customers don't live in Jackson Heights.

The boulevard assumes a Phillipino flavor at the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway crossing at 69th Street where Jackson Heights becomes Woodside.

A myriad of Phillipino food markets and banks can be seen for the next two blocks.

Eichenbaum distinguished this ethnic group as the "perfect" population for the community due to the fact that Phillipinos consist of Asian people who speak Spanish.

Most Asians, he continued, use banks for their monetary transactions rather than transfer stations or checkcashing locations, which are popular among Latinos.

The tour went through 64th Street and 39th Avenue where the Latinos begin resurfacing around Thai restaurants and temples.

The Sri Pra Phai restaurant is known as one of the better Thai eateries in the city, and is frequented by a number of Manhattanites.

Remnants of old Ireland can be spotted from 61st Street down into the fifties.

Eichenbaum compared the touch of Irish history in this portion of the strip, seen through the bakeries, pubs and restaurants in the area, to Little Italy in that neither the Italians nor Irish live in their respective cultural enclaves any longer.

The professor pointed out the Wagner and Kelly real estate firm, Shelly's Restaurant on Woodside Avenue and Roosevelt, along with St. Sebastian's Roman Catholic Church, which replaced the Loews Theater many years ago.

Moving further down the tour group encountered a low-rent Latino district at 54th Street mixed in with a smattering of Korean stores and warehouses, along with Korean restaurants, bakeries and a billiard hall.

Eichenbaum mentioned that only Flushing houses more Koreans than this stretch of Roosevelt Avenue along the Sunnyside/Woodside border.

At about 48th Street, Roosevelt Avenue comes to an end and connects with Sunnyside's retail district.

The cement arches supporting the elevated 7-line on Queens Boulevard block out the train noise, which permeates most of Roosevelt Avenue.

The Romanian and Turkish restaurants of the area make Sunnyside an appealing gathering point for city residents, who also patronize the multitude of coffee shops and bars in the neighborhood.