Ethnic Mysteries Revealed

Rajesh Kumar was managing fast food stores around Long Island in the mid-'80s when his wife, Geeta, decided she wanted a career of her own. She thought it would be nice to open a small Indian grocery on the Island, to give their community a place to shop closer to home than Jackson Heights.

The Kumars began scouting around for a good spot and wound up settling on Hicksville because it was central, not far from their East Meadow home, had low property taxes and was near a HIP office.

"There are quite a few doctors here— Indian," Rajeesh Kumar says.

Their Modern Bazaar would become the stepping stone to putting Hicksville on the map as Little India.

Thirteen years later, Modern Bazaar has expanded twice, and there are now at least 15 Indian businesses in a mile-long strip of South Broadway— restaurants, grocery stores, clothing and religious-item shops, beauty salons and travel agencies. On Marie Street, the Hicksville Theater shows Hindi-language movies.

Rajesh Kumar, who left Jammu-Kashmir in northern India to study hotel and restaurant management at Florida International University in 1976, took the store over when it began growing quickly after the first year.

"It took a while, because everybody still wanted to go to Jackson Heights," he says. "But one thing led to another."

Modern Bazaar, which soon started carrying prepared sweets made from condensed milk and graham flour and sugar syrup, also began to stock basic items like milk and Coke and orange juice after customers said they would like to make it a one-stop shop. The first expansion to the south added more room for produce like baby eggplant and okra and mangoes, dry goods like prepared chutney and bhel mix and beauty products like henna and hair oil. Then came the expansion to the east, where Rajesh now carries music cassettes and thousands of movies on video in about 15 South Asian languages.

Census data don't reflect the growing population of South Asians, whose numbers are expected to rise dramatically in the next count. The Indian population in Nassau County totaled 11,875, with about half living in the Town of Hempstead, and 5,648 in Suffolk, according to the 1990 census. While Hicksville had already begun growing as an Indian business district at the time, the official count of Indian residents was only 671, with larger numbers showing up in surrounding areas like Elmont, which had a count of 1,170.

In the Maharaja Supermarket, which stocks items like gooseberry pickle, breadfruit and mint chutney, owner Tushar Kshatriya says he opened four years ago to have "a feeling of Indian community." However, "the community didn't grow how we expected. This won't be like another Edison," he adds, referring to a Little India in north New Jersey that has become a residential as well as commercial center. The rental prices for businesses are higher here, he says, and there are too few apartments to move into.

Arun Verma, who has been chef and owner of the Rangmahal restaurant for six years, says he does see more and more Indian families buying houses in the area— something he and others credit to what they call a good school district.

Some of the other Little India business owners attempted to form an Indian business association at one point, Verma says, but it never materialized: "No one wanted to be in control."

But the links among the businesses are inescapable. Verma has the spices for his restaurant imported from India. The rest of his provisions are delivered by the same truck that makes stops all along South Broadway. —Beth Greenfield

Hempstead's Emerging Latino Nation

Softball, that most American and suburban of pastimes, served as the cradle for the community of Hispanics in the Village of Hempstead.

In the mid-1970s, Spanish-speaking players began gathering for informal games in a field alongside a Cuban-owned bodega on Main Street called Ramis. Now home to a Salvadoran grocery, Ramis served the Puerto Ricans and Cubans who began moving from the city to the Island in the 1950s.

The store filled more than plates and pantries. For recent arrivals, Ramis' informal league and weekly games offered a precious social outlet. On the diamond and in the bleachers, players forged close ties and laid the foundation of a Spanish-speaking community for the tens of thousands of Central Americans who later poured into the area.

"The game was the catalyst," says Rafael Picon, a Puerto Rican who is a leader of the Hempstead Hispanic Civic Association. "It was the thing that kept it as a community....We prepared the table for the newcomers."

Together with La Fuerza Unida and the Nassau County Hispanic Foundation, Picon's group grew out of those Sunday games. "At that time, the new people didn't know how to organize for civic work," Picon says. "Now you see the needs, and the answer to the needs."

Lured by Hempstead's Spanish-speaking businesses and churches, its factory jobs and bus lines, refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras began settling here in significant numbers in the late 1970s. They came seeking a new home, only to find themselves stuck in legal limbo, denied citizenship and the right to work or vote.

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