Queens For A Day

Online this and online that—if you want a "portal" to the rest of the world, turn the computer off and head to Queens. You don't have to stare at a screen to expand your horizons.

New York City has been losing population at a steady rate, and Nassau County is the No. 1 destination for those people fleeing the city. Meanwhile, immigration from other countries into the city is higher than it's been in nearly a century, and New York is being transformed. The wonks who specialize in such matters say that Queens is the most diverse county in the nation. About 40 percent of the 2 million people of Queens are foreign-born, and the murmur of more than 150 languages has created a modern-day babble on the island where you live.

You can look at it as confusing, or you can embrace it. The latter is much more rewarding.

Many descendants of the Italian, Irish and Jewish immigrants from previous generations have moved to Nassau and Suffolk, but there's a steady stream arriving daily at the borough's two airports (the 1999 version of Ellis Island). They're revitalizing the city—thousands of Central Americans, South Americans, Chinese, ex-Soviets, Southeast Asians, South Asians, Koreans, Haitians. Did we mention Dominicans and Puerto Ricans? Mexicans? Israelis? Yes, even a new generation of Irish immigrants.

Manhattan, of course, will always be there. But on your way to the city for another dose of anti-suburban tonic, get off the expressways, parkways, subways and trains a few stops earlier.

Take a trip down, say, Roosevelt Avenue, where you can walk from South America to South Asia in just a few minutes. Look for the international grocery stores. Check out the restaurants. Stretch your legs. Dip yourself into the melting pot.


Flushing Town Hall: America The Musical

Is nothing in Queens permanent? "In no time at all," the great saxophonist Illinois Jacquet once mused of life in the borough, "we had assembled the greatest community of black people in the country outside Harlem. We built a neighborhood to be proud of, a monument to black achievement."

Italians could say the same thing. So could the Irish, the Jews and other immigrant groups of the past. Many of them invaded the potato fields of Long Island to build new neighborhoods. And now the way station that is Queens is host to increasing numbers of Koreans, Filipinos, Salvadorans, Dominicans, Colombians, Russians—the list is long. It's been reported that 150 languages are spoken in Queens.

Including the universal one: music. Built in 1862 to house Union troops, the Flushing Town Hall has been refitted and converted into a beautiful state-of-the-art theater and café, where you can have a drink, dance, get it all done and start over. Right in the middle of the scintillating Asian downtown, there have been opera performances (a current exhibition zeroes in on Mozart and Solieri), funkmeister Stanley Turrentine raising the roof, Brazilian music and the Boys Choir of Harlem. World-class concerts every weekend in a place that somehow manages to be elegant as well as loose and low-down—probably as good a definition of American music as anything else is.

Flushing Town Hall is also the start of the Queens Jazz Trail, a day-bus tour to spots where an astonishing number of geniuses lived and played—Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, James Brown and Clark Terry. As a spectator sport, the trail is a joy, with visits to home (while neighbors give their insight and memories), barbershops, small clubs and churches. —Ambrose Clancy

Flushing Town Hall 137-35 Northern Boulevard. Take the Van Wyck to Northern Boulevard, go up four or five blocks and look to your left. If you pass the Boom-Boom Auto School, you've gone too far. 718-463-7700.


Life In the Fasting Lane

The Muslim man with the box of treats wanted to know whether I'd ever kept the fast of Ramadan, when for one lunar month each winter Islamic believers abstain from food, sex and even the smallest sip of water between the hours of dawn and sunset. Far from being looked at as a hardship, Ramadan is a time of rejoicing. "It's our holy month," the man said, smiling as he got into a car one night with his friends in Astoria. "We like it."

Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad received the Holy Quran in Ramadan, the ninth month. The annual period of fasting and prayer began this year on Dec. 9, after the sighting of the ninth new crescent moon, and will end about 28 days later, when the next crescent rises and the three-day celebration of Eid—complete with feasts and presents—begins. Travelers, the ill, pregnant women and small children may all be exempted from fasting, but the rigors of Ramadan have a festive appeal that the North African immigrants in my neighborhood embraced with vigor.

In the days before the first crescent moon rose, the markets filled with sesame sweets, golden dates and pounds of rich Halal meat. My favorite shopkeeper on Steinway Street, a handsome man with the intellectual bearing of a poet, fashioned an Arabic holiday greeting out of cotton balls arranged on the glass door. The usual calls of "Asalaam Alaikum," or "peace to you," have given way to "Ramadan Mubarak," which means something like "congratulations."

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