Close-Up on Jamaica

 Portions of this article have been updated.

Jamaica, Queens, is located at the End of Where Subways Run. Far from an urban wilderness, the neighborhood spanning the terminal F and E stops is a thriving community. One might assume, especially given the area's massive population of Afro-Caribbean immigrants, that Jamaica the town was named after Jamaica the island; historians, on the other hand, maintain that the area was named for its' native inhabitants, the Jameco or Yamecah Indians, an Algonquian tribe, and in fact the island may have been named for the town.

Contemporary Jamaica is simultaneously a transportation hub, a bustling shopping/government/business district, and a residential area. Located between LaGuardia and JFK airports, the neighborhood sprawls over southeast Queens, arguably incorporating Jamaica proper, Jamaica Hills, South Jamaica (the largest African-American neighborhood in Queens), and residential park Jamaica Estates. The sometimes bewildering geography of the area is typical of the outer boroughs, where neighborhoods, townships, and cities grew into each other before and after incorporation. In some cases the boundary between Jamaica and other localities has blurred to the point where they share zip codes (Briarwood and JFK Airport, for example). Through the '80s and on, Jamaica has attracted a large number of immigrants, about one-fifth being Guyanese but also groups from El Salvador, Colombia, Pakistan, China, India, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines. Jamaica also supports two colleges, York College (a CUNY) and St. John's University; two federal buildings; and portions of the borough government. Recent development near Jamaica Center, a huge commercial complex, has ostensibly attempted to "upscale" the area (with current trends, out-and-out gentrification may ultimately follow) though currently Jamaica leaves the impression of a livable combination of 'hood and suburb rather than a blighted town in need of revitalization.

This phone-booth poster is a site-specific installation by Olu Oguibe and part of "Jamaica Flux: Workspaces & Windows," organized by the Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning.
photo: Jennifer Snow
This phone-booth poster is a site-specific installation by Olu Oguibe and part of "Jamaica Flux: Workspaces & Windows," organized by the Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning.

Boundaries: The Greater Jamaica Development Corporation describes Jamaica as "bounded by primary arteries": Van Wyck Expressway to the west, Grand Central Parkway to the north. The neighborhood of Hollis lies to the east, Rosedale and Laurelton to the southeast, and JFK Airport to the south.

Transportation: Within the neighborhood are the final two E-J-Z subway stops as well as several stops on the F line terminating at Jamaica–179th Street. Jamaica Center's newly expanded and remodeled terminal is located at the Sutphin Boulevard–Archer Avenue stop offering an LIRR link to Long Island and Manhattan and the Port Authority's AirTrain service to JFK. As for bus service, Jamaica Center's so thick with over a dozen bus routes it requires its' own inset on a NYC transit map. Green Bus Lines' No. 40 and 6 and Jamaica Buses' No. 111, 112, and 113 lines, among others, serve the area to the south. Coming or going, aim for the 165th Street terminal at Merrick Boulevard and keep a map handy.

Main Drags: Though there are arguably other "main streets" in such a huge area, the three major east-to-west throughways near Jamaica Center are worth noting. Jamaica Avenue between (roughly) Sutphin Boulevard and 170th Street is a major shopping and cultural district. Archer Avenue along the same length runs parallel to the LIRR line and borders CUNY York's various buildings. Hillside Avenue is a more utilitarian stretch of car dealerships, 99-cent stores, corner bars and restaurants, industrial supply stores, and shady-looking realtors with residential blocks stemming off in all directions. Sutphin Boulevard runs north-south, through South Jamaica to the western end of Jamaica Center and off to points north.

Average Price to Rent: Prices are speculation considering the area covered and number of local realtors, and low-end figures may reflect less accessible properties in rougher parts of the neighborhood. Current listings show studios renting from $750 to $1,350 a month; one-bedrooms from $850 to $1,450; two-bedrooms from $1,000 to $1,500; and three-bedrooms from $1,500 to $2,200.

Average Price to Buy: One-family homes start at $269,000 to $365,000 and up; two-family homes at $425,000 to $600,000; three-family homes from $543,000 to $699,000 and up. Apartments and condos start at $89,000 and go to $145,000 and up (prices reflect a studio or one-bedroom). Townhouses in Jamaica Estates can go for $1 million. Vacant lots are also on the market at $700,000 to $860,000 and up.

Redevelopment: Jamaica real estate is currently in flux. Clyde Weekes, a 13-year veteran agent for Prudential/Appleseed Realty in the Jamaica Avenue area, cites new developments as an issue. "I remember being told two to three years ago that in the next three or four years that area, Jamaica Avenue, Archer, Sutphin, would be totally redeveloped, bringing in a lot of new business. Most of the businesses down there now are mom and pop stores. So is what they're saying by redeveloping 'If you don't have the big money you're not allowed to exist'?"

Museums and Culture: Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning (161–04 Jamaica Avenue, 718-658-7400), located in a landmark building that looks like a turn-of-the-last-century bank or townhouse, is a nonprofit arts organization that's built a major center for performing and visual arts in the community. Inside, it features workshops, dance studios, a theater, and art galleries. It's also possibly the only arts center to have L.L. Cool J on its' board of advisors. King Manor (153rd Street and Jamaica Avenue) was home to Rufus King, slavery opponent and one of five actual framers of the U.S. Constitution, and now houses a historical museum. York College (94–20 Guy R. Brewer Boulevard) contains the Black American Heritage Foundation Music History Archive, a jazz museum and music archive. The Afrikan Poetry Theatre (176–03 Jamaica Avenue) features readings, performances, and visual arts.

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