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.

Landmarks: Other features of the area include the Victorian edifice of Grace Church (Jamaica Avenue between 153rd Street and Parsons Boulevard), built in 1862, and historic, decaying, solemnly creepy Prospect Cemetery (159th Street and Beaver Road). Near Jamaica Center are the Queens Borough Central Library (89–11 Merrick Boulevard), the Joseph P. Addabbo Federal Office Building, and numerous Queens county courts, such as the Queens Supreme Court (88–11 Sutphin Boulevard), Queens County Civil Court, Queens Family Court, and others.

Green Spaces: Not so surprisingly located on the site of the King Manor Museum, King Park and playground is an 11-acre historic park providing a welcome break from the continuous streets, lots, and buildings. Tangentially related to the neighborhood is the relatively easy accessibility of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Preserve (it's in the bay on the other side of JFK). The mother of all green spaces in the New York metro area, Jamaica Bay contains one of the largest wetland areas in the Northeast and can provide both an escape from the urban environment and a reminder that even as New Yorkers we're still connected to nature.

Shopping: Jamaica Avenue for about twenty blocks east of Sutphin Boulevard is a major bargain district for a huge variety of consumer goods from brand name to secondhand. Urban fashion, shoes, CDs, video games, electronics, fabrics, furniture, luggage, toys, mattresses, books; you name it. Claimed by some as the birthplace of hip-hop (though the many seminal Queens artists were largely native to nearby Hollis) and others as the birthplace of hip-hop fashion, Jamaica offers loads of both. Near the Sutphin-Archer stop are several discount stores along Archer Avenue including a large Salvation Army thrift shop. North along Sutphin are a string of pawn shops (remember pawn shops, New York?), such as US Pawnbrokers, Inc. (9033 A Sutphin Boulevard) and Gem Pawnbrokers Corp. (9026 Sutphin Boulevard). Asian fish markets run along Sutphin near the train station, such as the tersely named Corner Fish Market (Sutphin and 91st). Queens eco-artist Brandon Ballengée (a recent exhibitor at JCAL) jokingly said, "Practically every type of sea creature can be purchased and consumed at those markets." Ballengée himself frequents the markets, not necessarily for dinner; sometimes he finds viable samples for his bioscience influenced work. Further down an Old Navy and a multiplex cinema have been built into Jamaica Center. Local businesses crowd into the Gertz Plaza Mall and Jamaica Coliseum, giant indoor markets of retail, discount, and custom goods. The 165th Street Mall is an outdoor pedestrian plaza comprising a block between Jamaica Avenue and 89th Street, lined with shops and Caribbean takeout. Along Jamaica Avenue are also the likes of Nubian Heritage bookstore (168-14 Jamaica Avenue), it's door sign urges patrons to "Buy Black"; and reggae emporium V.P. Records (170-21 Jamaica Avenue); along with countless other shops.

Restaurants and Bars: Although the area seems more geared towards working-class functionality than fine dining and swank nightlife, in such an ethnic melting pot, there are a wide variety of options from fast-food to regional cuisine; restaurants are on nearly every block. Though demographically Guyanese and West Indians dominate, there's Spanish-Latin, Italian, Pakistani, Indian, American diner food, bagels, soul food, seafood, about 10 million Chinese places, and more to be had (much of it easier to reach if you're driving). The Palm Court of Guyana (117-16 Hillside Avenue) is a good example of a local-oriented restaurant and lounge, summing up the disparate influences of Jamaica dining as it's located across the street from middle-American franchise fixture (and NYC rarity) IHOP. Through Jamaica Avenue's shopping district, there's a virtually infinite number of Guyanese, Jamaican, and West Indian bakeries and takeout such as Kassim's Bakery and Restaurant (169-28 Jamaica Avenue) or Jamaica Way (92-12 Merrick Boulevard). Calypso City (121–08 Jamaica Avenue) is a local venue known for dancehall parties that rage until late night. At the Blarney Bar (146-09 Jamaica Avenue), the predominantly African-American staff and clientele puts the "black" back in Black Irish, though everyone's welcome. "We're a multi-ethnic establishment," the bartender chuckled to me during a recent visit, "so tell everyone you came to Blarney's and had a good time."

Happenings: Jamaica Avenue hosts the Jamaica Arts & Music Summer Festival (JAMS), sponsored by arts organization Cultural Collaborative Jamaica (goccj.net), featuring concerts and "arts in the parks" events. In December, there's Holidays on the Avenue. Outdoor fruit and flower markets can be found bi-weekly near Jamaica Center.

Politicians: City councilmen James F. Gennaro for the 24th District, Leroy G. Comrie Jr. for the 28th District, and Allan W. Jennings for the 28th District; Queens Borough President Helen Marshall; state assembly members William Scarborough for the 29th District, Michele R. Titus for the 31st District, Vivian E. Cook for the 32nd District, and Barbara M. Clark for the 33rd District; state senators Malcolm A. Smith for the 14th District and Ada L. Smith for the 10th District; congressmen Gregory W. Meeks for the 6th District and Anthony D. Weiner for the 9th District—all Democrats.

Crime Stats: The 103rd and 113th precincts serve the greater Jamaica area. As of November 22, 2005, the 103rd Precinct (the business district and central Jamaica ) reported 8 murders, 33 rapes, 273 robberies, 316 felony assaults, and 420 burglaries. As of November 22,2005, the 113th Precinct (southeastern Jamaica) reported 13 murders, 39 rapes, 265 robberies, 301 felony assaults, and 664 burglaries. (The 103rd (the business district and central Jamaica) reports to date 10 murders in 2004, down from 17 in 2003; 35 rapes, up 59 percent; 248 robberies, down 14.1 percent; 232 burglaries, up 28.1 percent; 286 grand larcenies, up 10.4 percent; 225 grand larceny auto, down 21.6 percent; and an overall drop in crime of 3.01 percent from 2003. The 113th (southeastern Jamaica) reports 7 murders, 38 rapes, 203 robberies, 208 felonious assaults, 222 burglaries, 438 grand larcenies, and 282 auto thefts to date with an overall reduction in crime of 8.27 percent from 2003.)

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