LOCATION Jackson Heights
RENT $90,000 in 2004 [$518 maintenance]
SQUARE FEET 950 [one-bedroom 1952 co-op]
OCCUPANT John Choe [legislative director, office of Councilmember John Liu]
It’s pretty work-oriented in here. Even if I’m at home, I’m on the phone with reporters.
How did you come to work for Councilmember Liu? We went to SUNY Binghamton together.
On the way over—families were out, women in pink and lavender saris. The sun hit the Indian gold in all the shop windows. Then I sat outside a salon with hairspray drifting out the door on this 90-degree day and reflected on how Dunkin’ Donuts was doing the briskest business in this very ethnically diverse neighborhood. Your pink towel has Korean writing on it. Koreans, you know, when you go to events sometimes, they give away towels.
Are you in the historic district proper? As I walked here, I felt myself move into a cool, green world. It’s right near here. This was the first garden community in America.
The dreams of Englishman Ebenezer Howard . . . Sunnyside, Forest Hills. Garden cities are all Queens. That’s one of the reasons I came here. I see the buildings that I read about. Queens was like a tabula rasa for architects.
Do you think planning is a good thing? There are very mixed reports about who it benefits. In the past century, planning’s been a very elite exercise. It really benefited the privileged, kind of the WASP generation.
Here’s a book with an old photograph of the Jackson Heights Club—five white men sitting around having cocktails. Jackson Heights was very exclusive. Not only did it exclude Jews but there was no way an African American could ever live here. Capitalism has a way of . . .
But now Jackson Heights is New York City’s eighth largest immigrant community, according to the department of planning’s 2005 study. How did you get your apartment? It was sitting here awhile. The co-op board is a bit picky. My bid was not the highest bid but . . .
The co-op board adored you. I went to the interview. They didn’t ask me one question. It was the first apartment I ever bought. I didn’t know how to bid. I just picked a number. These prices seem pretty arbitrary to me.
You mentioned the cultural horror of moving from Australia to Staten Island. I was born in Seoul. My family moved to Sydney when I was about five. We’ve never really been well-off. My parents used to own a fish market on Staten Island. I’m active in the Korean community. I went to Seoul with KEEP—Korea Exposure and Education Program. The Korean community here is very conservative. In Korea, there are people in the democratic movement. They’ve been imprisoned. They know people who’ve been killed. We got to drink and sing with them.
Can planning, a certain kind of housing, free up one’s life? In a diverse community—not just racially but financially, experientially—you’re much more tolerant. If you live in an immigrant community, you have a better understanding of migration, global forces. Pataki has a crackdown to take driver’s licenses away from those who don’t have a Social Security number. It’s really affecting the community here. A lot of people don’t have documentation. Driving is very important to getting work in America.
Walking about today, I felt very shut out. Finally I understood that it’s not from being in a culturally different place. In these neighborhoods, the culture is about families. One is not part of their world. People really only care about those who will be part of their lives. I feel sometimes like that when I go to Borough Park. One reason I bought an apartment was to develop roots. Our co-op board has been trying to get more resident owners. Long-term people will care more about their apartment.
What is your cat’s name? To-No-Y, a South Pacific name. I got it from my friend. It’s named after his old roommate’s grandmother.