Going to (Jamaica) Queens: An Old Rapper Hangout Gets an Art-World Assist


The 165th Street Mall, a
pedestrian block lined with two-story storefronts smack in the middle of downtown Jamaica, Queens, has had a few heydays and some down times.
Perhaps the last glory era, culturally speaking, was in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when the area was a hub of New York’s hip-hop scene.

“This was where the rappers used to hang out,” says Saiku Branch, who grew up four blocks over. “Any day out of school, you could see Biz Markie, Run-D.M.C.,
L.L. Cool J, Salt ‘N Pepa — they’re from the neighborhood too. People came from all the boroughs to take pictures of rappers.” At the block’s north end, the Colosseum Mall, at the site of an old Macy’s, was home to the Shirt Kings, whose tees, emblazoned with graffiti-style portraits, were a Queens hallmark. Jamaica was in transition back then: The department stores were gone, and the elevated MTA train lines along Jamaica
Avenue had been torn down; CUNY’s York College campus and the Parsons/Archer underground subway terminus were still brand-new.

Today, downtown Jamaica has the
hum of a core business district that also serves as a gateway to the vast hinterland
of far Queens. Since its hip-hop heyday, though, cultural production has been more scarce, says Richard Parker, who runs a nearby tattoo studio. As a teen in the Aughts, he says, “All I knew on this block was beef patties, sneakers, clothes, and fights. Never have I walked down this block and seen anyone doing an art exhibit.”

It’s in the middle of this bustle — right on 165th Street, in the former premises of a women’s apparel store — that pedestrians will stumble across an engaging art exhibit called Jameco Exchange. It features mixed-media, installation, and performance pieces (including many new commissions) by both local talent and artists from elsewhere in New York City and beyond, all responding to Jamaica’s history and role in the city’s economy. (The show is named after an old Native American long-distance trade route that once passed through the area; “Jameco,” which eventually morphed into “Jamaica,” was the
Canarsie Indian word for beaver.)

The exhibit adeptly blurs the line
between the streetscape — with its flux of shoppers, aggressive hawkers, and people just hanging around — and the art space. In the window, a video by the artist Nicholas Fraser projects images of storefronts from across the city, with the actual pedestrian mall serving as an uncanny background. A work by Ezra Wube consists of a paired canvas and stop-motion animation depicting 165th Street, while an installation by Antonia A. Perez, a Queens-based artist, asks viewers to slow down and crochet forms using an unexpected material: strips of plastic bags from neighboring shops.

The inclusion of participatory works
is intentional. “At the beginning, it was meant to be a project about the building, the street, and how it radiates out to the borough,” says Rachel Gugelberger, the show’s curator. “As we started talking
with artists, it became about [the idea of] exchange in an explicit way — projects where people can interact with the work and really become part of the piece.”
Community members, including Parker and Branch (whose late father, Baba John Watusi Branch, founded the Afrikan
Poetry Theatre, a neighborhood arts
institution linked to the Black Arts movement), were consulted, too.

It’s no surprise, then, that Jameco — which is co-organized by No Longer Empty, a nonprofit that puts on exhibits in disused urban spaces, and the Downtown Jamaica Business Improvement District — doubles as a local history lesson. Two minimalist portraits by Rico Gatson honor the writer Amiri Baraka, who spoke at the Afrikan Poetry Theatre and was close to the elder Branch, and John Coltrane, who moved to the nearby neighborhood of St. Albans in 1959. Another piece, by Carolina Caycedo, depicts the black activist Assata Shakur, who grew up in Jamaica. Other works make more allusive connections, such as Mary Valverde’s geometric Tesseract, with its gold lines that echo the area’s pawnshops and jewelry stores.

Stepping back, the show’s full value lies in how it treats Jamaica’s families, workers, and shoppers as contributors, not
passive subjects. Like Downtown Brooklyn before it, Jamaica sits at the cusp of changes that make its future land-use and development patterns uncertain. According to Trulia, the median home sale price in the area rose 10 percent last year, and the city’s Jamaica Now plan, approved last year, is leveraging the proximity to JFK airport to usher in housing, hotels, and
retail developments. “We’re hoping we can contain it, so that what happened to Brooklyn or Harlem doesn’t happen to Jamaica, Queens,” says Branch. “[The area] has to move forward, but we want everybody communicating with each other.”

The artist Azikiwe Mohammed hopes to do just that. His project, on the show’s upper level, is presented as a thrift store carrying nostalgic objects. It’s set in an imaginary town that he conceives as a happy, healthy black community — the kind that so many families sought in moving to places like Queens. Visitors write their “memories” of this utopia on the backs of postcards; Mohammed then adds pieces to his installation that match their descriptions. Through this reverse-engineering, he says, he aims to find out what makes a place successful and stable. “This is a real, functioning community — it’s not transient,” he says. “I’m hoping I can find out some of the secret answers to what has worked here.”

Jameco Exchange

89-62B 165th Street (between Jamaica and 89th avenues), Queens

Open Thursday–Sunday, noon–6 p.m.

Through July 17