Neighborhoods

Searching for ‘Peak Queens’ on Two Sides of Hillside Avenue

by

It’s a tale of two cities you’ve doubtless heard before. Jamaica Estates, the Queens enclave that houses the first home of the 45th president of the United States: one of the wealthiest and whitest of the city’s outer-borough neighborhoods, “cloistered” and “gated.” Across the thoroughfare of Hillside Avenue: Jamaica, the place Nicki Minaj and Heems rap about, the largely working-class home of Munira Ahmed, whose face, beatifically framed in an American-flag hijab, has become an icon of resistance.

South of Hillside, Jamaica proper hews to the proud outer-borough tradition of vinyl siding and chrome fences, its blocks a mix of detached mostly multi-family homes and high-rise apartment buildings. To the north it’s all Tudor Revival and ruddy brick McMansions, among them the two houses in which Donald Trump spent his childhood.

For well over a year, reporters have trooped out to Jamaica Estates to unlock the secrets of Trump’s ancestral hunting ground, the tall-hedged, pitched-roof corner of multi-shaded Queens. The setup — the white isle of tranquility, the enclave of segregation — begs to be turned into a metaphor.

But Queens is harder to pin down than that. New York is about not just enclaves but borders, porous and complicated, their contents spilling over, and it’s at the borders that you find the real story. Jamaica Estates is now Chinese and Filipino and Indian, a little bit black and a little bit Bangladeshi, and also part white and part Jewish, though even here you have a Queensian wrinkle, since Jamaica Estates’ Jewish residents are now mostly Bukharan from Uzbekistan, and so about as ethnically similar to their Trump-era coreligionists as Egyptian Copts are to Italian Catholics.

Architecturally, Jamaica Estates is Teaneck, New Jersey, but demographically it’s still Queens: The faces of both poverty and wealth come mostly in shades of beige. On Union Turnpike, at the Estates’ northern limit, they sell karakul lamb coats and yoga and Kumon, whereas by Jamaica Avenue is a hodgepodge of big-box discounters and storefronts subdivided between doorknocker earrings and Nollywood DVDs.

On Hillside Avenue, halfway between the southern edge of Jamaica and the northern stretches of Jamaica Estates, you can get your eyebrows threaded and your hymen stitched up in the space of a city block. Or for $369.99 plus tax you can buy yourself a Lamborghini. The knee-high sports car gleamed in the window of La Casa del Bebe in a Hillside strip mall one recent weekday, flanked by a DaVita Dialysis Center on one side and the discount clothier Rainbow on the other.

“Is it remote control?” the mailman inquired in Spanish, his handcart abandoned outside the front door. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds, but no duty in the world can compete with parenthood, no drive with the desire to provide the very best, or at least some glittering simulacrum, for one’s children.

Half a block from Donald Trump’s earliest home, the mothers of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy wait in the cold for the afternoon bell. “It’s expensive” — that’s the first thing they’ll tell you. “Expensive but worth it,” according to two women of a certain age, similar in shape and complexion, who might call each other neighbors but, because they live on opposite sides of Hillside, will settle for friends.

“We’re best friends,” one said.

“Best-best,” said the other.

One is the grandmother of a fourth-grader, the other the mother of a five-year-old; neither wanted to give her name, both citing school politics, which have soured in the wake of November’s election.

“There were a lot of husbands and wives in this school who didn’t talk to each other after the election,” the grandmother explained.

The mother is Bangladeshi, the grandmother Indo-Caribbean from Guyana. There’s about a $1,000 difference in their annual tuition, because the grandmother is Catholic and a member of the church, while the kindergartner’s parents are Muslim and Hindu. But those details are incidental. The only rift between these women is Hillside Avenue.

“I’ve lived here thirteen years. It’s the best neighborhood, no crime,” Mother boasted of her home in Jamaica Estates. “You can leave your door open.”

“Yes, and they pay double taxes to what we do — in the same zip code!” Grandmother replied, clapping her hands. “Mine is totally different: I own in a two-family. Mine is the only house left on the block. Private investors have bought the rest and turned them into big developments. They’re all eight floors.”

Although her son is only five, the Jamaica Estates mother is convinced her baby will follow in the footsteps of his older brother, who just made sergeant in the NYPD, thereby unlocking peak Queens.

“He is my blessing,” she said, pressing a gloved hand to her zipper. “He’s a surrogate baby — we did it in India, so it was cheap, $60,000.”

The grandmother swooned. “That’s cheap?!”

“He’s my miracle baby,” the mother replied.

You really couldn’t imagine a more perfect metaphor for the president’s outer-borough Bethlehem than this immaculately conceived kindergartner. But just what does it stand for?

On the one hand, there’s nothing more global or elite than a New Yorker from Bangladesh traveling to India to have a baby the same way gay couples in Tel Aviv do. And yet on the other you have a Muslim child with a Hindu father in a Catholic school who dreams of joining the world’s largest and most diverse urban police force — the bluest of blue-collar work — whose mother has deliberately sought for him not merely a good education, but the best one money can buy.

It’s no secret that Queens is this country’s demographic future, nor that Trumpism recoils from that fact. But while soothsayers flock to these commuter neighborhoods seeking difference, what stands out about the president’s birthplace is a common, gilded aspiration. To those who see the American Dream as a zero-sum game, it’s the uncanny sameness that is distressing, as if the Mayberry they yearn for had been beamed back in Technicolor.