Your Guide to Jamaica: Queens’ First, Bustling Downtown


Since its urbanization in the early twentieth century, Jamaica has been a mix of hundreds of ethnicities, religions, and styles. Considered Queens’ “downtown” well before the build-up of Long Island City and Flushing, Jamaica became a popular destination in the 1940s for black families fleeing a crowded Harlem, who found they were able to rent apartments and buy homes after whites moved on to then-segregated communities like nearby St. Albans (now also a predominantly black and immigrant neighborhood). Jamaica experienced a massive influx of immigrants from the West Indies in the 1980s, further diversifying the area and increasing home ownership among people of color. One of the city neighborhoods hardest hit by the subprime mortgage crisis — more than 10 percent of homes remained underwater in 2016 — Jamaica is now being eyed by developers for its prime real estate near express subway lines and the JFK AirTrain. After decades of half-baked development plans, longtime businesses are wary of eviction orders, while deep-rooted institutions are trying to fill the community-services gap in a neighborhood often neglected by city officials (except, of course, when they’re discussing rezoning plans, one of which was completed in 2007, just in time for the housing market to collapse). Fun fact: Even though many of its residents are from Jamaica the Caribbean island, the neighborhood of Jamaica derives its name from jameco, the Lenape word for the beavers that were once common there.


Tabernacle of Prayer for All People

When the Tabernacle of Prayer took over the former Loew’s Valencia in 1977, it became steward of a modern marvel: one of the few remaining Loew’s “wonder theaters,” which the movie chain built across the metropolitan area in the 1920s. Its sister theater, the Kings Theatre in Flatbush, fell into disrepair after it was closed in 1977, only to be lavishly restored in 2015. But the Valencia had no such drop-off — the Tabernacle of Prayer, led by Bishop Ronny Davis, has kept the theater in near-immaculate condition. From its vaulted ceilings depicting a cloud-speckled sky to its interior towers and come-hither plaster mermaids, the theater is a throwback to another era of moviegoing splendor. It’s almost heavenly, which certainly works to the advantage of Sunday services, which are open to the public and the best way to experience the space. Come for the architectural history, the ornate interior, and the insanely glorious design detail; stay for the rapture — all are welcome. 90-07 Merrick Boulevard

Smile of the Beyond

The neon “diner” sign may provoke double takes — what diner has ever been called something so ethereal? — as may the interior decorations: almost exclusively photos of an Indian guru holding court with various celebrities and politicians. But the menu has everything you’d expect from a more earthbound diner: pancakes, wraps, huevos rancheros — except no meat. Never meat. Because this is a Sri Chinmoy diner, and all the better for it. One of four eating establishments owned and operated by followers of the Indian spiritual leader (it opened in 1972, well before Chinmoy’s passing in 2007), Smile of the Beyond serves up delicious and inexpensive food, all set to ambient meditative music. Underneath a photo of Chinmoy meeting with Muhammad Ali before a big fight, you can enjoy delicious fruit shakes with names like “The Green of the Forest” and “Cosmic Harmony.” “We try to hit a certain standard when it comes to health, but we’re not fanatical about it,” says Mark Dempsey, who now manages the diner after coming over from Seattle three years ago. During the summer, walk over to Jamaica High School to check out the Self-Transcendence 3,100-Mile Race, where followers of Chinmoy walk around Jamaica High School for 52 straight days, barely taking a break — then feel bad about the “steak burger” (not actually steak) and smoothie you just wolfed down. 8614 Parsons Boulevard

Sybil’s Bakery

This neighborhood institution is dedicated to the cuisine of Guyana, which as a former Dutch and British colony has a culinary and cultural history more similar to the West Indies than to its more Iberian-influenced South American neighbors. The large open kitchen at Sybil’s pumps out steady streams of piquant reggae (thank the line cooks’ radio for that) as well as equally tasty bread, pastries, beef patties, and roti flatbreads. Founded in 1976 by the late Sybil Bernard-Kerrutt, the bakery is a cheap spot to eat your fill, then wash the food down with Sybil’s own line of juices in flavors including Peanut Punch and Sybil’s Sorrel. Decorated with pastoral scenes of Guyana and rather badass flags featuring tigers, Sybil’s predates many of the waves of West Indian migration to the neighborhood, and has grown into an empire along the way (there are now locations in Flatbush and even at the JFK AirTrain station). Take home a bottle of Sybil’s own red-pepper sauce to make even the blandest of dishes seem straight out of a Caribbean kitchen. 159-24 Hillside Avenue

Spicy Lanka

Previously confined to Staten Island, Sri Lankan food found a new home in Jamaica two years ago, when Sri Lankan immigrant Pratheepan Selvachandran opened his small restaurant on Hillside Avenue. Not only does Spicy Lanka proudly display Selvachandran’s volleyball trophy, it also showcases the palm trees he painted inside, with Sri Lankan music videos on constant loop on a flat-screen by the wall. Prasanga Rodrigo, who moved to Queens from Sri Lanka two years ago and now works at Spicy Lanka, recommends the biryani above all else. The kottu roti, a noodle dish featuring eggs and chopped vegetables, combines unique (and pleasing!) texture with unusual flavorings like pandan leaves. Prices are cheap, and every check is accompanied by a Ferrero Rocher candy for each diner. So does Rodrigo think this could be the start of a larger Sri Lankan culinary scene in Jamaica? “Most people immigrate straight to Staten Island,” he says with a smile. “Sri Lankans just love islands.” 159-23 ­Hillside Avenue

VP Records

Reggae may have started in Kingston, Jamaica, but it took over the world from Jamaica, Queens, where Vincent and Patricia Chin launched the VP Records label after moving from Kingston in the Seventies. Vincent, the son of Chinese immigrants, and Pat (known to all as Miss Pat), whose family background is Chinese and Indian, have played an outsize role in the genre, championing quick-to-become-household names like Sean Paul, Yellowman, and Beenie Man. “It’s a huge cycle, really. From dancehall to roots, to even ska, everything is just coming back around if you wait awhile,” says Miss Pat, sitting inside VP’s massive Jamaica distribution center. After Vincent died in 2003, their sons took over the business, but Pat has remained active, helping to put out reissues and new compilations. “People know reggae music, but they don’t know where it really came from,” Miss Pat says. “I feel really blessed and happy that people want to know the history now — how it was hard to not only be a woman doing this work, but to be Chinese as well. We were the ones telling the artists how to make it into an actual business. They had so much talent, but they needed so much help, too.” VP runs a record store further east on Jamaica Avenue as well, where you can find almost their entire catalog, as well as any other reggae album you could ever want. 170-21 ­Jamaica Avenue

Bellitte Bicycles

Salvatore “Sam” Bellitte first opened the doors of this shop in 1918, and while his grandson Sal isn’t certain that their bicycle store is the oldest in the nation, it stands to reason it’s up there. (And their T-shirts say it, so it might as well be true.) While Jamaica has gone from farmland to urban center, Bellitte Bicycles has remained a cornerstone, selling and repairing bikes in a slim storefront on the eastern end of the commercial district. “My father always wanted me to be a dentist, but I knew 100 percent that I wanted to work at the store,” says Sal. On a recent afternoon, another family member, Peter Frouws, complimented a pair of jury-rigged subwoofers a teenager had mounted to his handles. “Let me see how loud they go,” Frouws requested. The teen turned up the heavy bass beat, and the store shook. “That’s pretty loud!” Frouws said above the din. The teen beamed with pride. Sal is sure the store will make it to a planned 100th-anniversary bash next year: “Business is good — the neighborhood is changing for the better.” 169-20 ­Jamaica Avenue


There’s perhaps no more divisive a venue in Jamaica than Amazura, a warehouse space that has had as many names as it has vicious Yelp reviews. The actual experience you’ll get completely depends on which promoter has rented it out for the night. The inside is cavernous enough to host wrestling, boxing, and MMA, as well as rap concerts and foam parties. During June, it becomes the after-prom spot for high schoolers looking to keep the night going past curfew, so if you see a huge limo roll up with around thirty soused teens, perhaps this isn’t the night to get your groove on. Drinks are expensive, so show up a little tipsy and enjoy the ride — in an era of rampant development that is forcing outer-borough venues to close at an alarming rate, you may not get another chance to have the night of your life watching third-tier boxing or wondering about the cleanliness of a drug-enhanced foam experience. 91-12 144th Place

Afrikan Poetry Theatre

The Afrikan Poetry Theatre has been a mainstay of Jamaica for decades, starting in 1977 under the leadership of John Watusi Branch and Yusef Waliyaya, and now, with their recent passings, entering a new era of promoting Afro-centric art, music, and poetry. The storefront theater is renowned for its open-mic nights, offering prizes to aspiring neighborhood MCs and poets. The space, which is awaiting some serious renovations, is a trip back in time to when Pan-Africanism was at the forefront of black thought. Yet it has adapted nicely to new trends in expression, with weekly open mics packed full of rappers, poets, singers, and multimedia artists. Last year, the street in front of the theater was renamed for Branch, who for decades helped fund community trips to Africa and ran summer employment programs. The best time to check out the theater (besides Friday open mics) is during Kwanzaa, a holiday the theater’s founders helped champion. 176-03 Jamaica Avenue


Jamaica Colosseum Mall

Jamaica’s commercial area is concentrated along Jamaica Avenue to Hillside Avenue a few blocks away. Its beating heart is the Jamaica Colosseum Mall, where for decades vendors have put affordable goods in the hands of the vibrant working-class community. The two-story mall’s more than a hundred stalls offer apparel, jewelry, salon services, eyelash extensions, dentistry, accounting, tailoring, and screen-printing, with nary a single chain store. But in 2015, the entire mall was placed on sale, potentially to end up in the hands of developers. “We’re worried,” says 27-year-old Jamaica native James Garrett, assistant manager at GB’s, a mecca for sneakerheads from as far afield as Boston and the South. “We love the neighborhood and the neighborhood loves us, but if this place gets sold, a lot of people are going to lose their jobs. It’s such a landmark, people come here the second they get off the train. It would be heartbreaking to see it go.” 89-02 165th Street

Black Spectrum Theater

Black Spectrum founder Carl Clay sits in his office and wonders where the Voice has been. “Haven’t seen you guys for thirty years!” he says with a laugh. For over forty years, Clay has run the Black Spectrum Theater, which has helped launch the careers of countless actors, playwrights, and stagehands, while bringing black theater into classrooms. Since 1986, it’s been in renovated naval offices in Roy Wilkins Park, providing a front-row seat on local dramas. “It’s been like a roller coaster,” says Clay, who grew up in Jamaica. “We were up in the Sixties, and then way down for the late Seventies and Eighties, and we’ve been coming back.” At every dip or rise, The theater has chronicled every dip and rise, producing plays based on issues of the day, including teenage pregnancy, obesity, and interactions with police. Last year, its summer camp put on a production of Beauty and the Beast. “It’s got a little twist,” Clay explains. “This time, it’s set in Africa.” 119-07 Merrick Boulevard