Writing about the breakout trip has been unexpectedly difficult. Partly this is because I make everything more difficult for myself by trying to boil all of my crazy, chaotic thoughts into eloquent, precise sentences. Part of this has been how tiring breakout has been so far. At this point, I’ve walked dozens of miles, climbed countless stairs (our sleeping room is on the fourth floor of a church, slept far too few hours, and have lost my phone. Dealing with loss and discomfort aren’t bad lessons in life, though, and people have been so kind in helping me.
During the first night of our day in Jackson Heights, we unpacked the walking tour that Professor Joseph Heathcott, an urban studies professor at The New School and resident of Jackson Heights, had generously given us earlier that day. He’s an urbanist, loves cities, and has been giving walking tours of Jackson Heights for about 20 years now. He walked us through “Little India,” replete with many stores selling jewelry, saris, and food. The nearby street was home to many Bangladeshi residents and businesses, we learn later. He walked us through 37th Avenue, another big commercial street. We ate at this awesome south Indian vegetarian place called Samudra’s. He talked about the architectural design of the place as conceived by the Queens Borough Corporation and pointed out how the buildings are all roughly the same height. He pointed out the Starbucks at the corner of 79th and 37th Avenue; he noted, interestingly, these big-box chain stores have displaced mom and pop stores, they also serve as a kind of common space for mutual encounter among people from different ethnicities, nationalities, and races. In a place so vividly defined by its ethnic particularities (Colombian coffeeshops, Indian diners, Bangladeshi street vendors, Tibetan food trucks, etc.) a standardized, corporate space like Starbucks serves as a “neutral” (for lack of a better word) space for people of different backgrounds. As I passed by business after business crammed in every kind of position (underneath, beside, above), I realized increasingly how dependent these ethnic communities were on the commercial sector. Businesses — restaurants, general stores, pharmacies, street vendors — served as a kind of public organisms for culture, giving it impetus, visibility, movement, and a concrete form. As William Spisak from Chhaya CDC talked about, commercial activity lies at the heart of communities, particularly in the south Asian community.The entrepreneurship of the free market system seems to sustain immigrant communities in vital ways. Yet these market forces are also the reasons why rent prices are rising, families are getting displaced, and mom and pop shops shut down. I left the walking tour thinking about the relationships between the economy and immigrants, and how the market is so essential yet unreliable as a vector for culture.
That night, we debriefed the walking tour. People mentioned that Professor Heathcott gave his walking tour with an academic, almost voyeuristic, distance to the actual places and people in front of us. He was gesturing to shops and people and talking about them without actually talking to them. Someone noted that he didn’t bring up any personal anecdotes or stories of the neighborhood when talking about it, and thus gave the impression that he lacked a deep personal connection to the communities. I had not noticed this myself while the tour was happening, which made me think about my own blind spots. Yet judgement of others is easy when we disregard or ignore ways we fail ourselves. Another person pointed out that while Professor Heathcott may have been problematic, he was still a professor who has devoted many years to studying cities, had lived in Jackson Heights for years, and has given walking tours of the neighborhood. We, in comparison, know almost nothing about Jackson Heights. If he was giving a tour that trafficked more in generalities than specifics, we were the tourists asking him to give one in the first place. We were the Princeton students dropping in for one week to get a “taste” of Jackson Heights and, who in effect, were being voyeurs. For whom is this diversity of Jackson Heights? The people here don’t really live in order to create or preserve diversity. The name “Diversity Plaza,” as Professor Heathcott said, is incredibly redundant. Because diversity is implicit in everyday interactions in Jackson Heights; the only people who need to name this embedded aspect of life “diversity” are those looking from the outside in. For those living from the inside, diversity is not a conscious choice, but a reality embedded in their daily living. Diversity does not call to mind simply a rich feast from which we may be dazzled and admire from afar, but its own problems, struggles, and fault lines of tensions. However much we may squirm at the vague generalizing, feel-good concepts used to describe Jackson Heights (“diversity,” “melting pot,” “tolerance”), those were the same reasons we chose this neighborhood for our breakout trip in the first place. We came to Jackson Heights for the same reason new people are moving in and gentrifying the neighborhood: the allure of living in a hyper-diverse, multicultural place. Then, for and by whom is this diversity being used? How do we seek out and learn from diverse immigration community partners while avoid veering into utilizing people as a means for an end?
I ended our nightly debrief with a knot knuckled in my head. Our premise was going to be flawed, or at the very least, constrained. There’s almost always going to be something problematic in what we do; we can’t escape it. And yet we are here in Jackson Heights as students to learn. We can’t spend our whole week in Jackson Heights worrying and debating over whether we can, or should, be here. The fact is that we are here. Many people have devoted money and time to make our trip happen; we aren’t going anywhere. So given the limits of our task, how do we go forward?
One of the simplest and perhaps unexpectedly difficult ways to address this issue has been prioritizing being awake and present. I didn’t realize how physically tiresome breakout would be, but by the end of the day 1 was incredibly depleted from walking, subwaying, standing, cooking, and talking from basically 8 am to 9:30 pm. Taking care of the body and mind so that I can be present and attentive with our community partners has been an unexpected and challenging priority, and one that is essential for studying the people in Jackson Heights respectfully.
Perhaps one of the most valuable ways of this breakout trip has a been relearning how to walk, look, listen, observe — in a word, exist. As a New Yorker, I’ve been to Jackson Heights before, but always as a passerby heading to a particular restaurant, subway station, or store. The streets were a distance from X to Y that provided some curious sights for me to passively receive. Now I was here to gather information, to learn, to read the neighborhood as a text (a text that can never be fully finished). What kinds of businesses existed here? Did they belong to a particular ethnicity or culture? Who patronized them? Did people greet each other? What languages was I hearing? When did the traffic in the neighborhood ebb and flow? What is the architectural design of the buildings? What was the effect of the elevated train rumbling above our heads, a white roar filling our ears, silencing our mouths? Paying attention and asking these questions about a space we’re in requires inhabiting the world in a different way. Our co-leaders, Stephen and Andie, have given us exercises to practice this in a more concentrated way. A group of us entered the Jackson Heights local library two days ago. We were tasked with making three observations that interested us. While I have always considered myself relatively observant, I was surprised by how much more I noticed and retained when mindful of this task compared to if I had simply visited the library absent of any intentionality. While walking as a group has constrained my usual mobility in ways I didn’t anticipate, it has also forced me to slow down and measure my time differently.
Stephen reminds us not to not take up the width of the sidewalk, to not stand in front of staircases or entrances/exits, to refrain from stopping in the middle of the road to take pictures. The idea is to make our presence the least disruptive to the lives of the local residents as possible, or as much as a group of 13 college students can be. Especially in a congested city like New York where people are constantly negotiating for space, you almost invariably end up in someone’s way. The common refrain to be mindful of our space — at first mainly from Stephen and now from group members as a whole — reminds me constantly to prioritize the environment over myself when walking around Jackson Heights and be sensitive physically as well as mentally to the neighborhood.
We’re about halfway through our breakout trip now, and I realize that a lot of the knot in my head has become loosened through meeting with our community partners and hearing the specific, human stories that the staff generously shared with us. Particularly thinking about Adhikaar — a women-led, workers’ rights-focused social justice group for Nepalese-speaking community — and Grameen VidaSana — a clinic and community center for undocumented women of Jackson Heights, particularly the Latinx community. Hearing each leader open up about their own personal narratives and motivations for being involved has enabled me to see the individuality that lies behind and motivates the collective, public action taken by these groups. The women we met — Monica, Ruth, Isabella, etc. — are beautiful, resilient women and leaders. The community partners reminded us that diverse immigrant communities are not some kind of multi-colored feast to dig into (ask a white Jackson Heights resident about diversity and they will, for sure, bring up food) but that implicit in the name of diversity is struggle — the struggle to connect, build, and resist. As someone who could only blandly imagine representations of diverse people before coming to Jackson Heights, meeting with Chhaya CDDC, Make the Road New York, and Adhikaar was very special because I was encountering women-led, immigrant organizations who worked so hard to serve their communities, and along the way preserve the diversity of their neighborhood. However diversity was not the end goal; instead they were focused on meeting needs, respecting human dignity, appreciating difference. Along the way, diversity comes about. Meeting with the community organizers and hearing their initiatives, hopes, and accomplishments made me increasingly understand what diversity and immigrant identity mean through community and political organization from the perspectives of immigrants themselves. In this way, perhaps, I could discard the voyeuristic (fetishistic?) outsider’s viewpoint diversity and immigrants and try to see how the people themselves saw and changed their communities themselves.