Queens of the World

Borough Growth Not Gentrification as Usual

The shine of glass-windowed high-rises and big retail has yet to distract most Queens residents from neighborhood storefronts. In Astoria, a Greek butcher shares a laugh with a customer as he hangs a pig carcass in his shop window.  In Corona, two Russian mechanics, hands covered in motor oil, argue over the costs of used leather bucket seats. In Flushing, four Chinese immigrants shoot hoops beside the elevated 7 train. The borough has not lost its ethnic flair.

Such is also the case in Queens’ Long Island City section, where a Mexican bakery, an Irish pub, an Ecuadorian restaurant and a Chinese beauty parlor each sit on the same block of Jackson Avenue. Along its streets, salsa music blasts from car stereos and drivers honk, not angrily, but warmly — greeting neighbors.

Now, as always, Queens remains the borough of diversity. It is home to nearly 2.3 million people who speak close to 150 languages. According to 2011 U.S. Census data, roughly 28 percent of Queens residents are “non-Hispanic white,” 28 percent are of Hispanic or Latino origin, 24 percent are Asian and 21 percent are black. No other city borough features such a cultural mix.

For young, upper class Americans — many of whom spent their childhoods watching urban-centric sitcoms like “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and reruns of “All in the Family” — Queens is a less expensive venue for their metropolitan dreams. Area merchants worry about how long their borough can stay diverse, especially as new residents and chain retailers flock there.

Milan Uherik and his wife, Jaroslava, run the Slovak-Czech Varieties imports shop on Jackson Avenue. Since Milan moved to Long Island City from the former Czechoslovakia some two dozen years ago, the neighborhood has changed drastically. The 50-story Citicorp Building, New York City’s tallest structure outside Manhattan, rose in 1990. Chain stores like 7-Eleven and numerous 24-hour pharmacies have arrived and brought competition to long-standing, local businesses.

High-end offices and residences have arrived as well. Just last April, JetBlue relocated its corporate headquarters to 1 Court Sq.  CUNY Law School moved next door, to 2 Court Sq., this past October. And with the demolition of graffiti refuge 5Pointz looming — in favor of luxury condominiums — Uherik fears that rising costs will chase away his longtime neighbors.

“So many new people,” said Jaroslava, as she approached the store register. “Being unique is tougher here these days.”

One recent morning, Uherik paused from counting his inventory — a collection of wooden toy bulldozers, Princezky biscuits and Czech translations of Dean Koontz novels — and described Queens’ new arrivals. “Rich,” he said tersely.

Recent housing price jumps have brought affluence to the borough. Its median household income is $55,120, just above the citywide average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And as of 2009, the value of the average house or condominium in the borough is $475,600, a jump from $206,200 in 2000. The average house value citywide is considerably less, at $306,000.

For those hoping to lease a Queens home, rent has spiked as well. In the final fiscal quarter of 2012, average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,600 in Astoria and $2,400 in Long Island City, according to real estate brokerage firm Modern Spaces.

“With every signed lease contract, Queens catches up more and more,” Mae Liew, senior sales associate at Modern Spaces’ Long Island City office, said. “Everyone from city people to longtime suburbanites wants to be here.”

For the rest of Queens, gentrification is hitting slowly and in piecemeal. Areas like Astoria and Ridgewood have received waves of it, mainly because of their proximity to Manhattan and Brooklyn. Flushing, a neighborhood in the borough’s northeastern slice, is also seeing the beginnings of gentrification. The 400,000-square-foot Skyview Center mall opened in 2010 and has introduced Chinese immigrants to businesses like Target, Best Buy and Chuck E. Cheese’s.

“Big business do good here,” Frankie Zeng, a Syosset, Long Island resident who frequents Flushing’s Main Street, said outside a Roosevelt Avenue health food store. “People buy Dunkin Donuts coffee. They wear Target clothes, cheaper than other stores.”

But despite the arrival of big chains, Flushing has risen among the city’s largest Asian immigrant enclaves. The neighborhood has twice as many Chinese settlers today than it did in 1990, according to the U.S. Census. Language and cuisine have expanded as well. Mandarin, Shanghainese, Cantonese and Taiwanese are all heard on Flushing’s streets. And even with fast-food joints like McDonald’s and Popeyes nearby, neighborhood food favorites still include potato-eggplant salad from northeastern China and grilled lamb from the nation’s western end.

Gentrification may seem inevitable in Queens. But unlike Manhattan and Brooklyn, which feature tighter concentrations of people, the borough’s broad geography has slowed down its rate of change. And its size, the largest of the five boroughs, has let local shops and big-box retailers coexist.

Economic diversity has also hindered Queens gentrification. The borough is not just racially and ethnically mixed. It is an assortment of neighborhoods, with nearly as many occupational divides. With evenly distributed jobs in retail, construction, finance, health care and media, no one sector dominates Queens’ economy.

“Queens is huge,” Matthew Lasner, an assistant professor at Hunter College’s Department of Urban Affairs and Planning, said. “No other borough has a more varied stock of residents. Because of that, it will stay home to vast immigrant groups.”

But many of Queens’ longtime residents, clinging to local traditions, wonder how long they can delay gentrification. Others, like the Uheriks, plan to ride the change with smiles.

“You don’t want to see grumpy people,” Milan said. “You see enough of that at work.”

Although few places in the world are better positioned to repel gentrification, those who know Queens best concede that major retail and housing will not disappear. But they remain confident that the borough’s many ethnic strongholds — its delis, clothiers and salons — will weather the change with them.