A new book on Queens’ immigrant populations captures the borough at a crossroads of academic scholarship in addition to the challenges facing its dynamic multi-racial populace.
“Immigrant Crossroads,” a new volume of essays from Temple University Press edited by a group of Queens College professors, examines the social, economic and political factors that stem from the borough’s status as an epicenter of immigrant diversity in New York City.
The book begins with the ambitious claim that Queens “is certainly the most diverse community in the U.S., probably the most diverse community in the world today, and perhaps the most diverse community in human history.” From there, it looks at how this potential benchmark in human history plays out in shaping neighborhood identities, local economies and political activism.
One of its editors, Tarry Hum, an urban planning professor, wanted to take an interdisciplinary look at Queens’ immigrant populations that countered the way academic research tends to be siloed by discipline. To accomplish this goal, Hum and her co-editors broke it up into three topics: globalization, incorporation and placemaking.
The resulting work, which consists of 14 deeply researched essays, often focuses on the contradictions facing the borough’s immigrant populations and ethnic enclaves. The first essay charts Queens’ transformation as a hub of European immigration to that of Latin American and Asian populations following the Hart–Celler Act of 1965, but in so doing, it also shows that over the same period of time, racial segregation in the borough’s Black neighborhoods has remained consistently high.
Chapters on globalization and placemaking show that though immigrants populated and sustained the economy in many parts of the borough during the city’s population decline in the ’70s, new development has often ended up driving up the cost of living and threatened displacement.
Meanwhile, in the political realm, Queens political science professor Michael Alan Krasner argues in the section on incorporation that electing racially and ethnically diverse politicians often adds to the bulwark of machine politics instead of speaking to the economic issues facing the immigrant community.
Krasner and co-author Ron Hayduk center their chapter on the Queens County Democratic Party, which Krasner defines as a political machine based on its executive leadership’s control of the surrogate courts. He argues that, while the party has collaborated with and in some cases endorsed political leaders from diverse immigrant groups, the groups’ ability to gain representation depends crucially on the emergence of charismatic leaders who can navigate the system, and who become vulnerable to being co-opted by their own self-interest once in power.
“If you’re going to be the head of the Queens machine, you’re going to have to be on good terms with the major developers, and the kinds of priorities that the major developers have for Queens are not compatible with the interests of most of the people in the new immigrant groups,” Krasner said in an interview.
Hum and her co-author, Sam Stein, detail the formation and success of an activist group, Queens Neighborhoods United, in Jackson Heights in response to the proposed 2014 expansion of a business improvement district along Roosevelt Avenue that she argues was “going to benefit landlords, property owners. It wasn’t going to benefit the street vendors or the small mom and pops.”
In the chapter, Hum and Stein contrast the group, made up mostly of Latinos in their 20s who grew up in the neighborhood, with nonprofit Make the Road New York, which tentatively agreed with the BID’s expansion in hopes that it would better serve their membership with a seat at the BID’s table. Based on interviews with QNU members about the insurgent attempt to stop the BID, the authors conclude it is transformational, populist organizing that creates pathways for immigrant neighbors to advocate for their own interests.
“Immigrant Crossroads” is available for online purchase at bit.ly/3vfL03M.