Welcome to New York City!
I should say upfront that I’m a hopeless fan. Ever since I first laid eyes on the place – exactly 25 years ago when the ad agency I worked for as a copywriter in Sydney sent me here for a “creative conference” – I’ve been hooked. It was 1987 and NY was fast and dangerous, ideal for a 20-something eager to experience life.
Since then of course the city has cleaned up and in the process lost some of its weird and gritty edge. But I still love it.
Like many people though, what I really mean when I say I love New York is that I love Manhattan. Because aside from one small expedition to Brooklyn on my last visit to NY four years ago, I’ve never strayed beyond it.
Coming here this time, with a mission to explore the ‘unfamous’ side of the city, I was almost shocked when I looked at a map and realised how enormous ‘New York’ really is. Manhattan is just one of its five boroughs, which are all so large that they could each be considered cities in their own right.
In short, I realised I’ve seen diddly. Time to get off the island and explore.
But where to start? Given the size of the place, my first challenge was working out where to go.
I had some time to think – a strep throat laid me low for a few days when we first arrived a week and a bit ago. But even when I felt well enough to venture out, I still hadn’t decided. Then last Sunday while scanning the papers I read that a neighbourhood called Jamaica in the borough of Queens was celebrating the end of Ramadan that day with a gathering of 20,000+ Muslims for prayer at… 9.30am. It was already 10.30 so clearly I’d missed the mass gathering but I was curious what the rest of the day would be about.
‘Suburb’ No 30 decided: Jamaica, Queens.
Some quick facts… Jamaica is in Queens, which is the most diverse place on earth apparently. Jamaica itself has distinct pockets of different nationalities. White and upper-middle class from 17th century until the mid-late 20th century when it had become working-middle class African American, Jamaican (handy) and Hispanic. The latest and fastest growing group in the eastern part of the neighbourhood is the Bangladeshis, attracted by the neighbourhood’s mosque. (The name, by the way, has nothing to do with the Jamaicans who live here. The Dutch called it ‘Jameco’, a Native American word, which then became Jamaica.)
Let’s go Jamaica!
Part 1: Food glorious food
To get to Jamaica you get on the F train from Manhattan and stay on it until almost the very end.
Emerging from 169th Street subway stop the first thing I noticed was that the landscape bore pretty much no resemblance to the NY I knew. Aside from the subway itself and the distinctive yellow traffic lights, there were no familiar cues to convince me I was still in NYC – tall canyons, brownstones, fire escapes, bagels – none of it.
But what really threw me were the people. Instead of the usual mix of black and white and everything in between that you see on Manhattan, almost everyone looked the same here – we had landed in Bangladesh central. A few streets to the south was a whole other world of Jamaicans and Hispanics – but along Hillside Avenue where we were it was like little Dhaka, minus a few million people.
And because the Bangladeshis were celebrating one of the two most important holidays in the Islamic calendar – Eid Mubarak, the end of Ramadan – everyone was decked out in their finest salwar kameez or sari.
Having wondered what happened post-prayers I discovered the answer was, very little apart from eating; having just endured a month of fasting they were wandering around, visiting friends, eating whenever and as much of as they wanted.
Part 2: Sultana’s story
Standing around on Hillside Avenue near the subway stop I noticed a colourful troop of women crossing the street. A very beautiful 26 year old called Sultana was amongst them. I took her photo and said goodbye. Hours later we ran into her again and learned more about her. She’d only arrive from Bangladesh a year ago and missed it very much:
“I work in a nail salon here. I get bored. But you have to work here because everything’s so expensive.”
What would you do if you could do anything?
“Teach.” What? “Subjects.” Like what? “English.”
Part 3: A warm welcome
The very first people we met when we arrived in the neighbourhood were Kainath and Nova. I mentioned I wanted to nose around someone’s house to see what went on there during Eid Mubarak and Kainath said, sure, come over to my house later.
Kainath showed me where she lived and said, come back at 5pm.
So we did. Only she wasn’t there, but her mum, Nagris, who’d never laid eyes on us, invited us in anyway.
Then Kainath’s sister, Munira, who we’d never met before either, turned up and said, do you want to come across the road to see my hand being mehndi’ed?
So we did.
After we left them we walked around a little – and then ran into the woman who did Munira’s mehndi and her parents in law.
Somewhere in between all that we also met Mohammed. We only talked briefly but the next time we visited the neighbourhood we had a long chat standing outside his flat – so long that his wife called down to invite us in for dinner. Well, I ate while Coco raced around outside with Mohammed’s kids. Mohammed explained that he’d done many things but now drove a taxi so he could be his own boss, spend time with his kids and visit the mosque when he needed to.
Given how important Eid Mubarak is, I thought perhaps we might have been regarded as intruders. Far from it. Thank you to everyone who welcomed us so warmly during our short stay in Jamaica, Queens!
Part 4: More images from around the hood
Part 5: From Bangladesh to Jamaica
A few blocks down from Bangladesh central is Jamaica central – on, wait for it, Jamaica Avenue. Two different worlds so close together.
This part of Jamaica may be full of people from the Caribbean now but it wasn’t that long ago that Jamaica Avenue catered to a very different crowd – an all-white one.
As distinct as the two areas are, there is some crossover. For example, Fauzia, a Bangladeshi, who works on Jamaica Avenue.
And Meesha from Pakistan who was shopping on the avenue. She arrived in New York when she was 12, a decade ago. I asked her how she got on as a very devout Muslim woman. “No problem in NY, everyone’s too busy to care what you look like. But if I step outside NY, it can be hard.”
Part 6: Freddy and his bubble machines
Sitting in a restaurant on Jamaica Avenue eating lunch one day Coco noticed bubbles floating heavenward outside the window. When we’d finished we raced downstairs to find a grown man with a bubble gun in each hand – it was ‘General Vendor’, Freddy, demonstrating his wares.
Seeing as Freddy was having such a good time, Coco had to have her own bubble gun. So there we stood, she shooting bubble bullets while I shot her shooting them.
It was fun but a bit weird to watch my child wielding a gun at people, albeit a bubble gun. All the time I’ve been in NY I’ve been thinking, good lord, they have guns here. It didn’t help that as soon as we arrived in NY someone told me that a mentally challenged man in Times Square was gunned down by police that week. And after our bubble shooting spree, we got home to hear the news that a man had shot a former co-worker outside the Empire State Building earlier that day and then been shot himself. In both cases, police had to open fire in crowded tourist areas, injuring a handful of people in the process.
Two lessons learnt – guns are bad and being a tourist can be dangerous. Stick to the suburbs I say. (And before someone tells me that Jamaica isn’t a ‘suburb’, I know, I use the word suburb in the Australian sense, meaning any neighbourhood or area beyond a city centre.)
Queens is meant to be one of the most diverse places going and Jamaica was a good introduction to that diversity. It was a pleasant shock to see saris and salwar kameez en masse, swishing along a NY sidewalk, and then to leave South Asia and wander down into Jamaican/Hispanic territory, just ten minutes away. Like my own home town of Sydney, how wonderful is it that a city can support so much difference without too much trouble?
On the ‘home front’
As I said earlier, we arrived in NY and I immediately got sick. Very boring – and the cause for this very late post. Luckily Coco didn’t catch the bug and is perfectly content – in her first week here she manged to squeeze in some playtime while we were out photographing, look after Emma, a beautiful Golden Retriever, for a day, and as we speak is ‘upstate’ with some lovely friends of ours, toasting marshmallows and swimming in their pool. And home schooling? What’s that? There’s been none of it for weeks unfortunately. But I’ve warned Coco – come next week when we move into our apartment (we’ve been camping at a friend’s place) it’s going to be on like Donkey Kong – a phrase Coco likes to use that I’m sure she shouldn’t but in the scheme of things…
And that man in the photo above? That’s Winston. If you’re ever in NY, be sure to call him to pick you up from the airport. He’ll tell you everything you need to know about everything. 646-642-0042.
This suburb has been brought to you by Margaret Johnson
Assuming no more bugs come my way, see you next Monday.