Expats: Babble On

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Photo by Aleksandr Zykov

In the early 1900s, the New York City neighborhood that would become Jackson Heights, Queens, was all “barns and beehives, carriage-houses and corn-cribs…dirt roads, packed hard by years of iron-shod hooves.” A century later, it marks a crossroads of cultures where almost 200 languages are divided amongst over 100,000 residents, making it one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the world.

Dually sparked by utopian British novels and the pioneering reformist guide, Garden Cities of To-morrow, the international garden city movement envisioned self-sufficient urban suburbias, or a “city within a city” model where working-class artists and rural families could benefit from industrial society with the protection of “greenbelts” binding in the town. Once construction of the 59th Street Bridge linked Queens to Manhattan for the first time in 1909, Queensboro Corporation president Edward A. MacDougall incarnated Jackson Heights as the first stateside example of a garden city neighborhood.

The town began to draw in a boom of enterprising immigrants when reforms loosened New York immigration laws in the 1960s, and today represents the city’s second-largest population of foreign-born residents. One can walk through streets like Kalpana Chawla Way, where bearded vendors canvass gold bangles and spangly saris over a soundtrack of Bollywood hits beating from the nearest shop window, while the IRT # 7 “International Line” rattles overhead every few minutes. And a few blocks away on Calle Colombia, you can order a cafe con leche from a Beijing native in the neighborhood’s most beloved Chino-Latino joint. Pakistani, Polish and Tibetan business owners alike can be overheard speaking everything but English from their Tudor-style building storefronts along the Jackson Heights Garden City Trail, sporadically marked by faded maps.

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