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Life in the Capital of Diversity
YCteen staff
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When you’re writing an issue that grapples with race and ethnicity, it’s handy to have a place like Queens on your doorstep.

Queens is the most ethnically diverse county in the nation, and possibly the world. About 48% of the borough’s population comes from outside the U.S., and more than 100 different languages are spoken on its streets. Touring its neighborhoods—including the taquerias of Corona, the hookah lounges of Steinway Street, and the dim sum restaurants of Flushing—feels like taking an abbreviated trip around the globe.

How did Queens get to be such a cultural smorgasbord? According to Queens Borough Historian Jack Eichenbaum, a combination of factors made it what it is today. Immigration laws were radically changed in 1965, opening the door to tens of thousands of people had previously been unable to get visas. Around the same time, many foreigners who came to Queens to work at the 1964-65 World’s Fair decided to settle here, forming the basis of some of the ethnic communities in the borough. The borough also proved to be a convenient place for foreign-born workers of the United Nations, since the #7 train connects much of Queens with UN headquarters just across the river in Manhattan.

Of course, any time one group of immigrants settles somewhere, that small group acts as an anchor for fellow immigrants. That’s what happened when refugees from communist Cuba moved to Queens, leading the way for more Latin Americans to settle along Roosevelt Avenue. There was also migration from within the U.S.: African-Americans from the south arrived in their quest for industrial jobs.

In 2010, immigrants still arrive in Queens from around the world every day. The Unisphere in Flushing—a steel sculpture of the globe, built for the World’s Fair—has become a symbol of the borough. We talked to some teens who have grown up around all this diversity to see how they feel about their multicultural home.


Yileni Hernandez, 16, Jackson Heights

Have you lived in Queens all your life?

Almost—15 years. Moved here when I was one.

Did you know that Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the world?

Yeah, it really does seem like it. I live in a quiet neighborhood, but when I get out it changes.

How would you describe your own ethnic or cultural background?

I’m Dominican. We’re known for being loud, but we’re hard-working people. Dominican culture is different from American culture.

Is there much racial or ethnic tension here? Have you heard of any conflict between groups?

Three months ago I got jumped because they thought I was white. There are many Mexicans and Dominicans here in Jackson Heights, and you don’t see many [white, English-speaking] people around.

At your school, do students segregate themselves by race or ethnicity in the lunchroom?

It’s always like that in every high school—they separate from others and they stay with people from their own cultural background.

Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share about living in such a diverse community?

America isn’t over racism.


Daniel Lagman, 21, Elmhurst

Did you know that Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the world?

I just found that out during the June 2010 graduation at my old high school. I was surprised. Even though I’ve lived here for 10 years, seeing all different kinds of races, I thought it was like that for most places. But I was wrong.

How would you describe your own ethnic or cultural background?

I’m Filipino. Mostly Asians are in my neighborhood. I love Asian food, so I get to try diverse cuisines.

image by YC-Art Dept

What’s it like riding the train through such a range of ethnic enclaves?

I see every single race on the #7 train.

Is there much racial or ethnic tension here?

No, I haven’t heard of anything at all. But I’m pretty sure people from different races have stereotypes for each race.

What recreational activities, cuisines, or cultural experiences do you participate in that are outside your culture?

I eat Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Polish, and Spanish food.


Emily Pistone, 18, Woodside

Have you lived in Queens all your life?

Yes. I’ve lived in the same house all my life, too.

Did you know that Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the world?

Oh yeah. My block has many Arabs, and if you go past Queens Boulevard you’ll see many Asians, and if you go further down Queens Boulevard there are many Irish people. I think it’s pretty cool. It’s nice being able to travel a short distance into different cultural communities. I’ve made a lot of friends from different ethnic backgrounds too. But it’s not all that important to me.

How would you describe your own ethnic or cultural background?

My mom is from Meknes, Morocco and my dad is from Sicily, Italy. It’s a pretty unique mix, I guess, and I find it hard to racially define myself sometimes.

What’s it like riding the #7 train through such a range of ethnic enclaves?

It’s mostly Hispanics and Asians, so you always hear a combination of Spanish and Asian languages while riding it. Some people might feel threatened by it, but it doesn’t bother me.

Is there much racial or ethnic tension here?

There’s always tension because of stereotypes. But I’ve never heard of any serious racial conflicts.

Is there a lot of interracial or interethnic dating here?

I’d say there’s a good amount. I see many white/Asian couples around where I live, but I know it goes further than that.

What recreational activities, cuisines, or cultural experiences do you participate in that are outside your own culture?

Well, I love the Indian food on Roosevelt Avenue and the Thai food on Queens Boulevard. Long Island City has some great French restaurants, too.

Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share about living in such a diverse community?

I think I’d like my own children to grow up in a community like this. That way they’ll be open to new cultural customs, making them more well-rounded.

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(NYC-2010-09-28)

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