By Max Holleran and Sam Holleran
Queens, New York City’s second largest borough with nearly 2.3 inhabitants, is known as the beating heart of the city’s many immigrant communities. Once a collection of splintered garden districts, public housing estates, and industrial areas, the borough has grown enormously in the last fifty years. Much of the population increase happened in the decades following the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, as immigrant families arrived from South and East Asia, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union. Today, Queens is a sprawling pan-ethnic amalgam; home to Aztec dance troupes, Bengali cricket clubs, and specialty grocers where one can purchase buckets of homemade kimchi, Mexican tacos filled with huitlacoche (an edible fungus found on corn husks), and spongy pan-cooked breads from the Silk Road steppe. Dozens of languages are spoken in Queens, including many endangered ones, preserved only in neighborhood cafes and barebones community centers. Unlike Brooklyn, Queens does not have scores of stately brownstones or charismatic cobblestone streets. It makes do with simple triple-deckers, plain brick public housing, and postwar bungalows: it’s the diversity of its people that makes it interesting. In 2015, the Lonely Planet guide named Queens the #1 US destination, noting that it is the true “global melting pot” that people imagine when they think of New York.
The borough is still best known for hosting the City’s underdog baseball team, the Mets, and both major airports. Many see Queens only from the back of a cab, speeding by on the highway, the mélange of signs in Greek, Spanish, and Urdu giving a sense of departure even before takeoff. Queens has produced the South Asian-Latino rap trio Das Racist, the original Spider-Man, and the nasal-voiced Fran Drescher of The Nanny fame. It is arguably the most diverse place on earth and the American torchbearer for tolerance and multiculturalism. It is also the place that brought the world Donald Trump.
Diverse Neighborhoods Are Not Instantly Inclusive
Trump, who grew up in a mansion in one of Queens’ most affluent and suburban sections, is the first president from New York City in more than a century. Queens embodies the paradox of Donald Trump’s America: diversity does not always lead to tolerance. People often imagine that prejudice comes from homogeneous and rural regions, but research shows that many discriminatory movements often come out of relatively well-integrated areas. This is an inconvenient truth for some liberals, who often see diversity as a recipe for instant tolerance. Trump is an urbanite who has harnessed suburban and rural fears for electoral gain, but he is also evidence of the growing divide between the wealthy and well-educated who have taken up residence in the ‘reclaimed’ inner cities and the increasingly squeezed middle classes at the city’s edge.
Living in more racially diverse communities does eventually make whites more accepting of their non-white neighbors, but the process can take time, even generations, and can be interrupted by hate crimes and reactionary racism. There is a history of racial tension and violence in New York City’s urban periphery where non-white immigrants, often seeking cheaper housing as central neighborhoods gentrify, moved into working-class white enclaves. In 1987, a Trinidadian immigrant died after he was chased into highway traffic by a mob in Howard Beach, a predominantly Italian-American Queens neighborhood. In 2008, a gang of teenagers stabbed Marcelo Lucero to death at a commuter train stop in nearby Long Island, the group had been assaulting local men they believed to be ‘illegals’ for months. In the lead up to the 2016 election, an imam and his assistant were gunned down while taking a Saturday afternoon stroll in Queens’ Ozone Park neighborhood. Many fear that these kinds of crimes will only increase as Trump stokes the flames of racial and religious fear by labeling Latinos “rapists and murders” and instigating a “Muslim ban.”
In the US, white supremacy doesn’t always come from mono-cultural backwaters, like Idaho. In fact, many of the country’s racist movements originated in dynamically mixed communities. The racially mixed factory towns of the Midwest saw intense Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s and the Aryan Nations was founded in urban Southern California. While some have called for urban-rural dialogue and exchange, urban progressives looking to know the ‘other’ need look no further than the first-generation suburbs that ring their affluent cities to find hurting and disgruntled Trump voters. It’s not that Trump has walled himself off from a ‘real urbanism’ of inclusion and brotherly-love, it’s that the concept of the urban as an incubator for tolerance and inclusion is, unfortunately, rather flimsy. Geographic proximity does not make for instant understanding. It can lead to misunderstanding, rumor, and conjecture about the peculiar traits of one’s fellow city dwellers. One account holds that the legend of Hassidic Jews copulating through holes in sheets started when Italian Lower East Siders saw prayer shawls (large sheet-like white swaths of fabric with a hole for the head to go through) hanging out to dry and assumed the worst.
Race is often a proxy for class. ‘White identity politics’ is an explicit affirmation of middle-and working-class white people (primarily male) struggling to make it in an increasingly bifurcated job market. This group often sees new immigrants, whether low-skilled Latinos or tech workers on H-1B visas, as unwelcome competition. Queens has miles of low-income neighborhoods for migrants who labor in Manhattan kitchens and dry cleaners, but it also caters to professional-class home buyers from abroad. Demographics put the squeeze on white working class residents, creating a dramatic shift that is transforming neighborhoods from blue-collar oases to prizes for the foreign elite, with battles over changes in the built environment taking on increasing significance.
Redlining, ‘Restricted’ Communities, and Race in Queens
Trump isn’t just a New Yorker, he’s the quintessential New Yawkah: the “I’m walkin’ here” brashness, the gold-plated ego, the chutzpah. Yet, few look to his Queens origins for clues as to how growing up in an increasingly diverse metropolis positioned him to think about the world. Unlike the Manhattanites who ‘discovered’ the Queens’ constellation of torta trucks and dumpling stops, Trump grew up in a neighborhood in transition. When he was born in 1946, his neighbors would have been chiefly Irish and German with some white ‘ethnics’ (Italians, Greeks, and Ashkenazi Jews); by the time he came back from college to manage his first business (with a “small loan from his father of one million dollars”) his neighborhood was nearly 15% non-white. By the 1980s, when Trump was settling into in his new Manhattan tower, Queens was 30% people of color, and today it is majority minority.
Many of the borough’s neighborhoods of middle class affluence were set up on the model of ‘restrictive covenants’ in the early 20th century. These were meant to keep out Jews and other white ethnics, but by the middle of the century they had opened up to Jews from the Lower East Side, Irish from Brooklyn, or Italians from the Bronx. Queens was an exit strategy in a ‘white flight’ pattern that emptied neighborhoods that were becoming increasingly Black and Latino. The ‘Queens dream’ was affordable and safe. It played on middle class aspirations of homeownership: sprawling neighborhoods were composed of coveted single family homes with prices lower than the tonier suburbs of Westchester, Long Island, and New Jersey.
The 1965 Immigration Act made New York a worldwide, rather than European, immigrant metropolis; finally welcoming Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern migrants after decades of denial. New immigrants, especially those from India and the Middle East, were difficult to fit into America’s racial binary and often benefited from this new-found ambiguity. The convulsion of the Civil Rights struggle meant that global migration (which began as a trickle of highly qualified professionals) did not immediately become an issue, primarily because newcomers often lay outside of the black-white binary. That’s not to say there were not instances of violence, including a resurgence in anti-Asian agitation in the early 1980s. However, South and East Asians were not as frequently the butt of discriminatory practices from lenders and landlords. Like ‘white ethnics’ a generation before, they faced fewer problems integrating into the white residential neighborhoods of Queens than blacks did.
Queens resisted integration of African-Americans well into the 1970s, until blacks—some displaced by urban renewal schemes in Manhattan—began moving into largely unwelcoming white neighborhoods. In Forest Hills, white residents, many of them the Jews excluded by previous generations of homeowners, vociferously fought, and largely won, a pitched battle with a city administration that sought to locate public housing projects in the neighborhood. Redlining, the practice of denying bank loans and services to areas composed of minorities, existed in many Queens neighborhoods until late in the 1970s. New York City’s failure to guarantee the rights of its minority citizens is one of the reasons why it was the sole Northern outpost in jurisdictions singled out in the 1964 Voting Rights Act. Along with many of the states from the former Confederacy, the City was required to obtain preclearance for changes to voting laws because of its history of pervasive discrimination.
While Trump comes from the elite neighborhood of Jamaica Estates, a collection of faux-Tudor mini-mansions that his father developed, the majority of the borough is working class. In the turbulent years of urban violence during the 1970s, unglamorous neighborhoods offered safe and tidy collections of homes for white New Yorkers who couldn’t afford the posher suburbs beyond the city limits. Neighborhoods like Breezy Point and Middle Village, isolated by water bodies and highway cut-throughs, are enclaves of Irish and Italian police officers and firefighters.
Outer-borough New Yorkers who lived through the chaos of the 1970s—rioting, massive fires, and civic bankruptcy—were often resentful of suburban liberals who could sit safely in their communities while preaching racial justice to their “less-enlightened” counterparts. Trump grew up in this fraught environment of economic turbulence, demographic change, and working class resentment. His vocabulary betrays an alarmist view towards ethnic and racial “others” who are depicted as either violent criminals or scheming con artists hoping to “rip off” the United States. Trump’s language of inner city “carnage” comes from the generation of New Yorkers rattled by urban crime and fiscal crisis in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. This is the city we know from The Warriors, the “Bronx is Burning,” and Nixon’s infamous “law and order” campaigns.
The “Make America Great Again” takeover of a Republican Party was an upset not least because the party was supposedly embracing diversity post-2008 shellacking. This type of baiting is in keeping with the most cynical side of the Republican politics. Over thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan—the great unifier—used oblique ‘dog whistles’ to bring in the hard right, including a campaign kick-off event in Neshoba County, the same rural Mississippi county where, 16 years earlier, three civil rights workers had been murdered. Trump’s strategy consists mostly of harping on urban lawlessness and crime, drawing directly from Nixon’s campaigns. The fact that homicides in all but a few cities have been in decline for over a decade did not deter Trump’s strategists who threw clips of Black Lives Matter protests to rabid supporters like chum to sharks. This narrative plays on age-old fears of urban-mixing gone awry—the city as Babel, ready to topple. It is not, as many have suggested, an example of straight up anti-urbanism dating back to Jefferson, but a strategy aimed at those living in suburban metropolitan areas, many of them having left the urban core during the first stages of White Flight.
Back to the Future
Queens is now known simultaneously for its diversity and for its whiteness in a city that is primarily black and brown. For years, it has existed in a state of tension between global melting pot and its past as a bastion of white working class machismo. Manhattan intelligentsia has long regarded it with disdain because of its unabashed suburban orientation (there are many mini-malls) and its supposed provincialism. One of the most memorable characters to arise from this contradiction was the foul-mouthed racist Archie Bunker, the star of the 1970s TV show All in the Family. Bunker is the archetypical Trump-supporting reactionary but from a previous generation: working class, anti-intellectual, casually racist, and trapped in the counter-cultural tumult of the 1970s which he finds bewildering and maddening. The black couple who lived next door to Bunker became the protagonists of The Jeffersons, a show that, tellingly, eclipsed All in the Family in cultural importance and time on air.
All in the Family could not be made today because the leading popular culture narrative is that those problems lie in the past, but while multiculturalism is arriving it comes with a herky-jerky stopping-and-starting that makes for awkward intercultural interaction, friction, and flare ups.
Things are finally changing in Queens. Simply put, demographics and culture are against Trump’s notion of America. The diversity, post-suburban vibrancy, and hybridity of Queens is here to stay, and is spreading to adjacent suburbs. In this context, Trump & Co. appear as a strong backlash: the virulent last gasp of nativist whites whose numbers are dwindling. Interracial marriages in Queens are up significantly in the last ten years, and while residential and school segregation stubbornly remain, there is hope to be found in the multiethnic coalitions that have recently come together in the borough to advocate for street safety and push the city to create affordable housing. Diversity within a given zip code is one thing, but creating a society of inclusion—or at the very least tolerance—is another and it takes work.
In the East Asian neighborhood of Flushing, just a fifteen minute drive from Trump’s childhood home, one finds the John Bowne House, a two-story rough hewn home dwarfed by the 10-story apartment blocks built up around it in the last 400 hundred years. Bowne was an English immigrant who settled on the North Shore of Long Island (today’s Queens) in the 17th century. At that time, it was a sparsely populated tidal estuary apart from Dutch-controlled Manhattan. Bowne’s family was Quaker, hounded by Peter Stuyvesant, the leader of the New Netherland colony. In defiance of the governor, Bowne opened his home to Quaker services and it became a focal point for the burgeoning religious movement. For this, Stuyvesant eventually banished him. When Bowne was permitted to return he found that the religious freedom he advocated for in Flushing had been adopted throughout the colony. The museum at the Bowne house was started in 1946, the year of Trump’s birth, it focuses on early life in the Dutch and British colonies and the history of movements for religious tolerance. In Bowne, and in the vibrant street life of Queens, we can imagine a very different future than what the White House has in mind.
About the Authors
Max Holleran is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Melbourne. His work focuses on urban development for tourism in the European Union and he has written about architectural aesthetics, post-socialist urban planning, and European nationalism for anthropology, sociology, and history journals. His work on cities and politics has also appeared in Boston Review, Public Books, New Republic, and Slate.
Sam Holleran is an artist, writer, and educator, with a background in community engagement around pressing issues in the built environment. He has worked with the Center for Architecture, the Design Trust for Public Space, and the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) in New York City, and is currently a researcher in the Chair of Architecture and Urban Design at ETH-Zürich.