“Wherever there are immigrants, there are stories.” This broad observation characterizes and motivates the urbanism of Suketu Mehta, a writer who has dedicated his career to understanding the human experience of large cities around the world. He is perhaps best known for his exploration of Mumbai, the city where he spent his childhood, in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. These days, however, his research is focused on New York, the city he moved to as a teenager in the late 1970s and currently makes his home. His forthcoming book on the most recent immigrants to the city is certain to make many readers aware of a New York they only thought they knew, but Mehta’s singular sensitivity to how the immigrant experience is inscribed in the physical details of the urban landscape — from storefront displays to phone booths to courtyards — is what makes his writing of particular relevance to designers, policy-makers and urban enthusiasts. I recently had the chance to wander with Mehta around Jackson Heights and listen to his observations, insights and anecdotes. We started our walk at Raja Sweet House on 73rd Street and strolled among the garden apartments of the Jackson Heights Historic District, the single-family homes of Corona and along the commercial corridors of 37th and Roosevelt Avenues. Learn more about Mehta’s unique perspective on immigration, density and neighborhood change below. –C.S.
When did you first encounter Jackson Heights?
I first came here in 1977, at the age of fourteen. My father has been a diamond merchant for all of his life, and he came to New York to expand the family business. He had already been here, in a studio apartment on 73rd Street on the other side of Roosevelt Avenue, for about nine months. Then he went back to India and brought the rest of the family. So there were five of us in a studio. Our welcome to America was the super of the building turning off our electricity because there were too many people in the apartment. We were only in that studio for a couple of weeks before we got an apartment on 83rd Street, where we lived for another seven years. On the first night that we moved in, my brand new bike got stolen. It was a much dodgier neighborhood back then.
How else would you describe the neighborhood at that time?
When we came here, we found a dangerous city, a bankrupt city, a city from which the white middle class was fleeing. It was far from the Promised Land. I got mugged twice in these streets; our car got stolen regularly. Jackson Heights was not glamorous or welcoming. My parents put me in Catholic School near here, which was the most brutal experience of my life. I was one of the first minorities in the school. The teachers called me a pagan. I remember during the Iranian hostage crisis, I was a senior in high school, I was with an Indian friend of mine — the only other Indian in school — and this Irish kid yells at us, “Fucking Ayatollahs!” and I said, “Hey, we ain’t Iranians, we’re Indians.” And without missing a beat he says, “Fucking Gandhis!”
Wherever there are immigrants there are stories. Immigrants, because of their dislocation, have a need for recollection. At the time that we came here, most of the South Asians in this neighborhood were Indians, and most of them Gujarati. Now, it’s a much more diverse mix of South Asians: Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Tibetans, Bhutanese. The Indians started coming here in large numbers after the 1965 Immigration Act. Before ’65, Asians were actively excluded. When they started letting in Indians, at first, there were a lot of professionals: engineers, doctors. In the ’70s, because of the Family Reunification Act, entrepreneurs, small business owners, shop owners, they started coming in. And now, taxi drivers, garment factory workers, laborers — it’s constantly shifting. Very few of the Gujaratis that I knew when I was growing up here in the ’70s are still in this neighborhood. With one exception: Some of the children of those families, many friends of mine, who are artists, writers and journalists, who would live in the East Village in the ’80s and in Park Slope in the late ’90s, are increasingly moving to Jackson Heights.
There’s something about the diversity of these streets that is attractive to people from all over, like a piano player or a software engineer raised in Kansas, for example. Increasingly, creative people will want to live in the kind of city where they have a choice between pupusas and parathas. Diversity isn’t just a nice thing to have, it is actively essential to attract the kind of people that create wealth.
Much of Jackson Heights was created by the Queensboro Corporation in the 1920s. When the elevated subway came out here, it allowed the middle classes from Manhattan to escape the city and come to a nicer environment: these quite beautiful apartment blocks with long central courtyards or gardens. From the back, the bedrooms face onto a pastoral scene where children can play and the elderly can sit on benches. This is pretty unique in New York.
We’re now coming up onto an interesting block here. The Community United Methodist Church. Now this truly is an ecumenical church. There’s a sign in Spanish, “Iglesia Metodista Unida,” then there’s a sign in Korean, then one in English. It must also be an Indonesian church because it says Community Church welcomes “Gareja Protestan Indonesia.” And, I guess, an evangelical fellowship, the Jesus Our Foundation Fellowship — “Mahal ka ng Dios.”
And besides all of this, there’s a little plaque about Alfred M. Butts, “the architect and artist who… invented scrabble.” Scrabble was invented here!
Now here’s the building I grew up in. Look at the name plate: we have from Abbasi to Winfred, passing Balyuk, Bruschtein, Basu… For anyone going to Jackson Heights, I recommend having a look at the directories in the buildings, which really show why it is such a marvelous area. Here are people – Indians and Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Russians, Greeks, Poles, Turks, Irish – many of whom were killing each other just before they got on the plane. And here they are living next to each other. It’s not that we love each other. Indians and Pakistanis will still say horrible things about each other around the dinner table. But there was this agreement that we were in a new country, making a new life. And we could live side by side and interact in certain demarcated ways. We could exchange food; our kids could play together; they could go to school together. It’s the great story of New York. It’s pretty remarkable how little strife there is.
This kind of density, living in the same space, having to share courtyards and groceries, forces you to interact more than you otherwise would. It forces you to go outside of your comfort zone. The most wonderful thing about Jackson Heights is its diversity. Jackson Heights and Elmhurst together are the most diverse neighborhoods in New York City in terms of country of origin. I think that’s the biggest difference between immigrants of today and immigrants of maybe one hundred years ago. These immigrants feel much less inclined to melt into any sort of pot.
In what other specific ways do you see the particular dynamics of immigration today playing out in a neighborhood such as this one?
Here’s one example: every fifth store is a place where you can send money back. The remittance economy is tremendous — there are barber shops where you can get a haircut and send money back home. I’ve read many studies that show that best way to help the poor is to reduce the fees on money transfers. The money migrants sent back from the US, I think it was 300 billion dollars last year. Money orders and phone cards. You‘ll often see rates for these two things in these store windows.
There are all manner of transactions happening. People are selling food out of shopping carts, there are people offering services, day laborers… The City seems to have agreed to suspend many of the laws that it might enforce in Manhattan in places like Jackson Heights. That’s also part of the vibrancy and part of the accessibility for immigrants. Because you don’t need a permit, really, to sell food here. You can just stand on a street corner and sell it. Occasionally, a cop might come along and tell you to move. So you wait for the cop to pass and then resume selling what you sell. In neighborhoods like this, the line between formal and informal is thin to the point of invisibility.
Another effect of the informal economy is that economic value in immigrant neighborhoods is generally underestimated. Much of the money that these people make and spend doesn’t show up in official records. Some friends of mine in the Department of City Planning were telling me about how Costco came to them with a plan to set up a store in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, but they didn’t think it would be a viable economic proposition, because the official income tax records showed that it wasn’t a high income neighborhood. City Planning said, “Go in there, trust us, you’ll make money.” And now, I think it has one of the highest revenues of any Costco in the country.
So City officials are aware of some of these dynamics?
The population division of City Planning, in particular, are people who really have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the city. They are an extraordinary group of demographers. They know about alternative housing arrangements, what kind of money transfers happen — they know about the hidden city of New York.
This administration in particular, the Bloomberg administration, has been absolutely exemplary in its treatment of immigrants. Mayor Bloomberg actually went up to Capitol Hill and said if it weren’t for illegal immigration, the economy of New York City would have collapsed after 9/11. I think this city has learned that immigration of all kinds — documented, undocumented, semi-documented — is vital to the economy of the city.
And I love walking along these streets because the visual juxtaposition of these disparate objects is so casual and always surprising. Every time I walk by, I always find something new to look at. Here, you have giant bags of pork rinds next to fresh flowers. One of the great pleasures of living in Jackson Heights is this feast of seeing. And I’m a person who gets bored easily — that’s why I am a writer. And walking around these streets, I never get bored.
Which raises the question: how do some of the things we have talked about — immigration, streetscape, the informal economy — relate to your work as a writer?
Primarily, I am a storyteller. I tell stories in screenplays and prose and just about every other medium. I like to walk around the streets of large cities and gather stories and tell them. Lately, I’ve also become a teacher to students who want to learn how to tell stories. So I often bring them around here to Jackson Heights to show them this feast of stories. Because, where most of them are in Manhattan, it seems enervated, it often seems that every story has been told a hundred times. And then they take the train out here and are dazzled.
Wherever there are immigrants there are stories. I find that immigrants, because of their dislocation, have a need for recollection. And, many of the stories around here you find in phone booths. There used to be more of these phone booths, before everyone started getting cell phones, where people would go to call their families. Often you’d see these migrants weeping as they spoke to their children who, if they were undocumented, they would not see for ten years, twenty years, while they were sending money back home. Many of these migrants are desperately lonely, they’ve left their families and, in a sense, can never go back home unless they are ready to give up their residence here. Those are some of the saddest cases. Especially the mothers — I’ve met Cameroonian babysitters who have broken down weeping while telling me about how they spend their lives caring for somebody else’s child, while their own children are strangers to them. It’s heroic. These people are heroines and martyrs. There ought to be some sort of sanctuary spot on Earth where these mothers and their children could be allowed to see each other for half an hour and hug each other without the immigration agents and the lawyers and the governments intervening.
So, I’m writing a book-length essay on this subject: What happens to the human being in the city? You know, many of these people have come not from Tegucigalpa or Delhi, they’ve come from small villages direct to this big city. And how do they deal with it? How do they deal with subways, the social security system, women in short skirts, a sense of time that is completely different from the village? It’s worth looking at novelistically. So I’m looking at space in the city, time in the city and velocity in the city. And what connects it all is storytelling.