Beyond Diverse

Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, Queens. Photo by Tanvi Misra
Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, Queens. Photo by Tanvi Misra

Over the last decade and a half, a program to carve pedestrian plazas out of New York City roadways has expanded from Times Square out to Corona and Kensington, and from a handful of experimental closings to almost eighty plazas today. These have become neighborhood fixtures, or, in the case of Jackson Heights’ Diversity Plaza, a potent symbol of a multicultural metropolis. Outsiders herald the repurposed roadway (raised pavement, planters, some tables and chairs) for its colorful blend of immigrant cultures and uses from momo trucks to melas to rallies and vigils, but coexistence is continuous work. Beneath the buzzwordy appearance of “diversity,” Tanvi Misra unearths the power struggles, complex negotiations, and acts of solidarity that point to the public space’s most radical potential.

If you squint at it, Diversity Plaza looks like any market square in South Asia. It has the requisite ingredients: the paan shops, beauty salons, cell phone stores, food vendors, and chai spots; the bright signs, battling smells, and uproar of sounds. Walking through the plaza on a Saturday in February, it is cold but bright — and very busy. I see moms running errands, struggling with unwieldy children; matriarchs inspecting religious items for sale; and a group of friends huddled over steaming cups of tea, quickly growing cool. At the fringes, street vendors greet each other with jovial salaams, exchanging notes about their sales, their lives. Above, a flock of pigeons shift their resting spot one from one building to another, perhaps following the sun.

In recent years, Diversity Plaza has become iconic for the very fact that it invokes someplace else: the rest of the world. In 2016, Time featured it in a list of reasons to “celebrate America,” deeming it the “one city block that holds the world.” In 2020, Suketu Mehta — author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found and This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto — took the New York Times on a little tour of his old neighborhood during which he reminisced, among other things, about the Art Deco movie theater-turned-food-hall in the square; the electronic shops, hallowed among new immigrants; and the architecture of the historic district. The piece fits into the overall media representation of this nook in Queens. A word cloud representing that coverage would be dominated by descriptors like “diverse,” “vibrant,” and “international.” And why not? Isn’t it this language that brings outsiders — tourists and foodies from other boroughs — to the locale?

And yet, “diversity” is just that: a snapshot, a quick taste, a brisk walkthrough. Like its close cousin “representation,” its value has depreciated in the last decade. After the Obama era, and post-Trump, diversity may be important, but it is clearly not sufficient to meet the promise of a pluralistic democracy. The presence of different kinds of people in the same space does not mean they enjoy equal claim over it. In fact, the buzzword can, and often is, deployed to sanitize deeply entrenched power imbalances and the systems that perpetuate them. It can lull us into a self-satisfied stupor, so that instead of seeking, recognizing, and deepening connections between people, and building solidarity across differences, we settle for the status quo. Instead of taking care of each other, we stick to our own interests, and let existing hierarchies of power rest intact. So, while diversity is the plaza’s most lauded feature, it may not be the most powerful thing you will see there.

Neha Gautam, a documentary filmmaker who grew up in the area, would accompany her mother to the spot where Diversity Plaza now exists to buy groceries or calling cards. The two would double park on the block between 73rd and 75th Street. “There was always a lot of traffic, so she told me to sit in the driver’s seat,” said Gautam, 40, who still lives nearby.

Indeed, the congestion on those streets led the City’s Department of Transportation (DOT) to embark on a neighborhood-wide traffic study in 2010. Ultimately, it recommended closing 37th Road between 73rd and 74th Streets and turning the space into a plaza. Between 2008 and 2018, New York City built 70 pedestrian plazas as a part of then-DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s push for pedestrian-friendly street design.

Most of these plazas came about as a result of a bottom-up request from community groups, but Diversity Plaza was created in “a little bit of a sideways process” since it was the result of the traffic study, said Andrew Ronan, the DOT’s Acting Deputy Director of Public Space Programming and Partnerships. Establishing it “uncomplicated the intersection” and “responded to community requests for more open space,” according to Ronan.

Nevertheless, the plaza was not an easy sell with everyone. Daniel Dromm, the former District 25 City Councilmember who oversaw the project, recalled how businesses in the area expressed concern about the loss of parking spaces, and how residents on nearby streets worried about the effect of diverted bus routes. Some of that early pushback was reported in the New York Times and other news coverage. Still, the road was closed in 2012, even as the conversation around the plaza’s pros and cons continued. “I feel that it’s been hugely successful, and we were right to do it,” Dromm said. “And if I look back on it, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

Of course, there was the matter of funding — or lack thereof, at first anyway. Though the City designated a plaza at that site, it initially left the locals to bear the burden of maintenance and programming. And unlike other areas in the city, there were no well-resourced Business Improvement Districts or other entities that could cover this cost. So, in the plaza’s early years, Dromm’s office earmarked money from the discretionary budget for maintenance. Ronan (who was incidentally Dromm’s chief of staff at the time) started roping in volunteer community partners to help oversee the space. “They had transformed Times Square, they had done Herald Square, but they had big anchors, big sponsors to be able to help and to support those plazas. We didn’t have that in Queens,” Dromm said.

In 2017, the plaza received around $6 million from DOT, the City’s Department of Environmental Protection, and Councilmember Dromm’s office for the permanent transformation of the space. The plaza floor was raised above street level, curbs were removed, and plants and chairs were brought in. Learning from the conversation around the creation of Diversity Plaza, the City established the OneNYC Plaza Equity program. Now, when community organizations come to the City with plaza requests, the DOT provides technical and material assistance on a sliding scale, based on need and capacity, through a consultative process. Plaza-building no longer takes a one-size-fits-all approach.

The City contracts with the Horticultural Society of New York to provide seasonal plants and certain maintenance services. In addition, for programming, it partnered with an organization called SUKHI New York — started by a local businessman Agha Saleh and his daughter Fatima Baryab — and a coalition of community stakeholders called Friends of Diversity Plaza. According to DOT’s rough estimate, Diversity Plaza costs $100,000 a year to maintain.

Diversity Plaza has become a cultural and social hub — a place where residents of all faiths and nationalities can celebrate festivals, host melas, hold parades, participate in “momo crawls,” display art, and mourn collectively. It is a place where people meet up for a quick chai or snack, rest between work shifts, or stop for a breath after their commute. “Our communities have some of the highest rates of overcrowdedness; there aren’t a lot of public spaces that feel welcoming,” said Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya, an organization that caters to the housing and economic needs of low-income South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities, and which has been involved in visioning of the plaza since its early days. “It’s become that. It’s wonderful to see that it is a gathering spot, in addition to a place where announcements get made.”

Indeed, the plaza has helped snap into focus a lot of the organizing, engagement, and civic work already going on in the area, according to Madhulika Khandelwal at City University of New York’s Queens College. It has been the site for community board meetings, presidential debate screenings, local election outreach, as well as protests, rallies and vigils. “It’s always the go-to place [for protests and rallies]. It’s accessible to public transit, it’s walking distance from a lot of people,” said Josselyn Atahualpa, an organizer with Queens Neighborhoods United. QNU was among the community organizations that successfully pushed back on Amazon’s decision to base its second headquarters in Queens, and celebrated the win at Diversity Plaza.

Like some of the other organizers I spoke to, Atahualpa felt that the lack of heavy policing in the plaza was an additional feature, allowing Black and brown immigrants and those without legal status to be able to gather there. “More or less, it feels welcoming when we have events.”

It has also become a political staging area, elevating some of the people most involved with its creation to compete for local office in 2021. Baryab of SUKHI ran to represent Jackson Heights-Elmhurst in the New York City Council, but lost (with a bit of a bang). Shekar Krishnan also ran — and won. (Neither outcome seemed to surprise the local organizers I spoke to.)

On a blustering weekday afternoon in January, I walked briskly around the plaza several times with Krishnan, who had just started his tenure as a councilmember. As we talked about the plaza, a couple of his constituents came up to congratulate him and communicate the neighborhood issues on their minds. One man, after passing on his good tidings, also offered a piece of advice: “You should come through here every fifteen days to meet-and-greet with your constituents,” he said in Hindi, which I translated for the councilmember. “If you do that, you will never have to ask for a vote again.”

The central corridor of the plaza is a place for people to rest and loiter in one sense. But it is also an open artery that, on a typical day, channels a high volume of foot traffic.

During the first few months of the pandemic, Diversity Plaza fell silent; foot traffic slowed to a trickle. The Jackson Heights-Elmhurst-Corona areas of Queens were so badly hit by the first wave of Covid-19 that, collectively, they were deemed “the epicenter” of the pandemic. It was home to a critical mass of immigrants who worked in “essential” jobs: nurses, delivery people, restaurant cooks, and grocery clerks among them. The many undocumented or mixed-status households were excluded from federal aid even as their members worked on the frontlines. In the absence of a proper safety net, many of these “excluded workers,” as they began calling themselves, rallied together to ask for state assistance. The money, once dispatched, was used up within two months.

Many restaurants in the neighborhood were also badly hit and needed assistance. In the summer of 2020, restaurant owners on the plaza set up outdoor seating there to recapture lost business. But the move became a point of contention. To some of the community groups in the area, the process by which DOT had allowed them to set up this seating seemed opaque and ill-conceived. The groups worried that the private seating served the prominent business and restaurant owners on the plaza, but edged out street vendors, whose sales were also suffering. It also made the space even more unwelcoming to the mentally ill and unhoused population.

“We brought up questions [that were then] not getting taken seriously,” said Shrima Pandey, a resident who worked with Chhaya, one of the community groups that sent a letter to DOT and Dromm expressing their anger at being left out of the decision-making process, and asking for the seating tents to be removed pending further deliberation. “And we didn’t get any acknowledgement that, ‘Yeah, you’re right, we probably should have included more voices; we probably should have asked you for your support, or considered these other possibilities.’ It was, more or less, ‘This is what we’ve decided; this is what we’re doing.’” 

A few months ago, DOT finally requested that the merchants remove the tents. When asked if the City took away any lessons, Ronan said that the seating was “an offshoot of the larger Open Restaurants initiative that came out last year as an emergency response.” He added: “If I had to do something differently in the future, I wouldn’t do it in an emergency.”

Dromm suggested that the conflict arose out of longstanding tensions between some of the organizers and business owners they have criticized for unfair pay and bad working conditions.

It is true that the pandemic, like any other mass disaster, brought to the surface inequities and divisions that have long existed at the national level and the neighborhood level — and Diversity Plaza cannot be understood without also examining the neighborhood it is in.

Jackson Heights really became racially diverse after the country as a whole started diversifying, after the 1965 immigration overhaul opened America’s doors to Black and brown immigrants from around the world. The neighborhood became a particular hub for Latinos and South Asians. This much is well-known. As local urban planner and former Community Board member Arturo Ignacio-Sanchez writes in Queens Latino, the focus on this aspect of the neighborhood’s history, while understandable, obscures darker chapters: from racially restrictive covenants, to anti-Black backlash and desegregation efforts, to a historic preservation movement that split the neighborhood into the pre-war co-op buildings called “The Chateau” and “The Towers” on the one hand, and overcrowded  basements and cluttered storefronts on the other; from the  supposedly tasteful to the supposedly garish; from the good plaza to the “problem” plaza.

What may look to outsiders like a (colorful) monolith is an immigrant community that contains a multitude of different experiences and outlooks depending on race, ethnicity, class, caste, religion, gender, immigration status, disability, and age. In neighborhood Facebook groups, these sometimes manifest in coded discussions about who is responsible for the trash and traffic in the plaza, where supposedly unsavory or unsafe elements come from, and why the neighborhood is changing for the worse. Within the immigrant community, “​​there’s been different levels of resentment depending on who has been here longer, who feels more entitled to the place,” said Gautam.

The neighborhood’s various factions — native and immigrant, white and non-white, old and new — battle not just over outdoor seating but also over open streets and BIDs; about where the City chooses to focus its assistance, whom it favors in its decision making processes, how it designates public space, and how it polices it. These hyperlocal fights raise important questions: Who gets to lay claim to the space? Who gets excluded? Ultimately, these questions need to be asked continuously if they are ever to be addressed adequately.

With respect to Diversity Plaza, for example, several young women I spoke to told me they didn’t feel safe walking through the area after a certain point in the evening because it tended to be heavily dominated by men. This imbalance may be a part of what immigrants carry over from their home countries in South Asia and elsewhere, where the public realm has historically been a male-dominated space, whereas the private realm has been designated for women. But, all over South Asia and the world, women and queer people are trying to subvert that gendered notion of public space. Similarly, in Diversity Plaza, “if you’re gonna flip that dynamic, you have to be really intentional about it,” said Prarthana Gurung, who lives in the area.

It is also clear that the street vendors at Diversity Plaza are often overlooked, despite the benefits they bring to the space and to cities generally. New York does not provide nearly enough vending licenses to go around, and without licenses, street vendors are at risk of paying hefty fines. In fact, many in Diversity Plaza told me they were ticketed by City enforcement officers more than once in recent months. When vendors sometimes become victims of petty thefts and other crimes themselves, they may not feel comfortable contacting police.

MD Nasir Uddin is originally from Bangladesh and has been vending at the plaza for six years. He sells an assortment of items including masks, gloves, and hats: all “first rate” stuff at great prices, he assured me. He likes the plaza; namely, the fact that Nepalis, Indians, Tibetans, Pakistanis, Bengalis, and others can all celebrate their faiths there without problems, and that Uber, Lyft and cab drivers can get together between rides for some tea and refreshments. “It’s a really beautiful place,” he said in Bengali through a translator.

“It would be even better if vendors could [legally] set up shop here. When we’re here, we attract more people to the plaza.” Nasir Uddin and various other street vendors who organize with the Street Vendor Project recently held a 24-hour rally at Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Manhattan office demanding that legislation that decriminalizes street vending and creates more pathways to legal vending be included into the state budget.

Pandey, who lives in the area and used to work with Chhaya, wonders about ways to improve the plaza and make it more accessible, but isn’t sure where to recommend any changes. For example: Should the planters, which are sometimes used as trash cans, be replaced with more trash cans? Or should they stay? Should some seating be permanently available? How can the plaza become a space where the unhoused and people with substance abuse problems and mental illnesses find services to help them?

The plaza is a “blank canvas” and the community is welcome to fill it in with its needs and desires, Ronan said when I asked him. He added that residents were welcome to bring up their recommendations at the community board level, on the Friends of Diversity Plaza Facebook group, via 311, and through their councilmember’s office.

When I asked Councilmember Krishnan, he described the plaza as “a story that’s still being written.” “We have come a long way and there’s many chapters to it,” he said. “The work ahead is to continue to make it a space representative of our community.”

In India, where I’m from, public squares (or chowks as they are called in Hindi) are places to stroll, vend, shop, and convene. But while people from all walks of life frequent these spaces, they may not feel equally welcome. Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables,” according to the caste system), Muslims, women, the poor, and other marginalized groups may feel unsafe in certain areas at certain times. In recent years, public spaces in India have become more segregated and less secular.

The diversity of Diversity Plaza, in that global context, is a feature, not a bug. It provides the opportunity for neighbors to build solidarity despite differences back in the home country or between countries with tumultuous histories. But if that opportunity is not taken up — as it often is not — then diversity remains an aesthetic, a mere top coat.

Shardah Rani, a street vendor who works in Diversity Plaza
Shardah Rani, a street vendor who works in Diversity Plaza

The promise of Diversity Plaza lies in the community connections such a space can facilitate, and these are not immediately visible. They are not immediately noticeable, nor evident in the news headlines, politicians’ statements, and community group press releases. They are the quiet acts of kindness, the small ways in which the community cares for each other every day. They shine through stories like Shardah Rani’s, who came to the country more than 20 years ago and sells faux flowers, bangles, bedazzled purses, and hair ornaments on the corner of 74th and 37th.

Everyone around the plaza knows her simply as “Rani,” (which means “queen” in Hindi). Until early last year, Rani worked as a seamstress in a workshop space on 74th Street but could not afford to stay in that space after she fell down the stairs and injured herself during the pandemic, she told me in Hindi. Now recovered, she spends more and more hours out in the cold on the plaza, hoping to make enough to pay the $1200 in rent she owes for her nearby apartment.

She has no family in the country, but said she doesn’t feel alone here. She noted that “two Bengali girls” helped her to the hospital after her accident and offered to take care of her. Recently, she lost her purse with her licenses and IDs, and when the police came around to inspect, a plaza regular nearby stepped in and covered for her. The cops looked the other way, she said. She went on: just the day before, “a Nepali girl” bought her a new hat and gloves because she got wet in the rain. And some nights, when she does not make enough for dinner, the restaurant on the corner makes sure she gets a hot meal.

“They’re like my family — they don’t let me sleep hungry, they take care of me,” she told me in Hindi. “It doesn’t mean anything that they’re Pakistani and that I’m Indian.”

All photographs by Tanvi Misra

This essay was produced with support of the Goethe-Institut New York in conjunction with the series Democracy Will Win: What Spaces Are We Fighting For?

Tanvi Misra is a writer and multimedia journalist based in Queens, New York. Her coverage of cities, immigration, and justice issues has appeared in The Atlantic, Bloomberg CityLab, The Baffler, The New Republic, The City, Documented NY, The Fuller Project, NBC News, and CQ Roll Call, among other publications.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.