The borough of Queens is best characterized as unremarkable: architecturally, urbanistically, esthetically. A place with few, if any, landmarks. Perhaps the ruins of Philip Johnson’s New York State Pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair qualify, as symbol of some sort of “failed utopia”? Or, more brightly, the zippy globe of the Unisphere, erected at the fairgrounds by Mohawk steelworkers? The former does not appear in Joseph Heathcott’s new book, Global Queens, a portrait of a most unimageable place. The latter does, as the backdrop to a group portrait of a Korean bridal party. It is one of some 300 photographs that document, at intimate and broad scales, how the borough’s built environment has been made and remade, since the transformation of US immigration policy in 1965, by the people who have come there from all corners of the globe. The borough’s real claim to fame, after all, is the 165 languages spoken across its 117 square miles.
For the last fifteen years, photographer, urbanist, and educator Joseph Heathcott has set out from his home base in Jackson Heights to document the “crazy quilt,” or urban mosaic, of Queens. The borough’s homes, businesses, and houses of worship register an almost overwhelming social diversity and global connectivity, just as Heathcott’s archive registers an ongoing juxtaposition of cultures, and efforts to gain a foothold in a not-always-friendly environment. Below, we share an exclusive selection from an archive of thousands of images and talk about what we see when we look closely at Queens.
Flushing was one of the five principal towns of Queens County prior to consolidation, along with Newtown, Hempstead, Jamaica, and Oyster Bay. Today, Flushing is one of dozens of nodal points across the borough, a nexus of residential, commercial, and industrial density with its own civic core and Main Street.
How should we think about Queens urbanistically? What do we make of this “sprawling, multinucleated, highly varied urban place,” as you call it?
Well, I think this multinucleated character has a lot to do with how we experience Queens as an urban place — or mosaic of urban places. Early urban form-making radiated slowly outward from the many small towns, villages, and crossroads. Eventually these clashed into each other, or into farmlands subdivided into blocks of housing. The street systems didn’t match up, creating all kinds of glitches: so many oddly shaped parcel geographies, so many Main Streets. Then, through the 20th century, this already tangled settlement system was criss-crossed with large highways, thoroughfares, and freight train lines. This created a patchwork of small isolates that we call neighborhoods today.
So how does this play out more specifically in terms of the built environment?
I had lunch in Jackson Heights recently with the great architectural historian Mary McLeod. She observed that Queens never had its “beaux arts moment.” In so many ways she is right. Since the early 20th century, people who came to Queens to build had mostly one thing in mind: developing fast, cheap, and expansive subdivisions to turn a profit. On top of that, a small but significant number launched practical experiments in housing. But these were efforts to create low-cost housing for working-class families, avoiding costly ornament and frills.
This row of two-and-a-half story houses in Ozone Park exemplifies the rapid buildout of Queens, evidenced by the uniform lot lines and identical styles. Adaptations over the years have given them a “variation on a theme” quality. Most were built in the 1920s, although two new houses can be seen at far right.
In either case, Queens took shape as a landscape of modest homes and apartments wrapped in various period styles. A lot of it is down to timing, since Queens exploded at just the moment when standardization made rapid, large-scale construction the dominant mode of building. This created oceans of low-cost and unpretentious housing, which Rafael Herrin-Ferri captured so wonderfully in his book All The Queens Houses. This unpretentiousness has left the borough open to waves of newcomers, who have come up with many ways to modify and reshape this landscape over time, to put their imprint on it. It is not “beautiful” in the way that Central Park West or Cobble Hill or the Grand Concourse is beautiful. I liken Queens to a pugnacious bulldog, perhaps ugly at first glance, but where warmth and beauty emerge as you look more and more closely at all of its wrinkles and folds.
Queens is chock-a-block with 99 cent shops, like this one in Rego Park. Buildings in Queens have long emphasized utility over beauty. However, a subtle beauty emerges from the density of the landscape, the variations on architectural themes, the collisions of urban form, and the accretion of innumerable adaptations over time.
You live in Queens and have been photographing it for fifteen years, but you also have a deep, and photographic, engagement with many other cities: St. Louis, Mexico City, Paris, Casablanca. Before diving into the ways that Queens is unique, I want to ask you how you have found it to be like other places, or, how does seeing Queens in all its complexity inform how we might see and interpret other places?
I am always amazed at how the astonishingly diverse urban forms and landscapes that comprise our world emerge out of small sets of form-giving rules and points of departure: like the Law of the Indies, or Islamic town design principles, or the French arpent system, or the Manhattan grid. Queens is no different; it expanded through a small number of rules of growth. It’s just that this expansion happened to unfold from multiple points, creating a riot of colliding forms. There is no center, no single orienting gridiron, and very few wayfinding devices. Visually, it reminds me a lot of Chicago, but in terms of its urban form, it is much more like Boston tinged with the centerlessness of Los Angeles.
View of the A Train at Rockaway Boulevard Station. The tracks run along Liberty Avenue, while Rockaway Boulevard cuts through on an acute angle, separating Ozone Park from South Richmond Hill. The tangle of train lines, thoroughfares, and highways creates numerous bounded geographies that we call “neighborhoods.”
The complexity that we find in Queens is a good reminder that we are more likely to find meaning “in small things forgotten,” as the archaeologist James Deetz once put it. I learn about cities and landscapes by photographing bits and pieces of them. This is not just a matter of documentation, but of methodology — it takes time to build up this relationship with a place. The more time you spend in a place, the more its salient features come into relief, the more you begin to sense its rhythms and associations.
Photography also keeps you humble; just when you think you are getting a handle on a place, you happen upon something that doesn’t fit, or challenges what you know. During my latest shoot, I visited Jamaica Hills, a neighborhood of single-family detached houses. While walking around, I encountered something I’d never seen in Queens. Many residents have deliberately cultivated rough, “woolly” front yards with overgrown plants, scattered statues, and fences and trellises tangled with vines. It is a lovely yardscape, but very much at odds with my notion of Queens as a borough of well-kempt lawns and conservative aesthetics.
A house in Jamaica Hills sits on the slope of the terminal moraine, the line of land pushed up by the last glacier. Residents have installed a stepped series of retaining walls and filled them in with trellises, rocks, flowers, and large evergreen shrubs: a highly cultivated “uncultivated” aesthetic that is uncommon in Queens.
To segue to what is truly unique, you point to (and we see throughout the book) the linguistic and cultural diversity of the borough. It is an object lesson in the effects of the 1965 Immigration Act on urbanism — if not urban form.
1965 was a major turning point for Queens. The effects of Immigration Reform Act can hardly be overestimated. We’re always so focused on the story of New York’s financial decline in this period, but there is this whole other phenomenon of immigration that is profoundly reshaping the city. While the immigration wave of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was proportionally even larger, it was also narrower, with people coming primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe. The immigration wave that began in the 1960s and continues today has been slower but steadier, with people coming from all over the world. The plurality of those coming to New York have settled in Queens. Once they find themselves here, they begin the long process of articulating the built environment to announce their presence, to make it their home.
Over the last five decades, a multinational Asian community has taken root in Elmhurst. Chinese residents come from Taiwan and Hong Kong, joined by a large Thai population from North and South, as well as Vietnamese — many of whom are ethnically Chinese. More recently, Filipinx immigrants have been settling into Elmhurst and nearby Woodside.
So much of what you document is in the register of overlay onto a preexisting (and often highly nativist and exclusionary, as you’ve documented previously for Urban Omnibus) built environment. In many ways, scholars are only beginning to make sense of this urban history and form.
Exactly! I think of the important work of scholars like Nancy Foner, Tarry Hum, Milagros Ricourt, and Ruby Danta, who have drawn out these histories in far more sophisticated ways that I do. I am fascinated by how such an astonishingly diverse range of people have made homes in this otherwise mundane landscape, pushing against — and sometimes imbibing — the legacies of racial exclusion and xenophobia. Queens definitely had its share of redlining, racial covenants, and anti-Black violence. And segregation continues today even if in a less intense form. But this is only one dimension of the story of Queens. It also neglects the incredible history of organizing and struggle by Black families — both African American and Afro-Caribbean, against spatial apartheid. Everyone in their own way is involved in what Frederick Cooper calls “the struggle for the city,” meaning the struggle to make room for themselves, to create spaces of belonging, to find a haven in the storm. Inevitably this involves multiple groups adding new layers onto landscape, adapting homes and shops that they didn’t build themselves to reflect their presence in the city.
African American and Afro-Caribbean families staked a strong claim to Jamaica, Hollis, and St. Albans, establishing homes, churches, businesses, civic and social organizations. Today it is one of the busiest hubs in the borough, with a large immigrant population from India, Bangladesh, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Trinidad, and many other countries.
That contemporary, layered landscape has also lent itself to oversimplification and exoticization. Queens as food destination, Queens as diversity poster child, are images that ignore the very real conflicts that play out and are embedded here, which may be less visible to outside eyes. How do you see those, and account for them?
I hope my desire to de-exoticize Queens comes through in the book. My goal has been to render the mundane extraordinary and the extraordinary mundane. So, while we look at Queens as a poster child for social diversity, we have to remember that the vast majority of people did not locate here for that reason. They came to find what so many Americans are looking for: affordable housing, jobs, freedom of worship, and so on. We may have sent Ocasio-Cortez to Congress, but most families in Queens have relatively conservative aspirations: to grow families, start businesses, establish devotional communities, build lives in relative quietude. It is just that these aspirations are shared by people from many countries speaking hundreds of languages. Queens really is the striver’s borough.
Family-owned businesses like this greengrocer in Ozone Park are the lifeblood of the borough. Immigrants run most of these, from bodegas and delis to electronic shops, discount stories, jewelers, nail salons, and restaurants. Deals are done primarily in cash so that families can send as much money to relatives as possible.
Obviously there are good reasons to embrace the diversity of Queens in the era of Trumpism. The borough offers so many spaces and moments where people have to work out how to relate to each other across lines of difference, how to get along in a complex world. It has the potential to serve as a kind of antidote to the white revanchist politics of racially homogeneous suburbs. But most people did not come to Queens to fight that fight. They came here from all over the world to find a modicum of peace and opportunity. They tore themselves away from homelands, from relatives, from ways of life, and that is incredibly traumatic. Many have come to stay, but many also dream of returning home someday.
What are some of the ways that that diversity — and striving — manifest in the built environment and your photographs? What practices do you see? The commercial landscape — signage, small businesses both “formal” and “informal” — are big ones, as well as the re-inscription of domestic landscapes, houses of worship. What kind of patterns have you identified, similarities, differences across neighborhoods or peoples?
Queens is suffused with this, right? Signage is a wonderful example of how people negotiate identity in a crowded, multiethnic landscape. Signs may be in one language, like Spanish, if a business is serving predominantly Spanish-speaking clientele. Others might have text in multiple languages — Hindi, Bengali, and Urdu, or Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean, for example.
Religious buildings are especially important and come in two major forms: purpose-built and adapted. There are many buildings that were built expressly as churches, mosques, gurudwaras, mandirs, Buddhist temples, and so on. But then there are hundreds, if not thousands, of buildings that have been adapted for devotion from ordinary typologies like houses, apartments, storefronts, factories, warehouses, and garages. And of course, there are older religious buildings such as mainline churches and synagogues that now house new congregations.
The Sri Durga Mandir occupies the first floor of this building in South Richmond Hill. Up until the 1980s, it was a one-story brick auto garage with a side parking and storage lot. The Sri Durga society encased the brick in plaster, punched through the ceiling to add a second story, and adapted the side lot for outdoor events.
Different groups take different approaches, too, even within the same diasporic flows. Bengalis, for example, seem not to use the exteriors of their homes very much to navigate their identity. This could also be that so many Bengalis live in apartments and rowhouses in Western Queens, which are more difficult to adapt. By contrast, the Indo-Caribbean families in Southern Queens tend to live in detached single-family houses and have assembled an array of adaptations to mark their presence, from painting their homes in bright colors, stringing multicolored pennants across driveways, installing elephant sculptures atop brick fence posts, placing images of Vishnu and Ganesh in windows. In Corona, the old practices of identity marking used by Italians have continued with Mexican and Central American immigrants, such as altars of the Virgin Mary in the front yard, flower gardens along the house, fences at the lot line, chicken coops in the backyards, and grape arbors over the driveways. Only the flags have changed!
In Corona, Sundays after mass at Our Lady of Sorrows Church have always been an event, even as the community changes. Italian immigrants once predominated. As they aged out and left, Dominican and Puerto Rican families moved in. Today, Corona is a diverse mix of Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean families.
I want to turn to ask you about your own identity and urban practice as photographer and researcher, and also as white guy, with all the baggage that entails. You acknowledge the ethical questions in the book’s introduction.
Photographers have to understand their subject position and relative privileges — all the more as they move through spaces where they might be marked as part of a dominant power. As a white male taking photographs in immigrant neighborhoods and communities of color, these issues are foremost in my mind. One possible approach is to make yourself inconspicuous, to secrete your activity. But that approach feels a bit disingenuous. I prefer to make myself as conspicuous as possible, so that there is never a question about what I am doing. When people see me blatantly looking around and taking photographs, they can — and often do — approach me to ask what I am doing. I welcome these moments as opportunities to explain what I am doing, to put people at ease. I always stop taking photographs if someone is uncomfortable, though that is very rare. Most people are just curious; they like to talk about their neighborhood! Still, navigating these issues of positionality is something that I constantly think about; I’m constantly making small adjustments to my practice.
What does photography still help us see? We are in a moment when there is growing skepticism of the visual as way of knowing. Your captions, which both locate and richly contextualize your images, address this in an important way. In many ways, the photos do not stand alone. There is tremendous research, accumulated knowledge behind these.
It is certainly the case that digital technologies have challenged the power and stature of photography. This has fragmented the old social contract where the photograph is assumed to be a truth-telling device, or a technique of accesses to depth or interiority. I am not saying that individual images cannot have their own aesthetic power. But I am much more interested in photography in its serial, archival, and ensemble forms. A kind of embrace of the ubiquity.
Global Queens contains nearly 300 photographs of varying quality. The aesthetic dimension of any one photograph is subordinate to how it contributes to an ensemble, and what this ensemble coveys, which I hope is the pattern language of life and landscape that emerges from the juxtapositions and correspondences among images. The images in the book don’t need to be beautiful, they need to contribute to a story.
There are many stories folded into this photograph of a street corner in Corona. The houses speak to the “fast and cheap” buildout in the 1920s. The shop extension connects to the growing density of the area and need for commercial space. And the “tienda”-style store borrows from multi-purpose businesses common in Mexico.
You’re not out there looking for decisive moments, nor is this an exhaustive sweep of every block. For a long-term project, another approach would be returning to sites and documenting change over time. How do you set out to photograph, and then approach selecting and presenting the images? You write that you corrected intentionally for more “familiar” sites, so that we see as much Richmond Hill as Roosevelt Avenue, which is wonderful! You depict the full extent of the mosaic.
I guess you could describe my method as a hybrid of ethnography and documentary/archival production. It is an iterative process, a constant dialogue between what I have in the archive and what I can gather through deliberate photo shoots throughout the borough. So many images that I’ve collected over the years are the result of being in a particular place for some reason wholly unrelated to taking pictures. Often my wife, Ashley Cruce, and I are just out doing errands — I always have a camera with me! Then there are photographic sets that come from more deliberative and purposeful shoots. I might wake up one Saturday and think, “I really need to get some photos from St. Albans, or the Maspeth industrial zone, or Rockaway.” In this way I build up an archive and this allows me to search for clusters, patterns, tendencies.
Successive photographic shoots along Rockaway peninsula reveal its many moods and jumbled landscapes. Working-class and middle-class Black families predominate, as does a subdued and quiet vibe. Large New York City Housing Authority apartments intersperse with houses, factories, commercial strips, beaches, and boat clubs.
You present the images in the book thematically, geographically, but you do not date them. How does change over time factor into the project? Are there changes you’ve witnessed over the course of the project?
Long Island City is almost unrecognizable now with all of its glass and steel luxury towers. I’ve seen so many lovely old commercial blocks along Queens Boulevard demolished to accommodate new high-rise buildings. One of the most compelling places in the borough, the Iron Triangle chop shops at Willetts Point, has been cleared out to make way for a large redevelopment project. The experience of the pandemic left a legacy of “open streets” and new plazas and outdoor dining rigs across the borough.
But I was adamant from the start that this would not be a book driven by change over time narratives. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in time: my hope is that the book captures a wide range of temporalities that wind through and shape built environments. Like the early 20th century commercial blocks along Liberty Avenue where the old delicatessens and watch repair shops have been replaced by halal grocers, sari shops, and digital print services. But honestly I’m not equipped to write a straightforward history of Queens; there are people far more capable than me who could do this.
While a photograph captures a moment in time, every moment is criss-crossed by multiple temporalities. In this image from South Richmond Hill, we see time associated with older buildings and new uses, the time of migration and movements of people, and even the non-human time of a bird in flight.
And yet, the only Queens history books I see are those Images of America picture books at my Walgreens. So how do you imagine your work operating as a historical document? Given discourse on Queens as “the future,” as a model or preview of a multiethnic, multilingual society — and also a densified suburban condition — any thoughts on what these documents will tell in the future?
You and I likely share a skepticism that any one city or metropolitan region can serve as a portent for the future of urban life — especially if we ignore Global South cities like Delhi or Jakarta, nanotech utopias like Songdo or Forest City, or the small-to-medium sized cities where most people on the planet actually live.
But if Queens is not the future, maybe it is one possible place from which to imagine a particular kind of future. That is, as you say, a future based on a multiethnic, polyglot, medium density urbanity — not unlike Los Angeles or suburban Toronto. If nothing else, Queens is a place where a diverse range of people work out the terms of living together as the price of doing business and getting by. I tend not to like the “city as laboratory” metaphor, but there is something about it here. Queens is full of moments of experimentation, of trial and error on the streets and in the shops and playgrounds and government offices and religious spaces. There is constant innovation in both forming and crossing boundaries, of building communities internally and reaching out to the wider world.
I guess that is what I hope this book will show to the future — not a coherent or finished place, but a place in continual flux and change. Queens as an always unfinished idea.
Queens is beautiful and ugly, frantic and chill, gaudy and mundane. It is a place of wheeling and dealing, of hustling and hanging out, of improvising and making do. It is a borough of strivers and survivors, of honest folk and charlatans, two and half million people from all over the world jostling one another in a tangled maze of streets, alleys, highways, train lines, homes and shops. And it is never finished.
All photos by Joseph Heathcott
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.