Time Share

Text and photos by WHITNEY LIGHT
May 2012

In fall 2012, I began research for a story about social and cultural segregation in Jackson Heights, Queens, a neighborhood believed to be among the most diverse (and dense) in New York City, and the nation — 138 languages spoken and over 60 percent of the population foreign-born, according to census gatherers, in a space of roughly 300 acres — a synecdoche for multicultural America.

That story never materialized. But while interviewing various sources, I came across sociologist Philip Kasinitz, who likened the way the various peoples shared the streets to a time share.

In the late 1990s, drawn by the remarkable unplanned and peaceful convergence of different races and classes in a place known historically as a preserve of white elites, he and two other researchers undertook a study of how the neighborhood functioned and came to be. The results came as a partial surprise. There was no formula for diversity. It was unstable and changing. Immigrants came and went. And, to use the researchers’ phrase, the communities were not a harmonious gathering all singing together kumbaya. Although social relations were marked by tolerance and accommodation, occasionally people clashed.

These thoughts were in my mind as I took to the streets with a camera, drawn, as an increasing number of artists are, by the vibrancy and authenticity of culture to be experienced here, time trying to focus my attention, not on the merely exotic, but on creating a portrait of the neighborhood as it is today. A place where “new Americans” might mean recently arrived Bangladeshi or Mexican workers, or Pakistani and Colombian families that have owned local businesses since the 1960s, when Jackson Heights gained traction as an immigrant hub. A place where it’s not unusual for one church to host multiple congregations and services in English, Spanish and Chinese, or for a basement mosque congregation to spill onto the street, or even to find an ethnic grocer run out of an apartment. Will this moment last? It’s hard to say. Some residents predict that as local rents rise, buoyed by commuters’ desire for a home only 20 minutes from Manhattan, the neighborhood is again becoming the province of the affluent and its diverse face will recede. The photographs document the current moment – a weft of peoples and cultures, each thread very much alive.

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