Travelers may go to Central Park or Times Square to see New York, but there’s no better place to feel the city’s DNA and understand how it began than here.
A few months after moving to New York, I struck up a conversation with a woman from Queens. “Where you come from?” she asked. “Well, it’s a little more complicated,” I began, bracing myself for the conversation anyone with peripatetic roots has.
“I’m half Colombian and half Indian…”
“Oh, so you’re from Jackson Heights?” she interrupted.
I didn’t, but it was a good guess. I soon learned that Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in northwest Queens known as one of the most diverse places on Earth . In one part of it, an area called Little Columbia flows directly into Little India – hence the woman’s valid assumption – and this is only the surface. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but Jackson Heights is believed to be home to approximately 180,000 people who speak at least 160 languages.
Jackson Heights has been called the most diverse neighborhood in the world (Image credit: Sebastian Modak)
On the southern edge of the district, running through Queens like a ridge, is Roosevelt Avenue. Here, conversations don’t stop when the 7 train rumbles overhead, they just get louder. Tibetan-run phone repair shops with makeshift shrines sandwiched between plastic iPhone covers sit next to Latin American bakeries making almohabanas ( Colombian cheese bread) and crispy empanadas. On a recent visit, a woman shouted over the endless noise as she peddled tamales that sent plumes of steam into the cold air. Nearby, a man was selling counterfeit electronics, prepared for a well-rehearsed act of disappearing on a police officer. It’s intimidating at first – so many languages, so much for sale – but once you get into the frenetic rhythm of the place, it becomes hypnotic.
Like New York itself, Roosevelt Avenue is a noisy, heady, maelstrom of cultural exchange and commerce. It’s messy and not always pretty, but if you know where to look, you can find magic. In other words, it is the epitome of New York: a loud, capitalistic environment that attracts people from all over the world who come to try to improve their lives and the lives of their children.
So, while visitors are likely to visit Central Park or the Statue of Liberty to see the Big Apple, there’s no better place than Jackson Heights to experience the city’s DNA, understand how it began, and see where it might be headed.
“To me, Jackson Heights seems like the perfect version of New York – the way it could be,” said Esti Zipori, who is originally from Israel and moved to the area seven years ago. When not teaching urban planning courses to university students, Zipori helps her husband manage Sandwich Therapy an outdoor food stand that specializes in “locally inspired Israeli-Georgian cuisine.”
There is no better place than Jackson Heights to experience the city’s DNA
Jackson Heights residents speak more than 160 languages (Image credit: Sebastian Modak)
Zipori lived in other parts of the city, but in Jackson Heights it was love at first sight. “We have such a tight-knit immigrant community here – we feel like we belong here,” she said. “When I see tourists here, they’re usually people who have been to New York before and they’ve done the touristy stuff, but now they want to see the real thing.”
She was not the only person I met who was proud of the multiculturalism of the neighborhood. “What I love about Jackson Heights is that every avenue has its own personality,” said Oscar Zamora Flores, a graduate student at Queens College who grew up between Mexico City and Jackson Heights. “There are avenues that are really relaxed, with beautiful architecture, and then you get to Roosevelt, just a few blocks away, and it’s crazy, it’s overwhelming, and sometimes there’s so much you can’t even walk.”
I met Zamora Flores at Seba Seba , one of several dozen Colombian restaurants and bakeries in the area. “When I lived here as a kid, I could count the number of times I visited Manhattan on one hand,” he said. “There was no reason to leave, everything I needed was here.”
Watch out for the crowd east of Diversity Plaza , the pedestrian zone at the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue subway entrance, and Little India (a bit of a misnomer, given the equal number of Tibetans, Nepalese, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and other groups who live here) becomes Little Colombia (as well as Ecuador, Peru , Argentina and Uruguay). This, in turn, feeds into the heart of Queens’ LGBTQ community, focused on Friend’s Tavern , the oldest gay bar in Queens. “Unlike gay bars in other parts of the city, it’s a Latin American night every night,” Zamora Flores said.
In one part of the district, the Little Columbia flows directly into Little India (Image credit: Sebastian Modak)
There’s a kind of poetic justice in Jackson Heights becoming a place that celebrates diversity. According to Jason Antos, executive director of the Queens Historical Society , before the First World War the area was mostly a deserted moorland called Trains Meadow, where people hunted foxes and geese. In 1914, the land was purchased by Edward A. McDougall’s Queensboro Corporation with the goal of creating a place where middle- and upper-middle-class white Americans could live in luxuriously furnished English-style courtyard apartments while still being close to Manhattan. It was also a so-called “restricted community,” where people of color, Jews, and other marginalized groups were barred from buying property.
White people moved into the area in droves, especially when the IRT subway line (now the 7 train) was extended into the heart of Jackson Heights in the final months of World War I. But McDougall’s vision did not last. After New Yorkers resisted and protested the era’s racist segregation laws for years, they finally succeeded in desegregating the area after World War II, eventually leading to today’s Jackson Heights.
These days, visitors to Jackson Heights tend to come to the area hungry, and its reputation as one of the city’s culinary meccas is understandable. Locals talk about food carts and restaurants with an unbridled passion you’ll never find among the sports bars and chain restaurants of Midtown Manhattan. Bridget Bartolini, oral historian and founder of the project Five Boro Story Project , which aims to strengthen community ties through storytelling events, originated elsewhere in Queens but moved to Jackson Heights in 2016. During a walk down 34th Avenue, which has been transformed into an Open Streets pedestrian zone since the Covid-19 pandemic, I asked her if she takes the neighborhood’s diversity for granted.
“Absolutely not – that’s one of the reasons I love it here,” she said as we set off in search of her favorite Kashmiri tea ( Al Naimat Sweets & Restaurant ). “This morning I went to brunch in Lebanon. There are Bangladeshi food carts on my corner, Tibetan momos a few steps away… and it’s all so good because people from these countries cook it for people from these countries.”
International food carts add to the international restaurant atmosphere (Image credit: Sebastian Modak)
For chef Esneider Arevalo, Jackson Heights was an obvious place to start a walking tour of the food he offers through Culinary Backstreets . He moved from Columbia to Jackson Heights 34 years ago, joining his mother, who gained local fame as the Lady Arepa transforming his business from an unlicensed food stand into a growing collection of brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“My goal with the tours is to show the diversity of languages, cultures and religions through food,” Arevalo said. “Walking becomes a game of how many countries we can visit in one day.”
During one walk down Roosevelt Avenue, I counted a dozen different countries represented. Go a little further in either direction and you’ll start hitting dozens more. “When people say New York is the capital of the world, they mean this part of New York,” Arevalo said.
The fact that I could ask three different Jackson Heights residents for food recommendations and come away with three wildly different sets of recommendations shows just how much there is on these streets. For Mexican cuisine, for example, Zamora Flores referred me to Juquilia on 83rd Street, but Arevalo said I should visit La Espiga in the nearby Corona area. Bartolini loves Samudra for South Indian food, while Arevalo likes Fuska House for Bangladeshi snacks served from a cart.
Walking down Roosevelt Avenue you can see dozens of different countries represented (Image credit: Richard Levine/Alamy)
When it comes to Colombian cuisine, aside from the family business, Arevalo is most excited about the Pacific Coast dishes offered Mister Cangrejo .
However, the area isn’t just a microcosm of New York for its culinary and cultural diversity, it also reflects how New York is rapidly changing. In a city that has historically served as something of a global neighborhood for people from around the world, rising rent pressures are threatening New York’s character. In December 2022, this city was named for the first time the most expensive city in the world according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, and as rampant gentrification and demographic change have led some to fear it will become ” the largest closed village in the world ,” neighborhoods like Jackson Heights that are home to recent arrivals are particularly vulnerable to losing their unique character.
“You feel the incredible diversity of this neighborhood every time you walk outside, and that’s something that people are very worried about losing,” Bartolini said, pointing to a planned new “affordable” housing development that dramatically expands the definition of “affordability.”
McDougall, with dollar signs in his eyes, once envisioned an ideal community. What has evolved is something far more utopian – a living, breathing global microcosm made up of disparate parts that have found a home along a noisy strip of concrete, metal and brick; “a window into what the future might be,” as Arevalo described it.
Jackson Heights is a microcosm of New York, but it also reflects how the city is changing (Image credit: Sebastian Modak)
On my regular trips down Roosevelt Avenue, I pass signs I can’t read right next to the ones I do. I feel that with each visit I learn a little more about the world and my place in it. I am struck by wave after wave of smells – some familiar, others attractive not. I may not be from the area, but it’s the reminder I sometimes need why I chose to call New York my home.