Recently, the New York Times did a front-page article profiling Roosevelt Avenue, which runs east-west through Queens. The article was titled “Roosevelt Avenue: A Corridor of Vice” and described how it abounds in, well…vice. According to the article, illegal activity flourishes on Roosevelt under the 7 train overpass (especially in the stretch between Jackson Heights and Corona). Social Security card rackets, brothels, and bars, many of which were displaced from Times Square, have found a new home here, and keep the vice cops busy.
This is the same stretch I walk almost every day and I see a different Roosevelt Avenue.
Depending on the time of day, I am accompanied by parents taking children to and from school or adults hurrying home from work. People stop into grocery stores, get haircuts, buy sweaters from itinerant street vendors, and shoot the breeze on the plazas that bisect some intersections. It’s a mobile canvass, but framed by constants like storefronts and neon signs that oversee my journey.
I start my trek home on Queens Boulevard in Long Island City. This week, the walk has led me past empty gas stations, Sandy allegedly having wiped out our petrol supplies.
At the edge of Sunnyside and Woodside, I leave Queens Boulevard and follow the bend in the 7 train to Roosevelt Avenue. In this borderland between gentrification and its other, I see a mix of coffee shops and bakeries.
Some abut Spanish language bookstores
convenience stores run by immigrants (or so I assume, since “grameen” means rural or country in some Indian languages)
and faux-Irish pubs.
Further east, ethnic restaurants are cheek by jowl to places of worship, pharmacies with signs in non-Latin scripts, and salons that promise a magical Japanese hair straightening treatment.
I pass a 7 Eleven, a chain I had heard about in references to American culture but not seen till I visited the East Coast.
Delicious smells waft from taco trucks, which compete with shiny new merchants, such as this Jollibee restaurant, whose grinning bee invites you to eat fried chicken. (The inter-species enmity puzzles me.)
Old-fashioned department stores and majestic churches make a last stand against their own competitors.
Once in Jackson Heights, I turn off Roosevelt into Little India (home to an Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepali, and Tibetan community), which glitters in the way I remember my hometown did. Jewelry stores hawk gold and diamonds,
tiny storefronts advertize Hindi music, movies, and clothing,
billboards coax you to buy international brands on the say-so of movie stars like King Khan,
restaurants offer kababs and lunch buffets,
dhaba-style hole-in-the-walls sell Indian chinese food, chaat, and mithai, and grocery stores (including the ubiquitous Patel Brothers) line the blocks.
If I continued onto Roosevelt toward Corona, I’d pass by lingerie and electronics stores,
vendors selling pulled pork, ice cream, churros, or books,
restaurants bursting with empanadas and pollo a la brasa,
and clothing stores with mannequins that have formidable derrieres.
It’s a noisy street full of hardworking folks, most engaged in making an honest living—and some that may have other enterprises. Perhaps that explains the sense of familiarity and home…