With Manhattan the center of the universe, Brooklyn suddenly fashionable, the Bronx up-and-coming, and Staten Island basking in suburban peace, Queens, New York’s third-largest borough, doesn’t get much notice. It has never been dubbed a hot place to work or a cool place to live, and certainly it has never been a symbol of urban blight that needed to be saved with billions of urban-renewal dollars. Trendy technology companies spilling out of midtown Manhattan in the 1990s largely ignored Queens, while the hip, young creative workers who flocked to Gotham never even considered settling in family-oriented Queens when they could live downtown or in DUMBO.
But if Queens has often been overlooked, it should not be underestimated. In many ways, it is New York’s most successful outer borough, far more adept at seamlessly blending neighborhood living and a thriving commercial life than the rest of Gotham or most other cities. Buttressed by a new generation of immigrants, Queens’s economy is more diverse and less susceptible to wild swings than the rest of the city’s. Its unemployment rate is substantially lower than the overall city rate; its labor-force participation rate is substantially higher. Though nearly half its residents are foreign-born, Queens can seem like Anywhere, USA: it boasts the largest number of owner-occupied homes in the five boroughs and the most two-parent families.
What accounts for Queens’s success is exactly what makes it so often overlooked. Like the Queens of 50 to 100 years ago, the borough today gets its vitality from a generation of immigrants pursuing a better life by practicing such old-fashioned middle-class virtues as hard work, family involvement, assimilation, and civic participation. When fashionable urban theorists maintain that to succeed cities must attract hip, single workers and cutting-edge technology companies by investing in bike paths, rock-music festivals, and other amusements of bobo culture, Queens just seems too normal—too boring, even—to flourish. But its citizens—cast in the mold of earlier generations of Irish, German, Italian, and Jewish settlers—have created, or more precisely recreated, a thriving urban community of stable family neighborhoods bolstered by a powerful network of old-fashioned civic organizations.
As commentators on the Left and the Right worry that too many of our cities have become home only to the very rich and the very poor, Queens reminds us that cities were once a place for the middle class, too. Its many neighborhoods of neat, affordable residences provide a home to 345,000 people who work in Manhattan, staffing everything from Wall Street firms to medical offices to banks—people who, if not for Queens, would be living outside the city. These communities of shared values and ethnic solidarity, like so many New York neighborhoods of bygone times, are hothouses of upward mobility, whose residents boost the city’s and the nation’s economy as they assimilate and succeed.
As valuable as such neighborhoods and their residents are, in the 1960s New York’s political class did its best to destroy the old Queens though high taxes, inattention to schools and crime, and bad social policy. Today, as New York’s political culture lurches back toward the left, the city is again growing hostile to middle-class families and entrepreneurial business owners of the sort that Queens has in abundance. It’s therefore worth remembering what Queens once was, and what almost destroyed it, as we take the measure of how powerful an economic and political force the new Queens has become.
The great immigration waves of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries spurred the transformation of Queens from a rural to an urban landscape, as prospering citizens of Manhattan and Brooklyn fled their increasingly crowded neighborhoods for more spacious and upscale housing in the borough. Before their arrival, Queens—settled in the mid-seventeenth century by Dutch and then English colonists as a loose collection of small towns with names like Vlissingen (present-day Flushing) and Rustdorp (Jamaica)—had grown but slowly, so that when consolidated with the other four boroughs as New York City in 1898, it held just 100,000 citizens, one-tenth the population of Brooklyn and one-fifteenth that of Manhattan. Sparked by immigration waves, Queens’s population began filling in around former town hubs—most especially Long Island City, Newtown (today’s Elmhurst), Flushing, and Jamaica—preserving a sense of local identity long after generations of new settlers had obliterated such boundaries in New York’s more populous boroughs. By the 1920s, Queens’s population had soared to nearly 470,000, and for the next 30 years, neither Depression nor war could slake the thirst for the better life that Queens’s neighborhoods offered New Yorkers, as its population more than tripled to 1.5 million.
As people poured in, developers responded with a dizzying array of construction. On what had only recently been farmland, builders erected row houses and six-family tenements in Ridgewood, modest three-bedroom brick homes in Cambria Heights, baronial mansions and neo-Georgian apartment buildings in Kew Gardens, all meant to accommodate one of the most diverse communities in America, with many residents just a few years removed from immigration. By the 1920s, in a central Queens community like Maspeth, one could purchase locally made butter at a German-owned grocery store, get a haircut from an Italian barber, and get one’s horse tended to by a Polish-born blacksmith. By the 1930s, middle-class Jews fleeing Hitler’s Europe were settling in Kew Gardens neighborhoods where Charlie Chaplin and Will Rogers had lived.
Queens’s commercial life followed much the same arc as its population growth. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, entrepreneurs seeking cheaper access to New York’s harbor than they could find in Manhattan built manufacturing facilities that transformed an economy hitherto based on the growing of “edible tubers” and the harvesting of “succulent bivalves,” as the New York Times put it a century ago. Factories sprang up along the Astoria and Long Island City waterfronts and on the shores of Flushing and Jamaica Bays, as well as Newtown Creek—a three-mile body of water that by the 1920s was moving more cargo than all of New York’s canals combined. Louis Comfort Tiffany established his glass works in Corona. Ford, Packard, and Benz built auto plants in Long Island City, while giant food-processing facilities sprang up in Jamaica.
Immigration provided the workforce for much of this expansion, of course, and occasionally the entrepreneurial drive. In central Queens, Jewish immigrants established shirtwaist factories, largely staffed by Jewish and Italian women. Huge industrial concerns, like the Laurel Hill Chemical Works on the banks of Newtown Creek, employed Italian and Polish men, who, after saving their money, brought their families to America and settled them nearby. With access to this growing workforce and inexpensive land, Queens became one of the nation’s great industrial powers during the first part of the twentieth century, ranked 11th among cities when considered as an independent economy. By 1930, Queens counted more than 2,200 plants employing 100,000 workers and making 500 different products, led by food, textile, and apparel manufacturing.
Queens’s growing residential neighborhoods also nourished a thriving retail economy, as shopping areas leavened by ethnic merchants grew up along places like Jamaica Avenue and Flushing’s Main Street and attracted not just local shoppers but those from Nassau and Suffolk Counties. “I bought this store in 1948 because it was a vibrant street, serving quality residential areas,” explains Herman Hochberg, who has been the proprietor of Queens Wines and Liquors on Ridgewood’s diverse Myrtle Avenue ever since. “It was stable, and you felt it would be that way for a long time.” Between small strips like this and the big department stores in Jamaica, Queens rang up some $1.6 billion a year in retail sales during the mid-1950s.
But as vibrant as Queens became during the first half of the twentieth century, New York’s policymakers nearly killed off many of its neighborhoods in the century’s second half. Beginning just after World War II, at the height of Gotham’s economic power, successive city administrations, dedicated to big government and more social services, sharply increased spending and taxes, hastening the flight of industry and large portions of the middle class. To pay for a near doubling of the city’s budget from 1946 to 1956 (a period when inflation increased by just 30 percent), the city steeply hiked taxes that disproportionately burdened Queens’s economy, especially a gross-receipts tax on industry, which—because it taxed sales and not profits—crippled high-volume, low-margin industries like apparel manufacturing, encouraging them to move elsewhere. The city boosted its sales tax and extended it to products like clothing, not taxed in jurisdictions outside the city. Business dignitaries like Walter Hoving, then head of Bonwit Teller and later of Tiffany’s, warned—presciently—that the relentless sales-tax increases would decimate retail jobs, especially in Queens. But the pace of city spending, and the tax hikes to pay for it, only quickened in the late 1950s and 1960s under the Wagner and Lindsay administrations.
The results were as dramatic as they were predictable. New York City hit its industrial-jobs peak in 1960 and began a steady decline in manufacturing jobs after that. Queens bore an enormous share of this decline: starting in 1960, its industrial-jobs base shrank by half in less than 25 years—even while manufacturing jobs continued growing in other big cities like Chicago and Los Angeles for 15 to 30 years. Without such a hostile business environment, in other words, New York might have enjoyed hundreds of thousands more industrial jobs for far longer than it did. Similarly, by the mid-1960s, merchants on the fringes of Queens and Brooklyn began going out of business in droves, reported the New York Times. The paper’s editorial board called for the abolition of the sales tax, claiming it had made New York “an economic island.” But the tax stayed, and jobs fled. One measure of the effect: even today, Queens has only about 75 percent of the retail jobs that counties with similar levels of disposable income enjoy.
But New York’s political class remained untroubled by the concerns of outer-borough voters and business owners. The Lindsay administration treated Queens with almost outright hostility, provoking outrage by building low-income housing in predominantly Jewish Forest Hills and by its plans to seize and tear down 60 homes in the Italian-American neighborhood of Corona for a high school athletic field—which after three bitter years got whittled down to only four destroyed homes. Then came the snowstorm of February 1969, when Queens’s streets lay unplowed for four days, stranding people without food and water and causing 26 deaths in the borough. In those years, too, crime soared: murders in Queens more than doubled, from 59 in 1966, the year Lindsay took office, to 138 in 1973, his last year in city hall. One resident summed up the borough’s frustration to a Times reporter: “A guy in Queens making $10,000 can’t figure out where it’s all going. . . . He looks around and sees New York’s biggest expense is welfare. He’s paying off the mortgage and the neighborhood’s getting unsafe, the schools are getting lousier . . . no street cleaning, no snow removal, no cops around, no visits from the Mayor.”
In response, many in Queens voted with their feet. Nearly 76,000 white, mostly middle-class citizens fled during the 1960s, and many of the older ethnic enclaves began to break up. The migration became more widespread in the 1970s, when Queens registered its only net population decline since the federal census began in 1790—a drop of 95,000, or nearly 5 percent. The borough’s unemployment rate rocketed to nearly 11 percent. Once-thriving retail districts tumbled. “By the mid-1970s, 30 percent of our stores weren’t rented,” says Herman Hochberg of an 11-block stretch of Myrtle Avenue. “You’d walk down the street and look at broken store windows, jagged gates, dirty sidewalks.”
But no place in Queens ever descended into the disarray that overwhelmed the South Bronx or central Brooklyn, because even as the borough’s middle class and business community were decamping, a new generation of New Yorkers starting settling in Queens, seeking the same middle-class life that the borough had always offered. Largely foreigners, these newcomers flooded in after the U.S. relaxed its immigration quotas in 1965. Queens became home to Koreans, Taiwanese, Caribbean blacks, Pakistanis, Indians, and Eastern Europeans, among others, whose new ethnic enclaves changed the face of the borough. While in 1920, Queens had boasted the highest number of native-born citizens in the city, by the early 1980s it had the highest percentage of foreign-born citizens. One neighborhood, Elmhurst, became the city’s most diverse: the 1980 census counted immigrants from 110 countries there.
But of course, many urban neighborhoods have foundered rather than prospered on immigration. What makes Queens successful is that its new immigrants have revivified its middle-class neighborhoods and civic institutions with the strong middle-class values and aspirations they brought with them. Writing more than 40 years ago in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs observed that cities work best when many small, unofficial self-governing bodies strive to make their own little neighborhoods more livable and prosperous. She might have been describing Queens, which at the time she was writing boasted more than 200 civic associations, some of them vestiges of the borough’s former town governments, others remnants of ethnic organizations that previous generations of Queens residents had brought with them or established. Over time, Queens’s new arrivals learned to use this universe of community and civic associations, churches, small chambers of commerce, business districts, parent-teacher associations, and youth organizations and leagues as effectively as their predecessors.
Those organizations helped steady, and sometimes revive, swaths of Queens, and they now preside over its continuing evolution. Take downtown Jamaica, once again a major shopping district. The area began to suffer in the early 1960s from rising crime, suburban competition, and the city’s sales-tax hikes. White-collar jobs evaporated: a flock of small law firms migrated to Long Island, for instance, taking their workers with them. By the late 1960s, the once-bustling shopping area was described as “shabby” and “totally deteriorating” in press reports.
But then the Jamaica chamber of commerce sparked a series of revival projects, including New York’s first special-assessment district, the forerunner of today’s highly effective business improvement districts (BIDs), in which local businesses chip in to pay for better street furniture or increased security or sanitation. Under prodding from the chamber, merchants along 165th Street kicked in thousands for a new pedestrian mall, and they nudged city government to tear down the El that darkened the street. Slowly, change came, as minority and immigrant shop owners opened for business beside the established retailers who had decided to stay and fight to revive the strip.
Today, downtown Jamaica is thriving. Unlike virtually anything else in a major city, it attracts shoppers from hundreds of miles away to its stores selling everything from hip-hop- and reggae-inspired clothing to ethnic beauty products and folk art. Nearly every weekend, up to 70 busloads of shopping pilgrims start out late on Friday night or early Saturday morning from mostly black neighborhoods in places like Rochester, Buffalo, and Detroit, and throng into the stores just as they open their doors on Saturday morning. Mostly women on trips sponsored by their local church or neighborhood community group, they often accumulate enough merchandise to fill several giant trash bags, which they load into the luggage holds of their buses before heading home.
One place these shoppers crowd into is Cookies, a children’s clothing store that is among the area’s most popular retailers. “Kmart and Wal-Mart don’t buy for the urban shopper. We do, and that’s why they come,” says Cookies owner Marvin Falach, who opened the store 30 years ago, at the depth of the area’s decline, and prospered as the neighborhood revived. “It started happening when new people moved in, a new middle class, somewhere around 1980,” says Falach, who gradually accumulated buildings in the area and expanded Cookies from a tiny store to its present 35,000-square-foot configuration.
Key to the revival has been a sharp crime drop. By the mid-1970s, the precinct encompassing Jamaica averaged more than 10,000 crimes annually, enough to drive away shoppers and doom the area’s department stores. But after leveling off in the 1980s, crime fell sharply in the mid-1990s, thanks to the Giuliani era’s activist policing. Last year, the precinct recorded just over 2,000 crimes—down 80 percent from the worst years of the 1970s. Boroughwide, crime has also declined about 70 percent in the last 10 years, and today Queens’s violent-crime rate is 25 percent lower than the city’s as a whole.
Also key to Jamaica’s revival was the renewal of the surrounding residential areas of Southeast Queens, which filled up with a new generation of Caribbean blacks and with black middle-class families fleeing urban decay in other parts of New York. Attracting them were the small, affordable single-family homes and tidy streets of neighborhoods like Cambria Heights, developed as a blue-collar enclave in the 1920s. All told, Queens gained more than 90,000 black residents in the 1960s, and the median family income for blacks in the borough rose 72 percent, to $9,850, in 1970—the highest personal income of blacks anywhere in the city, and higher than the citywide median for all residents. Queens blacks also boasted the lowest poverty level among blacks in the city, just 11 percent.
The newcomers showed the same tenacious civic-mindedness that their predecessors had displayed. Take, for example, the transformation of an abandoned 54-acre naval-hospital complex in the St. Albans section. Neighbors rallied to form the Southern Queens Parks Association—a confederation of civic associations, church organizations, and fraternal groups like the United Black Men of Queens—which persuaded the city to let it develop and operate the decaying complex as a park. After raising private funds, the association created Roy Wilkins Park, complete with basketball and tennis courts, football and cricket fields, even a theater—all of which it still operates today as a central part of Southeast Queens’s civic life.
Because of efforts like these, Southeast Queens today boasts one of the city’s most vibrant commercial districts and flourishing residential neighborhoods, housing much of New York’s black middle class. Today, more than half of all blacks in Queens own their own homes. By the standards of the “creative class” technology economy, these neighborhoods are eminently boring, with street after street of families living their dreams in homes that typically sell for a modest $250,000 or so. The population of civil servants, blue-collar workers, and entrepreneurial black immigrant business owners earns family incomes well above the citywide average—in some neighborhoods averaging more than $70,000 a year. What accounts for the success? “Most of the families here are dual-income families,” explains Jack Thompson, head of the Cambria Heights Civic Association. “This is a community of people who work.”
What happened in Southeast Queens has repeated itself all over the borough. In Flushing, Asians sparked the renaissance. After the World’s Fair there in the early 1960s, many employees of the South Korean trade exhibition decided to stay and make the area home. By the early 1980s, some 20,000 Koreans, along with thousands of Taiwanese, lived in Flushing, and a surge of immigration from mainland China late in the decade added thousands of new residents. Today, some 80,000 Asians live in Flushing, and the neighborhood is a hub of Queens’s Asian business community, which totals about 5,500 enterprises.
Crucial to Flushing’s success are the efforts of local businessmen to keep it a clean, orderly, mainstream commercial area, rather than a chaotic ethnic street bazaar like the Chinatowns of Manhattan and other American cities. A leader in this campaign is Peter Koo, a former city-hospital pharmacist who opened his first Flushing drugstore in 1991 and now operates two of them. Watching Main Street grow ever more crowded and bustling during the 1990s boom, Koo and some of his merchant friends worried that city services couldn’t keep up; the street was becoming dirtier and less appealing. Concluding that businesses needed to band together to help maintain the area, he knew that it would be tough to persuade immigrant businessmen to pay the needed assessments to set up a business improvement district. So he and six colleagues did the next best thing: to demonstrate what a BID might do, they used their own money to hire the Doe Fund, which employs homeless people to sweep streets, to make Main Street shine. Soon, Koo’s BID proposal became so popular that adjoining areas of Flushing clamored to be included, too, and last year the proposal became a reality. “People saw the streets get cleaner, and they were convinced,” says Koo.
Another key to Flushing’s success has been the Korean Christian churches, which are as vital to the community as Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues were for previous Queens generations. Judging by the numbers, the Korean saying that when three or more Koreans get together, the first thing they do is start a church is only a slight exaggeration. The 300 or so Korean Christian churches in New York in the mid-1980s doubled to nearly 600 ten years later. Kyeyoung Park, author of The Korean American Dream: Immigrants and Small Business in New York City, says that what distinguishes these churches is how fervently they work to transmit American values to the community. In addition, they often sponsor gaes, or lending pools, in which successful immigrants contribute to a general fund that others can tap for loans to open businesses. Korean churches also serve as clearinghouses for information about business opportunities. Koreans have brought new life to old Queens houses of worship, like the First Presbyterian Church, founded by early Scottish settlers, just as Taiwanese immigrants have revived the Reformed Church of Newtown, established by Dutch Protestants in 1731.
Though many cities segregate residential from commercial neighborhoods, in Flushing these two intermingle. The area’s 260,000 residents live side by side with businesses that employ 50,000 people, earning about $2 billion a year in wages. The competition between residential and commercial users for the same real estate ensures the highest value use for those resources. The historic former RKO Theater on Northern Boulevard, for instance, which once staged such vaudeville acts as the Marx Brothers, is now morphing into a residential and retail building that will retain the old theater’s flamboyant lobby, while the Prince Center, an 80,000-square-foot office building off Main Street that opened less than two years ago, sits kitty-corner to garden apartment buildings and a few doors down from the Sheraton La Guardia Hotel, with its Asian-themed lobby.
Thanks to this ceaseless activity, Flushing barely noticed the tough times that slowed the New York economy in the last three years. “We opened Prince Center in the middle of a recession and still couldn’t accommodate everyone who wanted space,” says Wellington Chen, an architect and urban planner who emigrated to the United States in 1971 and has worked in Flushing for 20 years. “There has been no recession here.”
Though Queens’s manufacturing economy began to collapse in the early 1960s, the borough managed to retain, and then even expand, a blue-collar base of local manufacturing, wholesaling, and construction jobs that gives it a diversity that the city’s larger economy lacks. Queens is still home to some 35,000 manufacturing jobs, many of them in food processing, and it boasts about 3,800 construction companies employing nearly 42,000 people, who earn on average a muscular $55,000 a year. Queens’s airports provide nearly 12,000 trucking, warehousing, and transportation jobs, along with 40,000 air-transport jobs.
From early on, Queens’s industrial neighborhoods grew up in close proximity to its residential enclaves, and today the borough’s access to skilled blue-collar workers, often in short supply elsewhere, remains a major industrial strength, at a time when suburban companies send buses into Queens and Brooklyn to pick up competent workers. Flushing’s Crystal Window and Door, for example, a rapidly growing national manufacturer and distributor of construction materials, has turned down incentives from New Jersey and other states that would have saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, in order to remain close to its skilled, hard-to-replace Chinese and Hispanic workforce. Doing that keeps turnover low, says company founder Thomas Chen, an immigrant from China. “The workforce is the reason we are here,” says Robert Nyman, executive consultant at Crystal.
The College Point Industrial Park that houses Crystal is also the site of another sort of revival in Queens—its tradition of large-scale retailing. The borough’s economy suffered when its big department stores went under or fled to the suburbs, and the city’s zoning restrictions prevented new-style big-box retailers from opening. Developers in College Point have helped reverse the outflow of shopping dollars from Queens to Nassau, Suffolk, and New Jersey. The shopping mall they created in some of College Point’s former industrial space now houses such big-box retailers as Target and BJ’s Wholesale Club, which opened in 1999. Both units are among these chains’ highest-grossing stores.
That has become a familiar refrain among national retailers in Queens. Home Depot’s first Queens store, opened in 1994 under a loophole in New York’s restrictive retail zoning, became the highest-grossing in the chain. Its six stores in the borough average about twice the sales volume of a typical Home Depot nationwide. Even the borough’s only suburban-style mall—Queens Center in Elmhurst Park—is one of the nation’s best-performing shopping centers, averaging about $1,000 a square foot in sales, compared with a national average of $300. There’s no secret to its success: nearly 800,000 mostly middle-class households live within five miles—which is why the mall recently doubled its size to 1 million square feet.
The sum of all these parts is an economy consistently more stable and vigorous than New York City’s as a whole. Though hardly a center of the go-go economy, the borough consistently added jobs at a faster pace than Gotham as a whole throughout most of the 1990s, even faster than Manhattan for part of that period. And when the recession hit New York, Queens lost jobs at a slower pace. Today, Queens’s unemployment rate is about two percentage points lower than the city’s overall rate, and in line with the national unemployment rate. And despite headlines about Manhattan as a magnet for young, hip workers, Queens accounted for 40 percent of the city’s population increase during the 1990s—adding 278,000 residents, a 14.2 percent gain. One source of new residents was its sister boroughs of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx, which contributed a net of nearly 40,000 people to Queens from 1996 to 2000—just as they have done for the last 100 years.
Of course, Queens’s importance does not lie merely in the success of its neighborhoods or in its self-contained economy. The borough plays a vitally important role in Gotham’s overall economic and political life. It provides Manhattan with a significant chunk of its skilled, reliable workforce, and middle-class Queens voters have played a decisive role in New York’s recent political fate.
The 345,000 Queens residents who work in Manhattan staff the companies that are the heart of Gotham’s economy. They include Wall Streeters from the fashionable enclaves of Douglaston and Malba, bookkeepers, nurses, and computer technicians from the Caribbean-American neighborhoods in Southeast Queens, greengrocers from Flushing, mid-level managers, sales executives, and administrative workers from neighborhoods like Kew Gardens and College Point, and blue-collar workers from Corona who staff Manhattan’s garment factories. The number of Queens residents working in Manhattan—a larger contingent than from any of the other three outer boroughs and nearly as large as that from all New York’s suburbs combined—is growing, while the other three boroughs’ share is declining, as the suburbs, particularly the Jersey suburbs, grab an ever-greater share of Manhattan’s jobs.
In addition to providing a responsible and dedicated workforce for Manhattan’s vital businesses, these residents make an enormous contribution to New York’s fiscal health. They pay about $1.4 billion a year in state and city personal-income taxes, while property owners pay $2.1 billion in taxes, more than any borough except Manhattan. The borough’s high concentration of middle-class families bears much of that burden: 217,000 or so Queens families earning between $40,000 and $100,000 a year pay about half of Queens’s income taxes. Without them, New York—like so many other cities—would be much more a place of just the rich and the poor, and the burden on the rich to support city services would be even greater than it is now. As a result, ever more of them would leave the city or avoid its high taxes by establishing dual residences elsewhere—which is how cities decline.
With so much worth preserving, Queens residents play a vital, stabilizing role in the city’s political life, especially during periods when city hall lurches to the left. In the sixties and seventies, Queens residents formed much of the political opposition to the Lindsay administration and its agenda of high taxes and expensive social programs. The political moderation of the later Lindsay years—when the mayor abandoned many of his plans to remake New York into a paragon of left-wing social policies—was in large part a response to the anger he generated in Queens during his first term.
Similarly, in the early 1990s, as crime soared and New York’s economy sagged, Queens provided the political margin that elected Rudy Giuliani and set in motion the revival of the city. Giuliani won Queens by 107,000 votes, in an election in which his citywide margin of victory was only 44,000 votes.
Very much an outer-borough ethnic himself, Giuliani captivated Queens voters with his agenda of tough-on-crime policing, budget and tax restraint, and welfare reform. Without Queens voters, Giuliani’s opponent, David Dinkins, would have remained mayor, and the city’s stunning rebirth in the 1990s would never have occurred. Queens voters were also key to Michael Bloomberg’s victory in 2001, after he pledged no tax increases. Bloomberg’s current efforts to rebate at least some of the property-tax increase he pushed through in 2002, in violation of his campaign promise, are
a direct result of the anger his policies have understandably sparked in Queens’s middle-class neighborhoods.
Just as before, city hall’s recent leftward lurch seriously threatens Queens’s future. In echoes of the complaints of the late 1960s, Queens voters are grumbling that they are being held up to support Gotham’s extravagant municipal spending. They note that officials justified 2002’s $1.8 billion property-tax hike by saying that the city’s homeowners pay lower property taxes than those in the suburbs—a point that ignores the fact that Gotham homeowners also pay a personal-income tax that suburban homeowners don’t pay. For some in Queens, the tax increases evoked echoes of the Lindsay years, when the administration of a liberal Republican mayor who hobnobbed with the Manhattan elite seemed unsympathetic to middle-class homeowners.
What particularly rankled the citizens of Queens was Mayor Bloomberg’s insouciant refrain during the budget debates that New York will always be a high-cost city, with high taxes that are both inevitable and easily affordable. “The debate was about homeowners versus Manhattan’s elite,” says Corey Bearak, vice president of the Queens Civic Congress, a coalition of nearly 100 community groups—and, he complains, the Manhattan elitists who man the Bloomberg administration “just don’t like homeowners.”
Queens businessmen also grumble that the city’s mad dash for revenues to close its budget gap—including papering the borough’s commercial districts with parking tickets—fell heavily on them and showed disdain for their concerns. Though the stepped-up traffic enforcement seems like a small problem, Queens merchants continually compete for customers with suburban stores, and insufficient parking is a big problem. “Our customers were harassed,” says Fred Gerson, third-generation owner of the Fair Interiors home-furnishings store on Myrtle Avenue in Ridgewood, which attracts about one-third of its customers from outside the city. “It’s the nuisance factor.”
Queens residents are also warily eyeing the Bloomberg administration’s attempts to reform the city’s school system. The borough boasts some of the city’s best schools—a magnet for the middle class—and residents worry that Bloomberg’s curriculum changes and other reforms might do more harm than good. In addition, says the Civic Congress’s Bearak, “There’s always a fear that Queens schools will be robbed of resources, or that teachers or valuable administrators will be moved to elsewhere in the city.”
In neighborhoods as varied as Astoria, Douglaston, Hollis Hills, and Utopia, children score well above the city average on math and reading tests. At two schools in Douglaston, 100 percent of fourth-graders perform at or above grade level in math. Several of the borough’s high schools also far outperform most of their peers; not long ago, Newsweek magazine ranked Bayside’s Benjamin N. Cardozo High School one of the top 100 high schools in the nation, with 98 percent of its graduates going on to college.
Residents say that there is little mystery why their schools succeed within an otherwise dysfunctional system: they benefit from intense parental and community involvement. “Our principals have a big advantage because they can always turn to parents for help,” says Tina Chan, head of the Kew Forest Neighborhood Civic Association. “If a school classroom lacks something in this neighborhood, the parents’ association will go out and raise money and make sure it gets in the classroom.” Indeed, PTAs are an art form in civic-minded Queens. Typical is P.S. 188 in Hollis Hills, where the local parents’ association has some 40 committees that help in fund-raising and advising school administrators.
Despite its many virtues, Queens today is often remembered primarily as the home of All in the Family’s Archie Bunker, the loudmouthed, blue-collar bigot invented by ultra-liberal Norman Lear. Bunker debuted during the Lindsay years, when the liberals looked with horror at how ordinary New Yorkers, especially from Queens’s ethnic neighborhoods, furiously resisted many of the progressive nostrums that Lindsay and his circle tried to force on them. Though Bunker evolved into a sort of genial, cartoonish figure, the show was part of a contemptuous assault against the ideals and values of the country’s blue-collar, family-oriented, ethnic middle class by the liberal elites of the time, who viewed resistance to their agenda as raw bigotry. But the citizens of Queens, for the most part, were not bigots, as Lear depicted them; and they were much wiser than John Lindsay, as the decline and revival of Queens—and of New York as a whole—makes clear. Let’s hope that the Manhattan elites don’t try to ride roughshod over the values and interests of the borough again. It won’t be just Queens that suffers.
Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.