I started writing this a few months ago before the pandemic hit — every day now, I think about how swiftly this crisis has hit our communities, the circumstances that lead to it, and how we can better design our cities with public health in mind. The neighborhoods around Elmhurst Hospital are resilient and they will come back stronger than ever. Forever grateful to all of the frontline healthcare workers, some of whom I interacted with, in Elmhurst and throughout NYC.
On the first day of this year, my mother was hospitalized with a severe case of the flu (make sure you stay hydrated!) — she spent 2 days at Elmhurst Hospital.
If you’ve had experience with NYC Health + Hospitals, our publicly funded hospital network, you know that the emergency rooms can be a hectic and traumatic experience. Yet despite hours in the ER and days in the hospital, my observant self allowed me to find solace in the moments I spent there.
I noticed everyone who crossed my path: The Filipina nurse; The Latino family comforting their mother next to mine; The Bangladeshi grandmother whose knees might’ve given in; The Asian doctor; The Russian transporter.
I remembered that I was still in Queens and was comforted to see the world before me — although it was distressing at times with corrections officers handling inmates from Rikers Island.
With the hospital at an intersection of Elmhurst that borders Jackson Heights and Woodside, you sense that you’re in a crossroads of the world in one of the most diverse zip codes to exist.
An immigrant’s tale
My mother, Emilia, immigrated to this country in the early 1990s and New York was surely a different place back then. In my earliest childhood memories, she was running around the city, scrambling to sightsee, gossiping in cafés, and shopping in grocery stores that carried items other than processed food.
My mother is a social butterfly, which makes a lot of sense when you get to know me. Her life could be upended, finding herself in a city that looks nothing like in the movies, with a foreign language, and she would still find a way to meet new companions. Even if this meant striking up on conversation with a stranger at a bus stop.
My mother, who is Bulgarian-born, would take me as a child to the Colombian and Uruguayan bakeries of Jackson Heights knowing that the vibe reminded her of cafés in Sofia. She would shop almost exclusively at Chinese supermarkets in Elmhurst (since they were the closest) for vegetables you could not find in American supermarkets and higher-quality fish. She would become homies with the Pakistani owner of the mobile phone shop on 74th Street because he sold the calling card with the cheapest rates for Bulgaria. And, of course, she regularly visited Turkish and Greek grocery stores in Astoria for the best fetas, grape leaves, and baklava to remind her of home.
Without a cohesive Bulgarian-American community in New York at the time, my mother felt at ease meeting people from the rest of the world. That is the beauty that Queens exemplifies — I would argue the best that I’ve seen in the country (but that’s just my pride talking). It is the unique nature of immersing yourself, assimilating in a non-traditional “American” way, and feeling at home among people who you never thought you’d interact with. It’s no surprise that blended into the mosaic you also find one of the largest queer communities in New York.
People come to Queens to build a dream — they land at JFK and they stay. Whether that dream comes true is a discussion for a less romantic post. One film that struck me several years ago was Entre Nos. A slice of life picture that poetically paints the struggles of a Colombian woman in these same neighborhoods. She navigates the difficulties of immigrant American life and poverty with no English, but with her kids by her side. Immediately, I thought about the paths my mom had crossed and who she’d interacted with. Grinding scenes of poverty are joined by fleeting moments of joy and perseverance that embody the sanctuary this family finds in their corner of Queens. How can we do better by this family and all those who migrate to find a new life?
The success of these neighborhoods isn’t just about the diversity of humans that migrate there, but also the diversity in businesses, housing, recreation, and cultural spaces. Near Elmhurst Hospital, you’ll find some of the best Asian restaurants and empanadas in the city, temples, a park officially known as “Moore Homestead Playground,” (which I guarantee you no one calls it), Elmhurst Library, Roosevelt Avenue station, and much more. These are the fundamentals that helped build strong and integrated communities, of any kind, yet it has become a medley of cultures due to that recipe.
With its prominence as a cultural hub of Queens, this area and many others that mirror it, face similar problems: overcrowding, a lack of sufficient resources (particularly in public health as we’ve seen unfold), insufficient transit for the density, etc. Have these limitations stifled any of the community building over the years? Clearly not — they have flourished despite them.
For all the trauma and exhaustion that migration of all sorts causes, our shared experiences in neighborhoods like these are vital to fostering thriving communities. When thinking about how we want to make changes for the future, we should strive to recreate the formula of these neighborhoods with all of their glory and less of their grit. (I am, however, convinced that NYC will always be a little dirty.) These experiences are not unique to New York. We should listen to the stories of people who chose to call places like Elmhurst home to learn about its successes and shortcomings. The next generation melting pot can be just as welcoming and resilient in Queens and beyond.