The borough of Queens is the most ethnically diverse urban area in the USA, being home to immigrants from all over the globe. It’s the second-most densely populated borough (after Brooklyn), with over 2 million residents in 2015, almost 50% of them foreign-born, so it deserves its designation as a “melting pot”, with its ever-growing variety of restaurants, boutiques, modern art museums and – of late – design-forward hotels.
Here’s why you should visit the happening ‘hood of Queens now
Known for its bustling and diverse food scene, thanks to various ethnic enclaves which include large Indian, South American and South Asian communities, Jackson Heights may be the most delicious-smelling destination in Queens.
Walking down one of the neighbourhood’s busiest thoroughfares, 74th St, it’s easy to see why it’s been nicknamed “Indian Row”. Men in traditional Indian garb chat on the sidewalks and heady spices emanate from the many eateries and grocery stores lining the block, from street vendors selling spicy Indian chaat to the inexpensive lunch buffet at Jackson Diner (37-47 74th St) and the grand Patel Brothers grocery store (3727 74th St), a source for Madras curry powder and other spices. On Sundays, foodies from around the city head to the Jackson Heights Greenmarket, a local farmer’s hub that sells seafood, bread, fruit, vegetables, meats, wines and other goods.
No neighbourhood would be complete without a local hangout, where millennials can sip lattes and do business on their laptops and tablets. Here, that place is Espresso 77 (35-57 77th St), a cosy coffee shop known for its flavourful espressos and honey mint limonata. In the evenings and on weekends, you can see live performances and view artworks by local artists.
On 37th Ave, between 80th and 82nd Sts, there are a variety of boutiques and restaurants which are unique to this neighbourhood. Emoji Burger (80-07 37th Ave) is a new joint offering a variety of burgers, with the meat patties made from organically sourced beef. The owner, Jarvis Fernandez, wanted to create an intimate space where people could enjoy high-quality burgers. The turkey burger, slathered with avocado, is also a winner.
One-of-a-kind shopping (mostly for ethnic wares) is also rewarding in Jackson Heights. Raj Jewels of London sells an abundance of gold jewellery, Butala Emporium (37-46 74th St) carries a range of icons and incense, while Lavanya offers jewel-toned saris. Near Jackson Heights’ main transit hub, Roosevelt Ave, say “hello” to the neighbourhood mascot: a penguin statue named Wink that’s always dressed up by a local.
LONG ISLAND CITY
Once a prime manufacturing hub, Long Island City (LIC) is now home to one of NYC’s most exciting art scenes. The neighbourhood’s turn-of-the-century industrial buildings are adorned with graffiti designs and many have been transformed into galleries, museums and studios.
LIC’s the place for both professional and amateur photographers, who can capture the high-rises across the Hudson River. Start by having brunch at the Ravel Hotel’s rooftop restaurant, Penthouse 808 (8-08 Queens Plaza South), which offers sweeping views of the Queensboro Bridge and the Manhattan skyline.
Alternatively, visit Mundo (37-06 36 St), located inside the eclectically designed Paper Factory Hotel (painted fire hydrants, books forming walls and a British telephone booth are among its attractions). The restaurant is health-orientated and inspired by Argentinian, Turkish and other gobal cuisines (hence its name).
To walk off a hefty midday meal, take a stroll around Gantry Plaza, a 5ha state park located on the river. The pier features dual striking, massive signs reading “Long Island” and there’s plenty of green space, punctuated by weeping willows and ideal places for a quiet moment or a picnic with a significant other.
For outdoor shopping, visit LIC Flea & Food (5-25 46th Ave), a weekend market open from 11am-6pm. Vendors line the enclosed area, including Artisanal Twinkies, which sells gourmet treats, and Andrew Nichols’ Art, where you can buy the eponymous local artist’s colourful, extravagant paintings of both people and nature.
MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Ave) is worth a visit: it’s a public primary school-turned-museum offering no permanent collection, but rotating works with a very improvisational feel. The curators have used every available surface to display art, from the rooftop and stairwells to the boiler-room basement, where there’s a long-term exhibit featuring Sol LeWitt’s mesmerising Crayola Square, a crayon wall drawing.
At the East River’s Socrates Sculpture Park, there’s also an ever-changing assortment of sculpture and art installations, mostly by emerging artists.
One small section of LIC, Dutch Kills, has emerged as a new hotspot. Located just north of Queensboro Plaza, it reveals an industrial hamlet-turned-happening micro-hood. For visitors to this residential area lined with stately single-family homes, an unlikely establishment stands right in its centre. The Boro Hotel (38-28 27th St) is decked out in minimalist design, with a rooftop offering views of the Manhattan skyline from Harlem to One World Trade Center. The Boro Café recently launched an all-day menu crafted by Chef George Mandakas offering simple, healthy ingredients with unique preparations and presentations.
A trip to LYC’s adjacent area of Astoria is always a joy. The destination’s also about 15 minutes’ commute from midtown Manhattan: the Northern and Western subway lines run through the heart of the neighborhood, above 31st St. If you ask any long-standing residents about Astoria’s history, they’ll refer to it as a traditionally Greek area.
There are at least half a dozen Greek restaurants and bakeries sprinkled along the intertwining blocks and most visitors come here for the food. One popular option is Psari Seafood & Restaurant (3210 36th Ave), which serves specialities like saganaki (lightly fried kefalograviera cheese) and moussaka (baked eggplant and potatoes with meat sauce). And there’s the Omonia pastry shop (32-20 Broadway), opened by John Arvanitis in 1977 when he was a newly-arrived, 19-year-old immigrant from Greece.
However, there are also many other ethnic cuisines in Astoria. At Leo’s Pizza, a nondescript corner establishment, people can pop in for beautifully arranged slices with fresh ingredients like eggplant and spinach. Get a taste for Japanese sake during the free tasting at Astoria Wine & Spirits and enjoy delicious Czech fare at old-school beer garden Bohemian Hall.
Before leaving Astoria, visit the innovative American Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Ave), which explores all facets of TV and film production, from their origins to the cutting-edge techniques used today. The attractions inside the museum include Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope (the precursor to the movie projector), classic Star Wars action figures and a small arcade where you can play vintage games like Donkey Kong and Asteroids in all their retro glory.
This article is an edited version of the article titled “Queen of Boroughs” featured in the July 2016 issue of Sawubona magazine.
Images: Getty and Adrienne Jordaan.