Although I didn't know it at the time, this story began some five years ago, when I hired a decrepit U-Haul and drove a ragtag collection of books, clothes, and particle-board furniture from a charming but cramped two-bedroom in Brooklyn to a bright and spacious one-bedroom in Queens. Much later, looking back, I realized that at just under eight miles this was by far the shortest leg of my journey. Remarkably, it took me two years to make it.
When I first moved to New York, Queens seemed to me a vast and forbidding land, home to airports, big-box retailers, and The Nanny. I'd come to New York to experience the quicksilver tempo of big-city life, and Queens seemed run-of-the-mill. It had neither Manhattan's consequence nor Brooklyn's self-conscious cache. I didn't know anyone who lived there. I didn't even know anyone who went there. The New York Times seemed to admit its existence only begrudgingly. Worst of all, it was home to the Mets. So for the most part I stayed away.
I'd like to say I eventually found my way to Queens because I had some sort of grand epiphany, but the truth is I met a guy, and that guy's apartment happened to be just fifteen minutes from my office. Naturally, I moved in with him.
I made my new home in Sunnyside, a relatively small neighborhood nestled between Long Island City and Woodside, six stops from Grand Central on the 7 train. Sunnyside is unpretentious and friendly, and even its most affluent pockets are unmistakably urban. Its sidewalks are bustling if not crowded, and the muted rattle of the subway is underscored by the ever-present commercial hum of Queens Boulevard. If you look down 43rd Avenue, you can see the Chrysler Building. If you look down Greenpoint you can see the Empire State Building.
It's also a remarkably diverse neighborhood. My first apartment in Sunnyside was located on a street that boasted a Turkish grocery, a Korean acupuncturist, a Chinese dry cleaner, an Ecuadorian bakery, and a Romanian nightclub (which featured, delightfully, occasional appearances by a DJ named Vlad). I frequently supplemented my meager kitchen skills by taking a short walk to the Lebanese sandwich counter, the Colombian pupuseria, or the Bangladeshi-owned French bistro. After a particularly bad day in front of the computer, I had my pick of half a dozen legitimately Irish bars.
For a language-lover like myself, living here was heaven. Each day I'd hear at least six different languages as residents switched between their native tongues and what was far more often than not a very fluent form of English. At the time of the 2000 Census, out of 8,142 respondents in my ZIP code, 29% reported speaking English as a first language. The rest were native speakers of more than 30 other languages including Spanish, Korean, Chinese, South Asian languages like Hindi, Gujarati, and Bengali, Romanian, and Arabic. There are enough Irish speakers in Sunnyside that there was at one point a push to convince Chase to include Irish on its ATM menu. I was even given an opportunity to dust off my French when a mentally unhinged downstairs neighbor began sending me handwritten notes complaining about the noise from a non-existent air-conditioner.
Although New York City is unquestionably an enormously diverse city, a little-discussed truth is that it is shockingly easy to avoid that diversity, linguistic and otherwise. For some it can be conscious decision — a lease in a tony neighborhood, the sort of job that considers a Dartmouth grad a diversity hire — but for many it's an unexpected consequence of institutionalized segregation and technological isolation. I lived in New York for three years before taking much notice of the languages around me. My neighborhood in Brooklyn was largely white and lower-middle-class, and my industry was largely white and upper-middle-class. In between, I listened to my iPod.
But once I moved to Sunnyside, my curiosity couldn't help being piqued, and so, finally, I started to pay attention. And then, I started to explore. I began in small ways, by staying on the train an extra stop or two or maybe even occasionally taking the bus. I quizzed my friends, my husband, the nice Turkish brothers at the grocery store, anyone who knew more about Queens than I did — which, at that point, was basically everybody. Before long, I began to get a sense of the borough beyond my quiet little neighborhood.
With only 110 square miles and a population of almost 2.3 million — roughly half of whom are foreign-born — Queens is one of the most densely populated areas in the United States and one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the world. Each of its individual neighborhoods offers a glimpse into the world's language and cultures. Take Astoria, for instance, a sprawling neighborhood along the East River that's known for its large Greek population. In 1927, when 16 Greek families settled in Astoria, they were only able to raise enough money to be able to afford to build the basement of a Greek Orthodox church. So that's where they worshiped — for 13 years. Despite such humble beginnings, by the mid-90s nearly half of Astoria's population was Greek, making it the largest Greek city not actually in Greece.
Today the area is home to an even wider range of nationalities, from Brazilians to Bulgarians. There is in particular a strong Arab presence, and if you walk up Steinway Street towards Astoria Boulevard and the BQE you'll find yourself, as I did, surrounded by cafes, hookahs, and Arabic script. This is the part of Astoria known as Little Egypt, home to at least 10 mosques and several thousand Arabic speakers. Here I found a tiny Egyptian restaurant — hard to miss thanks to the conspicuous Wedjat eye over the entrance — and dined on clay-pot stew while the owner talked my ear off about his homeland.
Northwest of Little Egypt, on 24th Street just past Astoria Boulevard, is the Bohemian Citizens' Benevolent Society (known more familiarly as the Bohemian Beer Garden), the one place I'd visited before moving to Queens. The Bohemian Citizens' Benevolent Society was first formed when large numbers of Czech and Slovak immigrants began arriving in Astoria in the late nineteenth century. The society completed construction on the beer garden in 1919. Unfortunately Prohibition went into effect in early 1920, and so it took a few years for the beer garden to properly come into its own. But it is today still kept in booming business on balmy days by throngs of twenty-something city-dwellers.
Astoria is just one corner of the borough, though. Back to the west, past Sunnyside and Woodside, is Jackson Heights, a neighborhood with one of the largest percentages of foreign-born residents anywhere in New York City. Here you will find not only Latin American immigrants — Colombians and Uruguayans and more Argentineans than anywhere else in the city — but also New York's largest South Asian shopping district. With over 100 nationalities living in Jackson Heights, it's hard to imagine that Queensboro Realty, the company that originally developed much of the housing stock in the area, did its best to keep Jews, Catholics, and blacks from moving in.
Farther east is Flushing, hometown of Fran Drescher, Marvin Hamlisch, and the Weinstein Brothers and a part of the city that looks more like Chinatown than Chinatown itself. Here you'll find 50% of the borough's Chinese population and, if hypercompetitive foodies are to be believed, 100% of the city's "authentic" Chinese food. You'll also find the busiest branch of the busiest library in the country. The Flushing community library, which includes materials in Bengali, Chinese, English, French, Gujarati, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, and Urdu, holds more than 50,000 books in 76,000 square feet. In this bustling neighborhood, new arrivals use the library not only as a resource for language-learning and job-training, but also as a community center. According to library statistics, more than 5,000 people use the library each day, with circulation hovering around 200,000 items a month, testament to the vitality and initiative of immigrant life.
Then there's Rego Park, a Jewish neighborhood probably unlike any you've ever seen. Located south of Elmhurst and Corona in eastern Queens, Rego Park is, along with nearby Forest Hills and Kew Gardens, home to tens of thousands of Bukharian Jews. The Bukharians are descendants of an isolated group of Central Asian Jews who, incredibly, managed to survive centuries of oppression before eventually finding their way to more hospitable lands like Israel and Queens. Along 108th Street — known as "Bukharian Broadway" — a variety of Bukharian shops and synagogues stand alongside Uzbek and Tajik restaurants. It was here that I first learned about Bukharic (or Bukhori), a language that shares a number of similarities with Tajiki and Farsi but that has over the years absorbed a large number of Hebrew words and is traditionally even written with the Hebrew alphabet.
You could spend a lifetime in Queens and still find ways to be amazed each day by all the little pieces of the world it contains. Before I moved to Sunnyside I had the idea that ethnic neighborhoods tended to be concentrated and homogenous, that there were Chinatowns and Little Italys, but that they were always separated by some kind of Canal Street. In Queens, however, the realities of size and population preclude hard-and-fast geographical divisions. Sometimes, within a single block, you can circumnavigate the globe.
From Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America's Languages by Elizabeth Little. Copyright 2012 by Elizabeth Little. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.