Tuesday, January 31, 2012

New York missive no 98 - A Queens Kind of Cool

Cool: “The quality of being fashionably attractive or impressive” (New Oxford American Dictionary)

(map from city-data.com)

The other day I found myself in a conversation about how Queens is starting to become cool. It got me thinking about what kind of cool.

Queens hasn’t traditionally been cool. As Nicole Steinberg put it in her introduction to “Forgotten Borough – Writers come to term with Queens”: “It’s not the prettiest borough; upon first glance, not the most memorable…It’s rare that you’ll hear people wax poetic about Queens the way they might over the concrete canyons of Manhattan or the beauteous brownstones of Brooklyn.” There are various reasons no doubt. Among them may be the fact that most people in Queens are too busy working hard to get by and to get on, than to worry about whether the borough is on the map and cool.

Last year I interviewed 52 people along 30th Avenue in Astoria, Queens – one a week. It became clear that in that neighborhood at least, there’s cool around and it’s getting more so. As that happens I hope it’s a cool that is unique to Queens, grounded in what makes Queens itself and not a boilerplate hip-ness transplanted from anywhere. There are three traits I think a Queens cool should celebrate and safeguard: diverse; entrepreneurial; and open.

Diverse: Queens is one of the most diverse places on the planet. That means that its residents have millions of inspiring stories to tell and share, most of which to date have gone undocumented as people go about their lives. They have stories about their journeys or their predecessors’ journeys, about making their home in America and “becoming” American (in whatever way that might mean), about interaction with people from cultures other than their own, and how those cultures define themselves, mix, and blur.

Technology now means that the means to record those stories is always close to hand. Barbara Ganley highlights this in an excellent report for the Orton Family Foundation, “Re-Weaving the Community – Creating the Future: Storytelling at the Heart and Soul of Healthy Communities”. She says: “Affordable voice recorders, cell phones, and digital cameras, free online editing applications and do-it-yourself publishing venues promote the individual and grassroots efforts of citizen journalists and community story-catchers.” Initiatives like the Queens Memory Project and EarSay’s “Crossing the Boulevard” are doing and encouraging just that in Queens.

Why capture and share stories? The Re-Weaving the Community report gives many reasons. But in a nutshell they identify the specific details of day-to-day life, the human details that people remember and repeat and that should be fed into any decision-making about what a neighborhood needs or doesn’t need. They help us keep real.

Entrepreneurial: Queens cool is reflected in entrepreneurs who start successful local businesses. They may remain in one place, they may expand beyond the borough, but if so they keep rooted in the community. People like Frank Arcabascio who in his “30th Ave” interview said he learned "the power of a good haircut" when he swept the floor for tips in his cousin’s barbershop as a kid, and who now runs his own chain of salons. Like Melissa Rivera, who set up her own soap-making business from her apartment. People like Halim of Harissa CafĂ© who worked his way from bus boy after arriving in New York from Algeria, to waiter, to restaurant owner (with stints as a taxi and limo driver along the way), and Sami Mobarak who decided as he approached retirement to make his passion his living by opening an antiques shop.

Open: By that I mean an environment that encourages instead of undermines interaction between people on the streets, the face-to-face exchanges that no amount of virtual social networking can substitute. On a basic level that will mean that “cool” improvements to neighborhoods bear simple geographies in mind, things like keeping sidewalks wide, and ensuring that there are places for people to perch and sit along them. It will mean that old timers and newcomers mix. It will also mean, fundamentally, that changes don’t mean re-invention. That they don’t erase the very diversity and fabric that makes Queens what it is in the first place.

Georgina Young-Ellis, who with her husband was behind the “Welling Court Mural Project” (itself an illustration of Queens cool that works) said in her interview: “There are cool local communities, where the more people who want to live here, and the more wonderful little restaurants get built, the more rents go up and the more that people who were living there a long time get driven out. Then big box stores come in and suddenly it’s not so desirable any more. It’s this whole wave of things that happen.” She added an optimistic note about her part of Queens: “I feel like right now in Astoria there’s an awareness of that wave, and an awareness of how to try to counteract it. So far I see it going in the right direction.” Long may it stay that way.

Those are three ideas. Do you agree or disagree with them? Have others to suggest?