The News of New York City’s Death is Greatly Exaggerated

This week in North Philly Notes, Francois Pierre-Louis Jr. and Michael Alan Krasner, two of the coauthors of Immigrant Crossroads, write about immigrant groups in Queens, New York.

Since the advent of COVID-19 and the exodus of affluent New Yorkers to the suburbs, some people have predicted that New York will no longer be the city that never sleeps. Our book Immigrant Crossroads has shown the contrary, documenting and analyzing the many fascinating dynamics of community and political activism in this unique borough.

For immigrant families that had endured the four years of the Trump administration living away from their loved ones, the Biden presidency brings new hope and renewed optimism that what Queens was already showing to America will continue. That the vibrant growth exemplified by the borough of Queens and temporarily impeded will flourish again.

Since the 1990s Queens has become the urban epicenter for contemporary immigration—a place that boasts immigrants from 140 countries. While Manhattan drew millions of tourists and mega-rich condo buyers, the city’s four other Boroughs saw the influx of working- and middle-class newcomers from every continent. Places that used to be unattractive to developers and commercial interests suddenly became prime real estate and desired places for immigrants and the middle class to live. Queens led the way in this transformation from being an enclave dominated by the white working class to being perhaps the most diverse aggregation of human beings on the planet. Queens has become an epicenter of  immigrant striving, and activism, presenting an alternative to the nativist vision pursued by Trump’s  propagandists and enforcers.

Hollowed out by white flight, in the 1980s and 90s, New York City’s outer Boroughs have been revitalized with the influx of new immigrants from Asia, Latin America, Caribbean and Africa. Neighborhoods such as Flushing, Bayside, and Laurelton have emerged as the epicenter of New York City’s Asian American community. Within a decade, Flushing has become one of the city’s major commercial and banking center for the Asian community. Corona and Jackson Heights became destinations for those from Latin America, and Astoria became the home for Russians and Eastern Europeans and those from the Middle East. All across the borough of Queens, immigrants remade blighted neighborhoods into thriving communities.

As major economic developments took place, new forms of immigrant activism emerged in Queens’ other neighborhoods, a process that is remaking the social, cultural, economic, and political fabric of the city. Take the case of Corona, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Flushing where seventy-five percent of the residents are people of color. When the City announced in 2012, that it would give away portions of Flushing Meadows Park to private developers as a way to revitalize the local economy, a coalition of community-based groups and faith-based organizations created the Fairness Coalition of Queens to fight the Bloomberg administration’s economic development agenda. Forcing the cancellation of a sterile soccer stadium and other mega projects, the Fairness Coalition asserted its own power and priorities to call attention to the need for affordable housing and the checking of rampant  gentrification.

A similar pattern has developed in national immigration politics. Drawing on a heavily foreign-born population (One-in-two residents in Queens are foreign-born, ranking it second in the nation for percentage of foreign-born residents), activist Dreamer organizations have lobbied successfully for state legislation and led the fight for similar action from the federal government. Among the first set of actions by the Biden Administration are a rash of executive orders and a far-reaching legislative proposal to not only undo Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant policies but to usher in human pathways to immigrant inclusion.

Pioneering efforts on health care accessibility, an issue made salient by the Covid crisis also began in Queens where two city-wide immigrant advocacy organizations successfully organized to pass the Language Access in Pharmacies Act in 2009 and in 2012 mandating pharmacies provide comprehensive translation and interpretation services to patients with limited English proficiency.

As these examples suggest, the true impact of the recent surge of new immigrant groups is complex, contradicting partisan stereotypes and xenophobic pandering. Serious scholarship from varied disciplines reveals the richly textured contributions that resurgent nativism has sought to obliterate. Our volume demonstrates that being an Immigrant Crossroads has led New York City to flourish and suggests a path that the entire country would do well to consider following to revive the national motto, “Out of many, one.”

On the highway to grandmother’s house? Lessons from early automobile landscapes

This week in North Philly Notes, Amy Finstein, author of Modern Mobility Aloft, considers how American cities used elevated highways as major architectural statements about local growth and modernization in the early 20th century.

Ah, the winter holidays; that time of the year so often defined by highway car-trips to see family and friends—at least pre-COVID-19. Even as many stay home this year, the basic idea of that pattern—easy mobility—remains a cornerstone of modern American identity, and one indebted to a century’s worth of choices about making landscapes accommodate the scale and pace of the automobile.

As an architectural historian, I wondered if there was a way to measure this automotive shift in the history of the built environment. Historians have documented the design and societal evolution of automobiles and car culture; design and planning scholars have detailed the evolution of streets, roadside landscapes, and Interstate highways as interventions supporting our collective automotive enthusiasm. However, most of these examples thrived outside of city centers. Were there architectural projects that brought the prowess of mobility to bear on the physical landscape of existing American cities?

I found part of the answer to this question in my hometown of Boston, MA. From the 1990s through the early 2000s, the city endured the famous “Big Dig,” an enormous public works project that buried and threaded a tunneled 10-lane highway beneath a still-functioning elevated highway, eventually deconstructing and replacing the elevated highway (the Central Artery) with a surface network of public parks. For the fifty years before the Big Dig, the green steel of the Central Artery had provided a mechanized and looming presence in city streets, unabashedly pronouncing the importance of car travel while simultaneously failing to meet the capacity or speed demands of its automotive users. This, I thought, was a landscape that dramatically demonstrated the arrival of automobility in Boston, and the complexities of its lasting impact. Thus, the genesis of Modern Mobility Aloft was born.

With Boston’s Central Artery as my starting point, I honed in on two other examples of constructed roadways whose physical presences and legacies varied from that in Boston: Chicago’s classically-decorated and still-in-use Wacker Drive, and New York’s West Side Elevated Highway, an Art Deco hulk torn down in the 1990s. All three of these examples were designed in the early twentieth century, but faced hurdles about aesthetics, route, and cost that delayed their implementation; and that ultimately provoked their later reconsideration. Modern Mobility Aloft argues that these constructed roads synthesized architecture and engineering at the scale of the American city, and announced the importance of modern mobility to drivers and streetgoers in prominent visual and experiential terms. The book connects debates about design and transportation across disciplines, showing how the infancy of the automobile age laid the groundwork for landscapes and challenges that linger with us still.

Here are some things that can be learned from studying early urban elevated highways:

  • Before federal highway legislation, many highway initiatives originated locally to respond to local concerns for socio-economic and physical progress.
  • Early 20th century architects, engineers, science-fiction writers, and municipal leaders shared enthusiasm for utopian visions of multi-level streets weaving between and through soaring skyscrapers.
  • The insertion of elevated highways in existing cities became one way of realizing pieces of these utopian schemes.
  • Elevated railroads foretold some of the organizational, visual, and experiential problems of elevated highways, but did not dissuade planners from pursuing them.
  • Architects design more than buildings: high-profile designers planned highway superstructures, on-ramps, guardrails, sculptural reliefs, light fixtures, and balustrades.
  • Connections matter: design and transportation consultants brought similar ideas from place to place, spreading certain patterns across diverse landscapes.
  • Architectural modernity can be conveyed by many different visual languages.
  • The examples in Chicago, New York, and Boston define a pattern that is also visible in many other American cities.
  • Early elevated highways foreshadowed patterns of automobile prioritization and social displacement that came to characterize later federal road-planning approaches.
  • Impacted cities still sport the vestiges of early elevated highways—with varying incarnations of automobile dominance, architectural denial, and visible scars defining 21st century urban landscapes.

So, in many ways, American cities served as the testing grounds for new ideas about modern transportation, architecture, and urbanism. Early elevated highways combined these concepts in singular forms. Before highways stretched across the national landscape, they soared above individual cities, providing exciting yet contradictory visions of expected futures.

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