Want to see the most diverse borough in New York City? Forget about Manhattan! Hop on the No. 7 train to Queens from Grand Central terminal and you’ll know you’ve arrived as soon as you burst out of the subway tunnel onto the elevated green iron tracks built mostly by immigrant laborers in the early 1900s. Extending seven miles from Long Island City to Flushing, lofty views of Manhattan’s skyline recede as you meander high above six neighborhoods tied together by Roosevelt Avenue — a bustling thoroughfare packed with street cart vendors, restaurants, markets and cultural landmarks representing nearly 150 nationalities.
Believe it or not Queens was a rural patchwork of meadows and marshes peppered with colonial estates and small villages during the early 20th century. Although ferries, and eventually the Queensborough bridge linked Queens to Manhattan, the No. 7 line, then called the Interborough Rapid Transit, was built in stages to provide the quickest and most inexpensive mode of transit. Many immigrants moved out of crowded tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side seeking a better life. Dubbed “The International Express” by New York City’s Department of Planning, this train truly takes you on a trip around the world in one borough. In 2000, the No. 7 line was designated a National Millennium Trail for distinctly representing the American immigrant experience. Social clubs, parades and festivals provide a shared experience of ethnic identity between residents while offering a learning experience.
Neighborhoods Along the International Express
Get off at any stop and head down Roosevelt Avenue., and along some side streets for total immersion. Keep a look out for 45th Road and its Court House Square Station in Long Island City for your next stop. At the Noguchi Museum, located at 9-01 33rd Road, more than 240 works featuring Akari light sculptures by Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi are on display.
The next stop is Sunnyside, at the 40th and 46th street stops. Once a middle-class Irish enclave, Sunnyside is now home to a mixture of various ethnicities, ranging from Colombian to Romanian. Here, one can stop and browse through a Romanian grocery store or make reservations for a show at the Thalia Spanish Theatre —Queens’ only bilingual Hispanic theater.
Woodside, a little further down the line at 42nd St., gives that “I’ve been here before” feeling because the row houses here were the
setting of “All in the Family’s” opening scene. And true to Archie Bunker’s sensibilities, this neighborhood has retained some vibrant Irish pubs even though many other nationalities have moved in. Not merely places to down a cold one, these social centers spawn an active pub culture where new Irish immigrants can network, find a job, or just chat and watch some Gaelic football or curling matches on the big screen. Donovan’s, at 57-24 Roosevelt Street, serves up what many consider to be the best char-broiled, half-pound burger within the five boroughs. And if it’s a Sunday, you’re in luck because you’ll get to try out their Irish Sunday brunch along with your stout Irish suds.
In Jackson Heights, you have your pick between South Asian and Latin American cultures. Get off at 74th Street and at the bottom of the stairs you can begin browsing the sari shops, visiting the Patel Brothers Grocery loaded with South Asian vegetables and herbs, or sampling a wide variety of Indian sweets at Delhi Palace. At the 82nd street stop, Mexican, South and Central American, as well as Caribbean foods and music spill out onto Roosevelt Avenue. Restaurants here offer free music shows on weekends and street
vendors slice up pork and dole out beans and rice, tropical fruits and freshly squeezed sugar cane juice.
At the end of the line in Flushing, you’ll need a pick-me-up after wandering around NYC’s largest China Town. Be sure to stop in at Udon West Noodle House at 137-80 Northern Boulevard and while resisting the inclination to wrinkle your nose, try a steaming bowl of seaweed soup with your choice of soba or buckwheat noodles.
Even if you don’t get off the train, simply enjoy the ride. You’ll get a good idea from your fellow passengers about what makes this country so great. All these cultures jumbled together, yet retaining their ethnic roots while striving to make it in the United States, yield a cultural collage you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world!
photos courtesy of Steve Mirsky