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On every trip to New York City, I’ve traveled with a long list—of things to do, of walks to take, of foods to eat, and of museums to see. Our vacation early in August to New York City was a different trip altogether. We were flying out to just spend time with our children and see other family and friends. On this trip, we also had the use of our son’s car and the opportunity to explore corners we didn’t venture into during our more recent trips to New York City.
In the mid-eighties, when my husband and I visited the New York area, we’d rented a car and driven to Jackson Heights, a suburb of Queens, to dine at a vegetarian restaurant named Udupi that specialized in excellent south Indian fare, its specialties being different kinds of dosa. On our recent trip, however, when I googled the name Udupi nothing popped up. A friend told me I should simply eat at the canteen of the Ganesha temple located at Flushing instead. Imagine wanting fine dining and being directed to the college cafeteria instead. The place that I ultimately chose, Samudhra, meaning “ocean” in Sanskrit, was so forgettable that I drowned in regret later. I discovered as the evening wore on, that of late there were minimal options for south Indian vegetarian fare at Jackson Heights.
I was surprised by the changes I saw in three decades. I learned, however, that this suburb of Queens had always been in flux. The first homes in Jackson Heights were built around 1916, and they were primarily meant to house middle-class white families trying to escape the overcrowding in New York City. Curiously enough, over the decades, this area also became the hub for a substantial gay community from the Manhattan theater district. As Jackson Heights became colorful and varied, it became known for both crime and cocaine. As all places that are ethnically and socially diverse, it became a neighborhood that also made immigrants feel at home.
The day we were looking to eat a dosa at Jackson Heights, I spotted a food truck with pictures of street foods native to India’s Kolkata, a metropolis with a large population of people from Bangladesh. On the truck were detailed pictures of the fare. The fuchka looked mouthwatering. A New York Times review from 2019 was posted in its entirety on one side of the truck. It was obvious that Jackson Heights had now become the center of life for folk from Bangladesh. Many of the women walking about the intersection at 37th Avenue and 73rd Street were Muslim women, their abaya a giveaway about their faith. Inside the massive Apna Bazar Farmers Market, open 24/7, many of the spice boxes sold gravy made for meat dishes. The names of many storefronts were written in Bengali. This was hardly surprising. Hebrew signs decorated doorways and buses a few miles away in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. Mandarin signs adorned storefronts in the neighborhood of Flushing in Queens.
Thanks to the overhaul of Jackson Heights, Samudhra proved to be a titanic disappointment to me that night; my daughter’s comment earlier that evening — why I would go looking for a dosa at Jackson Heights — now made complete sense. Businesses had traded hands over time. Of the approximately 5000 Bangladeshis in New York City, the highest concentration of them was at Queens. A few decades from now, the Bangladeshi settlement might morph into a hub for another community trying to get a foothold in America and American politics would undoubtedly determine how that would play out. The immigration of Indians was the result of a political change.
After the 1965 Immigration Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, professionally qualified people began to arrive in America in droves. The new law established a preference system based on professional status and family reunification. New York, often the first port of entry in those days, became a hodge-podge of many different Indian immigrants with myriad skills. These people would go on to build these lively, bustling Indian enclaves in the New York metropolitan area where one could buy anything from paan, jasmine braids, and samosa to high fashion Indian clothes. A vibrant example of this was Edison’s Oak Tree Drive, the main drag for all things Indian that was even memorialized in a song. Running for about one-and-a-half miles through Edison and neighboring Iselin, this zone is the largest and most diverse South Asian ethnic enclave and cultural hub in the United States. At all three of the places I visited on this trip—Edison, Jersey City, and Jackson Heights—I felt as if I were, with a flick of a wand, entering a magical block in India’s Mumbai that had transplanted itself in America.
While my husband and I stood at the live pani puri counter in Edison a few weeks ago gorging on many flavors of this delicacy, I wondered why these Little Indias on the east coast felt much more authentic than those near my home in California. Their self-confidence and swagger was real. Their businesses were here to stay—at least until the owners died and someone new with both a dream and a plan came knocking at their door.
Kalpana Mohan is the author of AN ENGLISH MADE IN INDIA: HOW A FOREIGN LANGUAGE BECAME LOCAL and of DADDYKINS: A MEMOIR OF MY FATHER AND I. She lives in Saratoga, California.
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