As the mostly white Queens of the past disappears, a multicultural Queens is taking its place; admirers of the borough say it is living proof that urban America can still flourish
ASTORIA, QUEENS, N.Y. — ARCHIE BUNKER would never recognize the old neighborhood.
When most Americans think of the borough of Queens in New York City, they tend to think of the Bunkers, who lived at 704 Hauser Street, a made-for-TV address supposedly located not far from here.
"All in the Family" was set in a community of neatly laid-out row houses near Northern Boulevard, a broad roadway that cuts a swath through northern Queens. Archie worked on Steinway Street, here in Astoria. Archie's world was labor-union oriented, blue collar, politically conservative, and largely white.
While parts of Queens are still conservative, although "traditional" may more aptly describe the political climate, the white-only world of Archie Bunker is long gone.
This borough of roughly 2 million New Yorkers is perhaps the most racially and ethnically diverse borough in the city. Queens is proof that urban America can still flourish in a society where political power and jobs have increasingly moved to the suburbs.
"Queens is a microcosm of America," says Claire Shulman, president of the borough of Queens.
Queens may now be a case study of what many parts of the United States will look like in the next century in terms of ethnic diversity and race, says Raymond Bowen, president of LaGuardia Community College. Located in nearby Long Island City, the college has 42,000 full- and part-time students.
"When I was at LaGuardia when the college was first started up in the early 1970s, about 80 percent of the students were white and about 20 percent were minorities," Mr. Bowen says. "I moved away for a number of years. But when I returned as president of the college in 1980, I found that that there had been a complete flip-flop. About 80 percent of the students are now `minorities,' and about 20 percent are white." LaGuardia students "speak over 60 different languages," says Bowen.
The pell-mell change occurring at LaGuardia Community College is taking place throughout this borough as newcomers - many just arrived - pour into New York from all over the world.
More than 200,000 immigrants moved into Queens during the 1980s. The immigrants, experts agree, are revitalizing Queens, adding new jobs and businesses. Astoria, for example, is the largest Greek-speaking neighborhood in North America. Flushing, one subway stop from Shea Stadium (where the New York Mets play), has the second largest Asian community in the Big Apple, next to Manhattan's Chinatown. Columbians and Ecuadorians are moving into Jackson Heights, near here.
Whites comprise 48 percent of the borough's residents, compared to 63 percent a decade ago. African-Americans and Hispanics make up about 20 percent each. And Asians are at 12 percent, up from 5 percent a decade ago, according to the US Census Bureau. "One-third of the people here are foreign-born," says Dan Andrews, a spokesman for the Queens government.
"This is the `gorgeous mosaic,' the `Rainbow Coalition' that [New York] Mayor David Dinkins enjoys talking about," says Byron Saunders, executive director of the Queens Historical Society. "And the nice thing is, the coalition is largely working out here in Queens."
Politically, Queens is still one of the more conservative boroughs of New York, as former New York school board chancellor Joseph Fernandez found recently. Mr. Fernandez wanted schools to emphasize multiculturalism, tolerance for homosexual rights, and to distribute condoms. School board representatives from Queens joined those from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island in shooting down the plan.
In fact, conservatives still do well in Queens. Many Asian and Hispanic voters adhere to traditional social values linked to family and church. Ronald Reagan scooped up many votes in Queens, as did Mayor Dinkins's Republican opponent in the 1989 mayoral election, Rudolph Giuliani. Mr. Giuliani carried Queens, which he is expected to do in the mayoral election later this year.
What is not in dispute is the political clout of Queens. New York Governor Mario Cuomo hails from here, as does Peter Vallone, the top elected official on New York's city council.
Where Queens's jobs are going to come from in the future remains the big unresolved issue. The borough has been doing quite well in attracting new companies, says Douglas Gladstone, a spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce of Queens. Conservationists and some urban planners argue that the borough is moving too rapidly in allowing outside retailers to open superstores in numerous neighborhoods. Such national chains as Caldor, K mart, Home Depot, Pathmark, and Waldbaum's have either opened new stores or are
looking for places to do so. The borough's high level of household income - around $35,000 - is attracting these retailers.