Huddled masses fill the sidewalks, rushing here and there. Large buildings, casting dark shadows onto the street below, act as echo chambers for horn-happy drivers. The sidewalk is filled with a multitude of different scents – greasy food, sewage, cigarettes and exhaust from a passing bus, to name a few. Beneath, the No. 7 subway rumbles past, shooting a warm, MTA-scented breeze directly up the nostrils of chilly passersby.
Sounds like 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan, right? Wrong. This is actually Roosevelt Avenue in Downtown Flushing – a rapidly growing immigrant community, composed predominantly of Chinese and Korean-Americans – which lies about nine miles east of Midtown in the northeast quadrant of the borough of Queens.
Because of its unique identity and urban character, Downtown Flushing, one of Greater Flushing’s many constituent parts, has come to be known by many names – including Flushing Chinatown, Chinese Manhattan, and “Falashing” – a Mandarin word for it.
Since the 1970s, the Chinese population in Downtown Flushing has been quickly and steadily increasing. Flushing’s evolution mirrors trends in Queens at large. According to the 2014 United States Census population estimate, 26 percent of Queens County residents are Asian – a marked increase from the Census in 1970, when just one percent of Queens residents were Asian.
While Downtown Flushing – especially areas near Main St. between Kissena and Northern Blvds. – is predominantly Chinese, areas to the east are more diverse. A Korean enclave lies to the east of the Chinese one – beginning on Union St. and extending east along Northern Blvd. into Murray Hill and Auburndale.
However, the center of Flushing life lies in the squarely heart of Flushing Chinatown– at the loud, congested intersection of Roosevelt Ave. and Main St. Located directly above the last stop on the No. 7 Subway line, and directly below the Main St. LIRR station along the Port Washington Branch, it is not uncommon to hear trains rumbling above and beneath street level. What is particularly noticeable upon arrival is the sheer number of low-flying planes in Flushing’s skies, given its close proximity to LaGuardia Airport.
The crowds that pack the sidewalks here are used to it though, and they carry out their business uncaring of the mass motion of the world surrounding them.
Just like any other community, food lies at the center of life in Flushing Chinatown. Markets dot the sidewalk along Flushing’s busiest streets. Most of these markets specialize in bringing their immigrant clientele the ingredients of their homeland.
GW Supermarket, on Northern Blvd. at Leavitt St. is one such specialty market, featuring an expansive selection of live seafood – including lobster, shrimp, frogs, eel and others. Specialty produce is also available there, including winter melon, bean sprouts and Chinese eggplant – a tuberous vegetable reminiscent of a zucchini that is purple in color. In addition, Chinese groceries and meats are also offered, including delicacies such as pork blood, the livers of various creatures and a wide selection of rice.
There are several of these markets in Flushing Chinatown. Two in particular are located in small shopping malls. The Hong Kong Plaza, located on Main St. between 37th and 38th Aves., is home to several shops, but dissolves into the busy Hong Kong Supermarket in the rear of the mall.
Similarly, the New World Mall on Roosevelt Ave. is dominated by Jmart, a massive Chinese market on the first floor. Interestingly, New World Mall has little to offer in the way of conventional mall attractions. Rather than the usual shopping mall destinations – such as Banana Republic, Gap, Apple, or J. Crew, New World Mall features many more small, local, mostly Chinese businesses.
At the bottom of the mall is the food court, which is home to several Chinese fast food vendors. Most of the signage in the food court is in Chinese exclusively, and the tables are packed. On the top floor is the Grand Restaurant, which provides a more formal, sit-down setting. The restaurant is opulently decorated, clad with rich leather and lit warmly by large, imposing crystal chandeliers that hang from the ceiling. The room is loud and echoes with the sounds of silverware clanking and lively discussion – the great majority of which is held in Mandarin or Cantonese.
The Grand Restaurant is one of many restaurants that make up Flushing’s dining scene. Along the busiest streets are restaurant after restaurant, many of which lure in passersby with large displays of glazed duck and pork ribs hanging under heat lamps in clear picture windows facing the sidewalk.
Relics from Flushing’s past still remain. On the north side of Northern Blvd. at Linden Pl. is Flushing Town Hall. Now a community center run by Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts, the town hall once served as a functioning government facility from 1862 until 1898. After then, it was briefly functioned as a courthouse, dance hall, bank branch, and even, for a time, a jail, according to its website.
Across Northern Blvd. on the south side is the Flushing Meeting House, one of three Quaker houses of worship in the five boroughs. Completed in 1694, the Flushing Meeting House is a humble brown-shingled building located directly next to a three-hundred year old burial ground. Both the meeting house and the burial ground are enclosed with black, wrought iron gates. According to a 2007 article in The New York Times, the house resulted from the issuance of the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition to then New Amsterdam colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant to end persecution against Quakers. At the urging of John Bowne, (whose house still stands a few blocks away on his namesake Bowne St.) and the Dutch East India Company, Stuyvesant ended the persecution.
For this, Flushing has come to be known as a particularly diverse area religiously.
St. George’s Episcopal Church stands on Main St. at 38th Ave. Much like the Meeting House, this church has its own modest burial ground behind an iron fence, yet the building itself is far more ornate – featuring an imposing stone steeple.
Other notable houses of worship in the neighborhood include the Free Synagogue of Flushing on Kissena Blvd., St. Michael’s Catholic Church on Union St., and the Chinese for Christ New York Church on Franklin Ave.
Flushing’s deep tradition of religious freedom is just one of the facets that make it a quintessentially American destination. Sure, it may not appear so – much of the signs are in Mandarin, much of the food is not what one would call “American,” and the population itself not very representative of America at large at all.
But, at its dawn, it stood as a symbol of freedom from religious oppression, and today, for the almost 90,000 foreign born people who reside there today, Flushing acts as a doorway to a brighter future. And what’s more idealistically American than that?