The fields and farms of early Jackson Heights

Suburban Jackson Heights

Prior to the year 1900, there was no such place as Jackson Heights. The area was instead known as the Trains Meadow section of Newtown, later renamed Elmhurst. Before the twentieth century, Jackson Heights was mainly a rural area composed of farms and fields. When the Queensborough Bridge opened in 1909, it sparked land purchases and speculation. The Queensboro Corporation, headed by Edward MacDougall, bought a large amount of land and developed it, building housing apartments and planting gardens. MacDougall’s vision for Jackson Heights consisted of an exclusive tight- knit suburban community. The final touch was the name: Jackson Heights. The community was named ”Jackson” after John Jackson, the president of the Hunters Point and Flushing Turnpike Company (which operated the Jackson Avenue trolley), and “Heights” came from the fact that the area is on high land. Jackson Heights had a suburban vibe to it, which was ideal for people who wanted to be close to the hustle and bustle of the city without being immersed in it. In an attempt to attract this crowd, the Queensboro Corporation took out the very first advertisement on radio in order to publicize the availability of real estate in the neighborhood.

During the 1920s the population of Jackson Heights expanded. Among those who moved there were gay people. Jackson Heights at the time developed into a gay haven, an ironic disparity when compared to the prevalent attitude toward minorities. The original Jackson Heights was not the diverse community we know it to be today. Before the 1950s, Jackson Heights was ethnically and economically homogeneous. It was built to be a neighborhood for the white middle class, and was advertised as a restricted community that did not allow Jews, African Americans, or Catholics. The prices of apartments and houses in the area shaped it into an upper class neighborhood for wealthier families.

Edward MacDougall

During the 1930s, Jackson Heights experienced some financial issues as a result of the Great Depression. Many residents struggled to pay their mortgages, and three Queensboro cooperatives (The Towers, Laburnum Court, and Cambridge Court) failed, causing the apartments to revert to rentals. By 1935, the financial situation began to improve, and more apartment complexes were built. Around the same time, new transportation routes were established in Jackson Heights and other areas in the proximity. The Municipal now known as the E subway line was developed, along with the Triboro Bridge, the Midtown Tunnel, Grand Central Parkway, the Whitestone Bridge, the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway, and LaGuardia Airport. During the 1940s, development slackened because of World War II. Towards the end of that decade and the beginning of the following one, construction continued. Edward MacDougall’s influence on Jackson Heights is still discernable through the architecture and sense of community identity.

The second half of Jackson Heights’ 112-year history was marked by both progress and problems.  In 1965, the Immigration Reform Act was passed, lifting quotas placed on the number of immigrants allowed into the United States from each country. Moreover, the Act permitted immigrants who came to the country for work to bring their whole families over later on. This had some major implications for Jackson Heights. With the construction of highways in the 1950s, more and more upper-class individuals had been moving out of Jackson Heights in favor of the suburbs, leaving the spacious housing in Jackson Heights wide-open and inexpensive. Many had already been made into apartment houses, which was particularly appealing to immigrants. Equally appealing was the easy access the neighborhood presented to quick public transportation. This set the stage for the diversity to which present-day Jackson Heights holds bragging rights. The initial immigrants hailed predominantly from Asian and Latin American countries. Most came here alone for business opportunities, but their families soon followed.

In 1968, the passing of the Fair Housing Act enabled blacks to settle in Jackson Heights as well. This marked a historic moment for racial equality in Jackson Heights, after an unsuccessful effort on the part of the board of education to institute black-white integration within Jackson Heights’ public schools. It would set the stage for what some residents believe is a subtle undercurrent of prejudice still running through the community.

With a financial crisis underway, interest levels in Jackson Heights began to soar in the 1970s. Yet immigrants still managed to make their home in this community. An influx of Latin American immigrants established Roosevelt Boulevard as a thoroughfare of ethnic shops, while Seventy-Fourth Street took on the role of Little India. Despite the cultural enrichment brought in via the establishments of these communities, many residents resented their entrance into the community. On yet another negative note, the 1970s also saw the burgeoning of a flourishing drug trade in Jackson Heights, one of the seedier elements in the community’s history. At the end of the decade, the Cultural Awareness Council was founded in Jackson Heights, with the aim of promoting ethnic tolerance, understanding, and coexistence. This quickly gave way to a turned-around economy in the 1980s, when a new generation of businessmen who could not afford to call Manhattan home became attracted to Jackson Heights’s comparably lower rents. This marked an important demographic shift within Jackson Heights, as the white flight of the previous decade appeared to reverse itself. Prices began to nosedive for real estate in Jackson Heights. By the end of the decade, to promote better public relations for Jackson Heights, the Jackson Heights Beautification Group formed with the goal of improving the appearance of Jackson Heights.

In a setback for tolerance in Jackson Heights, bartender Julio Rivera, a gay man living in the community, was murdered in an early-1990s hate crime, leading to the opening of a branch of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project in Jackson Heights.  Meanwhile, the drug trade intensified, coming arguably to a head with the killing of Manuel de Dios Unanue, a journalist who had attempted to expose a particular drug ring within the neighborhood, on Roosevelt Avenue. The incident left Jackson Heights residents in an uproar, with many suggesting that the whole thing had occurred on a part of Roosevelt Avenue that was technically classified as Elmhurst, not Jackson Heights. In response to the murder, Jackson Heights helped to form the United Organizations of North Corona, East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, a forum whose ultimate goal was to clean up Roosevelt Avenue. The organization’s efforts proved largely successful, with a much less pronounced drug presence today.

In 1993, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission declared part of Jackson Heights as a historic district, to remain untouched by encroaching building projects. Supporters of this move hoped that it would bring the higher class, as well as whites, back to Jackson Heights. The declaration also affected businesses operated within the district, controlling such things as signs placed in the windows of shops in an attempt to “clean up” the area. Not surprisingly, this crackdown created some tension within the neighborhood between business owners and those who supported these restrictions. It led to a 1995 campaign against businesses which refused to comply, entitled “Action Jackson”. Opponents of the limitations placed on storefront aesthetics argued that the campaign was racist in nature, as most of the affected businesses belonged to immigrants.  The debate still rages on.

Jackson Heights today: A melting pot

The community of Jackson Heights still sees strife and trouble, but for the most part, has managed to rise above these setbacks to maintain a progressive and proud community. In 2011, Jackson Heights residents rallied together to lobby for a common cause. A historic sign paying tribute to the community as the place where Scrabble was invented had been taken down in 2008, but no one knew why or by whom. Jackson Heights residents succeeded in getting legislation passed that allowed them to reestablish the sign. The undertaking was perhaps the perfect emblem of their shared pride in their community and history.

Jackson Heights's historic Scrabble sign, a symbol of local pride


Works Cited:

1. Adams, Luella, Joseph Brooks, Ph.D., Donald Presa, James T. Dillon, Patricia Garbe, Anthony W. Robins, Richard Brotherton, Elisa Urbanelli, and Marion Cleaver. “Jackson Heights Historic District.” New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. N.p., 19 Oct. 1993. Web. 5 May 2012. <www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/downloads/pdf/reports/JACKSON_HEIGHTS_HISTORIC_DISTRICT.pdf>.

2. Bradley, Erin. “Jackson Heights: Diversity’s Home Address.” The Cooperator [New York] Mar. 2006. Yale Robbins, Inc. Web. 6 May 2012. <http://cooperator.com/articles/1261/1/Jackson-Heights/Page1.html>.

3. Dominick, Joseph R. “Radio”. Dynamics of Mass Communication. 11th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. Print.

4. Ember, Sydney. “For Bereft Street Corner in Queens, a Red-Letter Day.” New York Times 15 July 2011, sec. A: 16. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 3 Apr. 2012.

5. “Famous Scrabble SIgn Returns.”Jackson Heights 11372, NYC’s Garden Neighborhood . N.p., n.d. Web. 9 May 2012.< http://jacksonheights11372.blogspot.com/2011/11/famous-scrabble-sign-returns.html >.

6. Jackson Heights Beautification Group. History of Jackson Heights. Organization-Produced Article. Jackson Heights, New York.

7. Kasinitz, Philip, Mohamad Bazzi, and Randal Doane. “Jackson Heights, New York.” Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research 2nd ser. 4 (1998): 161-76. Peopling of NYC 2012. CUNY Macaulay Honors College. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://eportfolios.macaulay.cuny.edu/scott12/jackson-heights/>.

8. Maly, Michael T. “Jackson Heights, New York.” Beyond Segregation: Multiracial and Multiethnic Neighborhoods of the United States. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2005. 100-60. Ebrary. Web. 6 May 2012. <http://http://site.ebrary.com/lib/qc/docDetail.action?docID=10392352&p00=michael%20t.%20maly>.

9. Miyares, Ines M. “From Exclusionary Covenant to Ethnic Hyperdiversity in Jackson Heights, Queens.” Geographical Review 4th ser. 94 (2004): 462-83. JSTOR. Web. 6 May 2012. <http://www.jstor.org.queens.ezproxy.cuny.edu:2048/stable/30034291?seq=2&Search=yes&searchText=jackson&searchText=immigration&searchText=wave&searchText=heights&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Djackson%2Bheights%2BAND%2Bimmigration%2Bwave%26acc%3Don%26wc%3Don&prevSearch=&item=1&ttl=436&returnArticleService=showFullText&resultsServiceName=null>.


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