Little India – Jackson Heights

By: Kaylin Camidge, Edrien Diaz, and Emanuel Khaimov

Walking down Roosevelt Ave in Jackson Heights can feel much like a trip around the world in 20 blocks. Walking through Little Colombia and then suddenly finding ourselves in Little India was certainly a bit disorienting the first time we visited, but when we went back to do this project we found ourselves getting excited as we started noticing the shift in storefronts and people. Little India, Jackson Heights is one of the numerous cultural enclaves scattered throughout NYC. As with almost all of the other Littles in NYC, Jackson Heights has garnered its reputation as the hub for the city’s Indian faction through generations of immigration from the Southeast Asian country.

Recently, however, its reputation has awarded it an increasing amount of tourism, both from foreigners and NYC residents. While walking through the Indian community felt as close to walking down an Indian street as NYC gets, it wasn’t hard to notice that there were some places, advertising their culture with neon logos and fancy lettering, overshadowing smaller, more authentic shops catering specifically to the neighborhood’s Indian populace. It is in these shops that the most interesting stories hide; the stories this blog aims to showcase in order to spread the wonder that is Little India.

Similar to much of NYC, Jackson Heights is an up and coming neighborhood. Although it may not be permeating the neighborhood apparently, a change in clientele is one of the first things storeowners bring up when asked about what their tenure in the neighborhood has allowed them to notice. Although not every store has experienced the recent surge in outsider shoppers, that is clients who do not live by or usually shop in the store, those that have claim to also witness an increase in their online presence and, subsequently, their profits.

On the other hand, there are stores not far from these semi-gentrified blocks catering specifically to their Southeast Asian peers, such as Patel Brothers. Establishing the first supermarket of its kind in NYC, the Patel Brothers offers foods and other goods with which their Indian customers are very familiar. Their slogan, “Celebrating Our Food… Our Culture,” gives you a sense of the pride the storeowners take in their business, and, although it has become a chain store, the dedication they have to each of their customers.

Interviewer: How long have you lived in Jackson Heights? (If they lived elsewhere, how different in the Jackson Heights neighborhood from where you grew up).

Jewel: Before I came to the United States, I was born in Uttar Pradesh, India. We didn’t stay there after my 4th birthday. The first destination we made was Brampton because of the family however, it’s nothing in comparison to here. Jackson Heights is more like India than anywhere else in Canada.

The people in the neighborhood have the vibe that makes me remember my home. The people, the language, the culture. What makes it feel more home is that I do not have to be related to anyone and I have a strong connection with the community.

Interviewer: What’s your favorite aspect of this neighborhood? For someone who’s never been to Jackson Heights before, what would you recommend them to try?

Jewel: It’s the feeling of belonging. It’s kind of like being transported back to India. The community reminds me of the home I grew up in, and the mannerisms keep the community together.

I’m a huge fan of the dosa around here and I try to put my non-Indian friends into trying some. Also, the methi here is pretty much the best around.

Interviewer: How often do you come to Jackson Heights to eat? To shop? Why come here instead of other neighborhoods in Queens?

Jewel: When I am working, Maybe 3 or 4 times a week, I usually eat here a lot when I look for something traditional or modern. The best part is that there are so many different tastes from all parts of India found in Jackson Heights, so I can get whatever I’m feeling for at the moment.

I am a shop-o-holic. Around here, I love the quality that is provided but I usually head over to Richmond Hill instead because the prices are better. I know that if I ever lack something, the local stores will have it. I guess Jackson Heights is just kind of the epicenter of all these things so it’s my go to.

Interviewer: How would you describe the people who live or visit here? (Welcoming, friendly, kind, or quiet, reserved, etc.)

Jewel: In this part of Jackson Heights, the people here are vibrant and friendly. If you happen to be a member or a regular in the community, they treat you like family. It’s part of the culture to demonstrate respect.

However, the community does demonstrate a different side towards outsiders. The mentality of most is to serve this community while striving to increase their businesses. Many, however, are not great with the modern folk who visit; it would be a surprise if you became intimidated by the lack of knowledge of the projects when entering a specialty store.

Since Jewel came to America at the age of 7, Jewel had to overcome many conflictions growing up. Receiving  Public School education was very common for immigrants in Jackson Heights, but the community enforced cultural values to come first. Jewel explains that in her community, everyone is familiar with one of their own. The community involves itself majorly within their members and this causes the divide between newer generations and out-of-touch older generations. The mentality for many Indian families is to produce adhering children, absorbing and retaining culture as they grow older.

One important aspect of this is found with many families in Little India restricting their children from participating in after-school activities and implement strong discipline.
While Jewel asserts that she could not imagine herself without her culture, she makes clear that deviation was not an option especially for those involved in the community.

Jewel currently attends Hunter College and at the Butala Emporium in Jackson Heights, NY.

Looking into the stores in Little India gave us a lot of insight into what the Jackson Heights Indian community values: traditional food and clothing. It was hard to keep track of all of the different foods pictured on signs and visible through storefront windows, especially when most of them are advertised in a language none of us understand. The attitudes of  mom-and-pop stores became more timid when we entered, brandishing our cameras and trying to pronounce the seemingly jumbled letters labeling each item.

“The mentality of most is to serve this community while striving to increase their businesses.”

When we tried to approach the entrepreneurs behind the counter we were met with a whole lot of skepticism and questions about the purpose of our interviews. Considering the current immigration tensions in our country, it’s no surprise that they were hesitant to share any information regarding their families and their lives. However, after much effort, I was able to have an untaped conversation with a store owner who shared that she and her husband had immigrated to Jackson Heights 6 years ago, moving in with his cousin who had moved to the area a year prior. She went on to disclose that they had moved here because their small-scale bakery was making little to no business in India. Here, however, she states that she has taken a managerial position at her cousin’s restaurant Delhi Heights.

Work Bibliography:

Jackson Heights Station Modern Day –×0/filters:no_upscale()/

Jackson Heights Station Black and White –

Jackson Heights Theater Modern Day – Courtesy of Frankie’s Apartment –

Jackson Heights Sketch Courtesy of Greater Astoria Historical Society Online Repository

Maps provided by Social Explorer:
Population Density, 2005. Social Explorer, (based on data from U.S. Census Bureau; accessed May 13 17:16:03 EST 2017).

Population Density, 2015. Social Explorer, (based on data from U.S. Census Bureau; accessed May 13 17:23:03 EST 2017).

Papri Chaat photograph courtesy of Patel Brother’s Supermarket

Little Pakistan Pedestrian Sidewalk – Courtesy of Edrien Diaz

80th Street Pedestrian Sidewalk – Courtesy of Untapped Cities featured on The Real Deal

Delhi Heights photograph – Courtesy of Edrien Diaz

Patel Brothers cover photograph- Courtesy of Edrien Diaz

Jewel R. – Interview Permitted use granted courtesy of Jewel R.