Located at 40-15 82nd street, Casa Rivera is at the epicenter of Jackson Heights’ commercial zone. The store is forever bustling, either people are shopping for fresh meat, looking for groceries or eating hybrid Hispanic food. When you enter, the first thing you see is an aisle of imported Hispanic grocery items to your left, and a butcher shop to your right. The grocery portion of the fusion shop is stacked with different Hispanic foods and seasonings. Panela, a product imported from Colombia, is juxtaposed with Abuelita Chocolate, a staple drink in most Mexican households. In the butcher shops, some of the butchers are from Central America and others are from Mexico. Past the butcher shop and the grocery portion of the store, you pass tables and chairs and end up in the restaurant portion of the store. The aroma is filled with classic Hispanic spices, which have the power to make any person hunger instantly. Casa Rivera is a small business that has been around for more than 30 years in the neighborhood, but the current owner, Yolimar, has been in charge of it for 15 years now.
Casa Rivera's Uniqueness
Jackson Heights is widely known as one of the most diverse neighborhoods in New York City. The mixture of different cultures and ethnicities makes many small businesses unique in this neighborhood. To outsiders, most of Jackson Heights is made up of Hispanics, so they might assume that most of the cuisine is similar. However, the cuisines of Latin American countries are differ greatly from each other. Yolimar’s food is the definition of a hybrid of different Hispanic cuisines. She mixes her Venezuelan cuisine with Colombian cuisine. She had to in order to adapt to the fast-paced and diverse environment around her. To me, she represents the diversity and cultural exchange that comes from immigrating into a new country and living in an enclave. Overall, she believes that Jackson Heights is a pleasant, immigrant-friendly neighborhood in which her business fits perfectly in. She accommodated to the different ethnicities that constitute Jackson Heights instead of only selling Venezuelan-imported products and making Venezuelan food, something that is challenging, yet it worked out for her.
If the business has products from the different ethnicities that live in the neighborhood, then there are a lot of sales. For example, here (in Jackson Heights) are many Hispanics…and since we sell products that target mainly the Hispanic demographic, thus we profit Yolimar
Yolimar, the owner, immigrated from Venezuela to the United States 25 years ago. She has been living in Jackson Heights for 15 years. Her first language is Spanish, so the entire interview was conducted in Spanish. She got into the food industry because she realized early in her life that she was good at cooking. She currently works hands-on as the manager of the restaurant portion of the business. She generally is a positive and strong woman. I asked her what her main obstacle in business is, and she replied with, “…being taken seriously by men, and making them follow orders from me. As a woman, one has to try her best to improve and reach and achieve her goals.”
A Brief History of Jackson Heights
Image Credit: Queens Library Database
Jackson Heights is a neighborhood filled with a rich history. Prior to 1900, the area that constituted Jackson Heights was most agricultural and was known as the Trains Meadow section of Newtown, which later became Elmhurst. From 1900-1910, there was an increase in land speculation, which resulted in Edward Archibald MacDougall, the head of the Queensboro Corporation, to be the prime buyer of land. The name Jackson Heights is accredited to him.
Later on, the construction of the subway line through Roosevelt Avenue increased traffic into the neighborhood from Manhattan, which lead to an influx of residents (MPC Properties, LLC.).Many of the establishments in Jackson Heights were constructed between the late 1920’s and late 1940’s. For example, the building were Casa Rivera is currently located in was constructed in 1927.
The area where Casa Rivera is located has been a commercial zone area designated by the Department of City Planning since the 1960’s, perhaps even before then. What this shows is that 82nd Street is a crucial street in Jackson Heights because of its economic influence in the neighborhood.
Fast-forwarding to the 1960’s, construction of residential homes and apartments happened along with a surge in the immigrant population that was coming to the neighborhood (MPC Properties, LLC.). This is the point in time where Jackson Heights starts developing the diverse community that it is known for today, which has little ethnic enclaves such as Little Colombia on 82nd Street and Little India on 74th Street. Jackson Heights becomes filled with the stories of thousands of immigrants that come from all over the world.
Immigration and The Enclave of Jackson Heights
Yolimar’s story is similar to many immigrant stories. Many people embark on an arduous journey from Latin and Central America to the United States to pursue the American Dream. Some become business owners, restaurant owners or just stay in dead-end job such as jornaleros (the construction workers that congregate in the mornings to look for jobs). Although since the 1980’s, an influx of Hispanic immigrants has entered the United States, this does not mean that immigrants are taking over the job market. This misconception makes immigrants subject to discrimination and prejudice. It is small businesses like Casa Rivera that expand the lives of many immigrant families and shed light on their stories. Jackson Heights is filled with foreign born people that not only come from Latin America, but also Asia, Central America, etc. For example, in the Census tract where Casa Rivera is located, 73.24% of the residents are foreign born. This throws away the misconception people have that immigrants cause the economy to hinder because Jackson Heights is an economically stable and prosperous neighborhood.
When immigrants first come to New York City, they tend to live in enclaves. Enclaves are neighborhoods or “portion of territory that is within or surrounded by a larger territory whose inhabitants are culturally or ethnically distinct” (Dictionary.com). Jackson Heights has several ethnic enclaves. For example, around 73rd and 74th Street, there is an enclave of South Asians, that includes ethnicities such as Bangladeshi and Pakistani. A few blocks away, on 82nd Street, there is a Hispanic enclave, predominately Colombian, hence the honorific name of “Calle Colombia Way” for 82nd Street between Roosevelt Avenue and 37th Avenue.
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Ethnic enclaves are a concept that are controversial to some people. For example, some people believe that ethnic enclaves provide a secure pathway for immigrants to get accustomed to a new country and stabilize themselves financially. On the other hand, people believe that ethnic enclaves are detrimental to immigrants because they “stifle English proficiency and limit opportunities to climb the social ladder,” (WNYC). Although in enclaves, people do not have to be proficient in English to get a job, it does not equate to people having no interest in becoming proficient in English. In addition, enclaves– Jackson Heights have many examples of these– do benefit the economic prosperity of the neighborhood and the inhabitants themselves. Some ethnicities, more than others, can be more economically prosperous if they leave the enclave. However, regardless of the difference in economic prosperity inside and outside of enclaves, studies have shown that enclaves do in fact help immigrants gain a stable economic lifestyle (Sullivan). In addition to potential economic benefits, studies have shown that enclaves may provide other benefits such as a sense of familiarity and comfort in a foreign land.
The Future of Jackson Heights
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For the last few decades, Jackson Heights has been on the rise in popularity and in economic prosperity. As Yolimar stated, “Business never fails here.” However, this has subversive consequences; one being the increase in rent. Many families have had to move out of Jackson Heights and relocate themselves in other lower-rent areas of NYC, such as Jamaica, Queens and the Bronx. Businesses are slowly starting to plaster “Everything Must Go! Everything 60% off” signs all over their windows, and being replaced by chain restaurants such as Caffe Bene. Some small businesses can not keep up with the rent. Small businesses are endangered throughout all of New York City. As a whole community, people from the five boroughs have to fight against gentrification and rent displacement, along with other forces, that cause small businesses to close down.
1.“Total Population: Foreign Born, 2014.” Map. Social Explorer. Social Explorer, n.d. Web. May 31 EST 2016. . (based on data from ACS 2014 (5-year estimates))
2.“Total Population: Native Born, 2014.” Map. Social Explorer. Social Explorer, n.d. Web. May 31 EST 2016. . (based on data from ACS 2014 (5-year estimates))
3. Sullivan, Marie. “Ethnic Enclaves: Sanctuary or Impediment?” Ethnic Enclaves: Sanctuary or Impediment? // USC Price. USC, 2012. Web. 31 May 2016.
4. Venugopal, Arun. “MICROPOLIS: Are Ethnic Enclaves Bad for Immigrants?”WNYC. N.p., 10 Dec. 2013. Web. 31 May 2016.
5.”enclave”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 31 May. 2016. <Dictionary.com http://www.dictionary.com/browse/enclave>.