Every year, over 26 million international passengers arrive or depart from runways on the shore of Jamaica Bay in Queens. JFK Airport is by far the busiest international gateway in the United States. Established in 1948 as Idlewild Airport and renamed after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, it has since welcomed millions of immigrants to the U.S. from every part of the world. Many of them have settled in Queens, which, with 2.3 million residents, nearly half of whom were born abroad, is by common reckoning the most diverse urban area on earth.
On January 28, 2017, JFK became one of the largest sites of resistance to a White House executive order banning visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries, as thousands of protesters spontaneously gathered at Terminal 4 to stand up for a diverse and welcoming America.
The president who signed the order, and then tried again with a new version that was blocked by judges this week, was born just five miles north of Terminal 4, at Jamaica Hospital, June 14, 1946.
The seven decades separating Donald Trump’s birth from the protests against his immigration order also separate two completely different cultural images of Queens. Ask a New Yorker of Trump’s generation about Queens, and they’ll describe a sleepy, unfashionable swath of post-World War II white ethnic middle-class suburbia, an image reinforced even as it became increasingly inaccurate by sitcoms ranging from All in the Family (1971-1979) to the more recent The Nanny (1993-1999) and The King of Queens (1998-2007). On Seinfeld (1989-1998), the main characters live on the Upper West Side, but George Costanza’s parents are out in Queens. Peter Parker, first imagined in 1962 as the quintessential average teen, grew up in Queens. In other words, it's exactly the kind of place you’d expect Trump to have grown up.
But in 2015, Lonely Planet named Queens the number one travel destination in the U.S., emphasizing the borough’s unique diversity as a draw: “Nowhere is the image of New York as the global melting pot truer than Queens. Browse New York’s biggest Chinatown in Flushing, shop for brilliantly colored saris in Jackson Heights, and inhale the heady aromas of coffee and hookahs in Astoria. The incomparable array of world cuisines makes Queens a destination for food lovers from all parts of New York City.”
Lonely Planet was only confirming what many New Yorkers have known for years. The astonishing range of cheap, authentic culinary experiences in Queens, a reflection of the borough’s thoroughly multicultural population, is regularly highlighted in The New York Times (not to mention Gothamist) and by celebrities like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. Today’s Queens is also gentrifying, especially in Astoria and Ridgewood, but it remains diverse, relatively affordable, walkable and dense by any standard other than Manhattan’s, and yes, cool, without trying nearly as hard to be cool as neighboring Kings County. It is still, overwhelmingly, an urban area where people come from all over the world to raise families and build better lives.
So how did the first Queens become the second? How did the borough of Trump’s childhood, which in 1946 was roughly 97 percent white, become the 25 percent white (non-Hispanic) Queens of today, where estimates of languages spoken range from 138 to 800? How did a borough once virtually restricted to African-Americans become the only large county in the U.S. where black median income exceeds white median income? A journey of 71 years begins with a single F train ride…
Hillside Avenue (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
Long Island was formed during the last Ice Age, which left behind a glacial moraine that separates the island’s rockier north from its flatter south. When you disembark at Jamaica-179 St station, the final stop on the F train, you’ll find yourself on Hillside Avenue, the precise line between the low-lying neighborhood of Hollis, where an urban grid prevails, and the hilly, winding suburban streets of Jamaica Estates, where Donald Trump spent his childhood.
Opposite the World War II memorial that marks the entrance to Jamaica Estates, you’ll find a block of retail that includes two Trinidadian/Guyanese roti shops, two Indian sari bazaars, a Bangladeshi Halal meat market, and a West Indian bar that plays cricket matches. But cross Hillside Avenue and you’ll find quiet blocks of single-family houses, including the modest mock Tudor cottage Trump lived in until age 4, and the Southern plantation-style mansion around the corner where he lived before being sent to a military academy upstate at 13. His father, Fred Trump, built both houses, along with countless others in Queens and Brooklyn, the source of the fortune he then bequeathed to his son.
Trump's first childhood home in Jamaica Estates, Queens. (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
According to the U.S. Census, in 2000 Jamaica Estates was just 27 percent white, with the rest of the population almost evenly split among blacks, Hispanics, Asians and “other races.” But back in the 1940s and 1950s, housing discrimination was not only legal but standard practice in Jamaica Estates and most parts of Queens. As a 2015 New York Times feature on the neighborhood put it, “the Jamaica Estates of Mr. Trump’s boyhood was an exclusive and nearly all-white place, resistant to outsiders and largely impenetrable to minorities.” In an interview with the Times’ Jason Horowitz, Trump spoke fondly of his childhood neighborhood, recalling, “Different parts of Queens were rough; this was an oasis,” and adding that Jamaica Estates “was safe — it was very family oriented.”
In a November 2016 personal essay published by Vox, Michelle Garcia described growing up black with diverse friends in Jamaica Estates during the 1990s, which she wrote was only possible because the Trump Management Corporation was successfully sued in 1973 for discriminating against non-white residents in its buildings throughout the outer boroughs. By that point, the family business was already shifting away from developing affordable middle-class homes in places like Queens to what would make Donald Trump famous: glitzy skyscrapers in Manhattan and luxury hotels and casinos around the world.
(Scott Heins / Gothamist)
Young Donald attended the Kew-Forest School, a prep school on the border between Kew Gardens and Forest Hills, through seventh grade. According to the Washington Post, he was known for attacking other boys and talking back to teachers, to the point where his initials became shorthand for detention. Today the school sports an outdoor mural dedicated to its current graduating class, featuring the flags of the many nations the students hail from.
A short walk west from the school is the affluent, lively neighborhood of Forest Hills. The main drag, Austin Street, features Japanese markets and bubble tea shops alongside Shake Shack and Sephora. A gorgeous community of red-roofed Tudor homes radiates south of the Long Island Railroad stop, just 15 minutes from Penn Station, with murals of local heroes the Ramones and Billie Jean King below the train tracks.
At Dirty Pierre’s, the neighborhood pub by the station, the crowd is mostly middle-aged, white, and native to the area. Asked about Trump, they grow animated. “I know very few people in our circle of friends who think he’s something other than a piece of shit,” says Tim Rowland, 57, of Kew Gardens. Indeed, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by huge margins in Forest Hills and Kew Gardens and in most other parts of Queens, which she won overall 75 percent to 22 percent, slightly behind her citywide victory of 79-19.
Forest Hills (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
Most of Rowland’s fellow patrons concur, although one woman, who teaches public school in the extremely diverse (Thai, Filipino, Colombian, Irish) neighborhood of Woodside, says that while she ultimately couldn’t vote for Trump because of his comments about women, she sympathized with his views on immigration. “As a teacher in an overpopulated school system, I’ve been talking about putting limits on immigration for years,” she says, adding, “You know how rats start eating and killing each other when they’re crowded into a small space? The system can’t handle this, it’s going to break.”
But other patrons speak much more positively of the demographic changes they’ve seen in the borough over the course of their lifetime. “It was a slow metamorphosis from white, a mix of Jewish and Roman Catholic, to now, when we’ve got mosques, we’ve got everything,” says one. “Growing up, we just considered them our classmates. We didn’t think of them as immigrants.”
As for Trump, “He would deport half the neighborhood if he had his way,” says one patron. “You can’t compare where he grew up in Jamaica Estates,” says another. “Because he grew up in privilege. Most people here were working or middle class.”
Trump's second childhood home in Jamaica Estates. (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
Despite his wealthy upbringing, Trump’s inferiority complex over his outer-borough roots has been discussed for decades. In a much-shared open letter to Trump last year, Garrison Keillor called the then-Republican nominee “a Queens boy trying to win respect in Manhattan.” He elaborated, “In Queens, blacks were a threat to property values — they belonged in the Bronx, not down the street. To the Times, Queens is Cleveland. Bush league. You are Queens. The casinos were totally Queens, the gold faucets in your triplex, the bragging, the insults, but you wanted to be liked by Those People.”
Today, of course, many blacks do live down the street, in the relatively affluent West Indian communities that dominate southeastern Queens. Pat Marshall, a 64-year-old home health aide who immigrated from Jamaica, the country, to Jamaica, Queens in 1992, describes arriving in the mostly Italian and Jewish neighborhood of Rosedale: “At the time I moved there, I was the only West Indian, but by 1994 or 1995 I realized the Italians were mostly retiring and dying, and by 2000 it was already a mixed neighborhood with people from all over the Caribbean. Now it is West Indian all the way, and we are basically middle-class, hard-working people.”
Marshall left Kingston after her transportation business went under, intending to work her way out of debt by babysitting in New York. She arrived at JFK with no connections and soon found herself taking care of an aging Italian-American couple and paying off the banks within a year. When the couple died, the husband’s brother insisted on selling their house to her, despite concerns from a neighbor about the changing demographics of the area. But, says Marshall, “He said if I was good enough to take care of his family, I was good enough to own the house.” Today she owns two houses, including the one in Rosedale.
The Queens Marshall arrived in owes its multicultural character to a series of events, both national and local, that took place in the 1960s. The most important was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, heavily promoted by Senator Ted Kennedy and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. One of the major Great Society reforms, it ended 40 years of racist quota laws that had severely limited immigration to the U.S. in general and from non-Western countries in particular. It led to an influx of immigrants from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe to cities across the country, and to New York City in particular. Johnson also signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibited housing discrimination on the basis of race, clearing the way for people of all backgrounds to rent or purchase homes throughout Queens.
The effect was immediate: between 1970 and 1980, the white share of the population of Queens fell from 85.3 percent to 70.6 percent. By 1990 it had fallen to 57.9 percent, and today it is barely more than a quarter, including many recent immigrants from Europe and the former Soviet Union.
But why Queens specifically? Proximity to JFK Airport was one reason. Whereas an earlier wave of immigrants arrived by boat in Lower Manhattan and settled in Little Italy or the Lower East Side, since the 1960s a more global and often more affluent cohort of immigrants has typically arrived by plane and settled in the many safe, affordable neighborhoods full of middle-class housing near JFK, which for many of them also facilitates regular trips home. Queens’ status as an immigrant destination became self-fulfilling, as first-wave communities would welcome relatives and friends and newer waves and help them settle in.
Queens was also transformed by Robert Moses, the legendary builder of New York. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, Moses built the modern highway system that crisscrosses Queens, including the Long Island Expressway, Astoria Boulevard, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Grand Central Parkway, and more, which made it possible for the white middle class to gradually relocate further out on Long Island, clearing the way for an influx of immigrants to move into their former neighborhoods. Despite the out-migration, the borough’s population steadily grew, from 1.5 million in 1950 to 2.3 million today.
(Scott Heins / Gothamist)
Moses was also responsible for the most iconic public space in Queens, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. He transformed the “valley of ashes” described in The Great Gatsby into the site of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, the latter of which was a financial disaster but nonetheless helped rebrand Queens as forward-looking and international (although not as much as it might have been if Moses had built the United Nations headquarters there, as was seriously considered in 1946). Today, the park hosts the Unisphere, the Queens Museum with its detailed scale model of the Five Boroughs, the Mets’ Citifield stadium, the US Open, the New York Hall of Science, and an array of rusty monuments to a Jetsons-esque utopian vision of the future, relics of the last time American liberalism had any real optimism.
On Sunday, February 26, hundreds gathered in MacDonald Park in Forest Hills for the Queens Stands Together rally, which was organized by the Queens Coalition for Solidarity, a newly formed umbrella organization for 35 progressive groups representing the borough’s diversity. The event was co-organized by Ethan Felder, a 29-year-old labor lawyer born and raised in Queens and spurred to political activism in response to Trump’s divisive campaign last year.
“It's a total embarrassment that Trump is from Queens,” says Felder. “He might be from here but he's not of here. He's the antithesis of Queens values.”
The speakers represented a wide range of immigrant communities, as well as labor and LGBT activists. One speaker, 17-year-old Sangida Akter, told the story of how she and her mother were accosted by a stranger on Austin Street. He spit at them and ordered them to “take that effing thing off,” referring to their hijabs.
Akter was born in Los Angeles to Bangladeshi immigrant parents and moved to Queens as a child. She is now the co-president of the Muslim Students Association at Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, the top-ranked public magnet school in New York City. She describes her classmates and teachers as tolerant and supportive. “We are told every day we are the future,” she says, adding that she has experienced intolerance on only one occasion in the past year at school. The streets and subways, however, are another matter; there she often confronts bigotry, typically from white male strangers.
Akter is looking at colleges and hopes to become a psychologist, but she also expects to continue her political activism. Regarding the struggle ahead, she is measured. “I am optimistic in the sense that I won't stop fighting,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I am frightened.”
The Queens Stands Together rally (David Klion)
The rally itself was a positive celebration of contemporary Queens. But as it emptied out, a loud confrontation served as a reminder that not everyone embraces the borough’s immigrant communities.
Yuriy Khasidov, a 28-year-old jeweler born in Forest Hills to immigrants from the Soviet Union and currently living in Flushing, got into a heated argument with a number of attendees, and was asked by the police to calm down several times. Khasidov, who describes himself as half-Jewish and half-Muslim, is a proud Trump supporter. While this put him at odds with most of the crowd, including a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, he did get a positive response from a trio of immigrants from Romania, Hungary and Israel, all of whom supported Trump as well.
Khasidov’s parents left Dushanbe, Tajikistan, for Queens in 1985, arriving with what he pointedly notes was legal refugee status. Notwithstanding his partially Muslim heritage, he does not think refugee status should be extended to those fleeing the ongoing wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. “Islam is the most barbaric religion, especially in Syria, Sudan or Saudi Arabia,” he says, referring to two countries listed in Trump’s travel ban and one that remains a close U.S. ally. “Tajikistan is different because they are literate and moderate, they never lived under Sharia law. My mother's father was a Muslim but he was an atheist and a communist.” Not that Khasidov is a fan of communists either; he got into a shouting match with a Hispanic activist wearing a pin with the faces of Marx, Lenin and Mao, during which he angrily pointed out that communism in the Soviet Union and other countries killed tens of millions.
Khasidov, who says he volunteered for the Trump campaign and even met the candidate (“a very humble human being”), adds “We need to clean this country out. The majority of the Jewish community from Central Asia are Trump supporters. Because we've seen socialism.”
On that last point, he’s basically right; Trump, for instance, won the small community of Kew Gardens Hills, which is heavily populated by Bukharan Jews, mirroring his popularity in Brooklyn’s large Russian and post-Soviet immigrant enclaves of Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay. There are many ways to interpret this, including the obvious joke about Russian influence on Trump, but it’s hard to escape the sense that white immigrant communities may find Trump appealing in a way immigrant communities of color may not.
For many in Queens, these are not abstract debates. With U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement emboldened by Trump, anyone from an immigrant background is potentially subject to increased scrutiny, whether or not they are documented. Many small businesses are on edge. As one local West Indian food worker says, “A lot of people come here, they love America, they work very hard because they love this country. Sometimes one person maybe does something wrong and it affects millions of people. But I don't see why the innocent should be guilty.”
“Now if you have to leave here and go back home, there is nobody you know,” he adds. “You would be living on the street. So it's very sad. And some people have children born, how are they supposed to leave their children and go back?"
Trump in 2004 (Getty)
Pat Marshall, the home health aide from Jamaica, wishes she could confront the president. “I want to tell Donald Trump that I'm an immigrant who came here on a visitor's visa,” she says. “I've been working for 26 years and paying taxes. I own two houses in America and I came here without any working permit, and I worked. I never took a cent from the government to buy candy. I want him to think about the immigrants who love America and give back to America because of what we've been able to achieve in this country.”
One of those achievers is Helen You, the proprietor of Dumpling Galaxy at Arcadia Mall in Flushing, who came to New York from Tianjin in 1989 for school. After working as an accountant, she quit her job and began selling three kinds of homemade dumplings in a basement stall in the Golden Mall. The menu gradually expanded to include dozens of combinations of fillings made to order. She eventually opened a proper sit-down restaurant and was recently profiled in The New York Times.
You’s father was imprisoned in a labor camp for 22 years for criticizing corruption in China’s communist government and permitted to see his wife for only one week each year. Her mother couldn't support herself and was forced to move to Hubei, closer to the labor camp, to live with her own mother.
“It's not a democracy in China,” says You. “I came here to look for freedom but now I don't feel that freedom so much under Trump. I think his policies are not going to lead to a better America. It's going to destroy the democracy, the reason so many people come from the whole world to this country.”
Speaking for myself, I'm not an immigrant and I've never lived in Queens, although I've been a frequent visitor for over a decade. It's one of my favorite places in the world, and I love to introduce newcomers and out-of-towners to the borough. When I set out to write this piece, I started with the conviction that while Donald Trump may be Queens’ most famous son, he should not be what Queens is most famous for. In reporting it out, I found a borough that still retains traces of its old self, but that mostly embodies the best version of America: the version Trump now threatens.
David Klion is a freelance writer and a former editor for Al Jazeera America and World Politics Review. He tweets, often, @DavidKlion. He lives in Kings County, New York.
Special thanks to Mark Krotov, who immigrated from Moscow to Atlanta via JFK, now lives in Queens, and has done more than anyone else to acquaint me with the borough since 2006.