December 29, 2003
Authors Never Left Queens on Three-Year Trip Around the World
At a certain subway station in Queens, a highly decorated dancer from Tajikistan runs a Bukharan dance studio.
At a Jackson Heights table tennis club, a former member of the Chinese national team banters with Jamaican players. And then there is a Chinese woman whose husband may be the only Jewish man in New York who hates Chinese food.
These are snippets from the profiles in a new book called "Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America" (W.W. Norton, $35). With first-person accounts from 79 immigrants in Queens, the 400-page book is an offbeat ethnic tour of one of the country's most ethnically diverse counties. It does not point out trendy kebab palaces or obscure taco stands, but rather tells riveting stories about a new wave of immigrants to America.
"This is definitely not the Fodor's version of Queens," said Warren Lehrer, who illustrated the book. He and his wife, Judith Sloan, both documentary artists from Queens, wrote the book and named it after the borough's major thoroughfare, Queens Boulevard, sometimes called the Boulevard of Death for its high rate of pedestrian fatalities.
A Russian immigrant in the book posits that many of those deaths were of immigrants hit while worrying to distraction about how to survive in a new land. The authors call the boulevard a symbol of the dangerous crossings many immigrants made fleeing their home countries and navigating a new culture.
Mr. Lehrer, 48, said he grew up in Bayside when the borough was still "Archie Bunker's Queens," with neatly apportioned neighborhoods of Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants. After moving away, he met Ms. Sloan, 47, who was from New Haven, and years later moved back to Queens, where an estimated 138 languages were being spoken.
"It had become this crossroads of the world," he said. "It's now such an ethnically diverse place that no matter who you are here, you're a minority."
They turned their beat-up Subaru onto Queens Boulevard and "spent three years traveling around the world without ever leaving Queens," explained Ms. Sloan, an actress who teaches theater arts at New York University and the International High School at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City.
On a recent visit, the authors sat in an Egyptian restaurant called Mombar, on Steinway Street in Astoria, next to a group of Egyptian men eating dates and braised lamb and sipping mint tea. Across the street, men played backgammon and smoked sweet-smelling tobacco from large water pipes.
The authors documented how a nearby coffee shop was vandalized by a group of young men just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. After the owner chose not to press charges, the youths returned to apologize and help clean up the damage.
On a lighter note, Mr. Lehrer recalled interviewing an immigrant from Togo who said he learned English in New York by reading the tabloid newspapers and listening to news radio.
An exhibit based on the book is at the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park through March 14, with photographs, taped narratives, music and performances by several artists profiled in the book. There is also a kiosk, which will be taken around the borough, where visitors may tell their stories about immigration, as they can at the Web site www.crossingtheblvd.org.
The book, which contains a compact disc of original music inspired by the recorded interviews, has already affected the lives of some of its participants, the authors said. Amy Li, 36, was imprisoned and tortured for participating in Falun Gong, a movement banned by the Chinese government. She finally fled China, leaving behind her daughter, Doudou. After Ms. Li sent photocopies of her profile in the book to the United States Consulate in China, Doudou, now 8, was permitted to move to New York, the authors said.
The authors recently visited Malika's International Dance School, just off Queens Boulevard in Rego Park, to chat with the owner, Malika Kalantarova, once a dancer in Tajikistan. The studio is in a small plaza of Bukharan shops in the 63rd Street subway station, along with a barber from Uzbekistan, a jeweler from Bukhara and a shoemaker from Tajikistan.
Ms. Kalantarova demonstrated the head and arm movements of traditional Bukharan dance to a dozen Bukharan girls from the Forest Hills area, which the girls referred to as Queensistan or Bukharan Hills. A teenager here needs to be able to dance Bukharan style, as well as Beyonc? style, explained Yafa Iskhakova, 14, switching from Bukharan to English with a strong Queens accent.
Mr. Lehrer called Queens a bellwether of change in America. "There is a definite interest in Queens outside of New York," he explained, "because soon this is what their neighborhood is going to look like."