It feels like every stop on New York’s 7 train springs you into a different world.
In Flushing, I board the subway in a station buried beneath the Asian markets and dim sum restaurants buzzing around Main Street. The train rises and sweeps through Jackson Heights (home to ‘Little Colombia’ and many other South American communities), the Greek enclaves of Astoria, the Irish and Filipino communities of Woodside. And all the while, the skyscrapers of Manhattan come into sharper focus.
It’s the world on a subway line.
It’s Queens, where more than 100 languages are spoken, change is constant, and a place I never thought I would cross the Atlantic to see.
“This is very different from the Flushing I grew up in,” says Lori Lustig, a retired schoolteacher and Big Apple Greeter who takes our group on a walking tour of the neighbourhood. “If I could wake up my father from the dead, he would insist that I was tricking him.”
We start on the 12th floor of a new Renaissance hotel, watching planes take off from LaGuardia nearby. There’s a spaghetti of highways, diggers clawing at construction sites, and shiny new towers next to worn old buildings Lori uses as memory markers to map out the place she grew up in.
Her house is just one and a half miles away, with a small pool and a yard in which her husband grows tomatoes.
“We’re just eight miles from Times Square.”
It’s fair to say Queens isn’t on the tourist radar. The borough isn’t as hip as Brooklyn, and too sprawly to get a rich sense of in a flying day trip. You may hear its name around the US Open tennis tournament, or when you arrange transport to or from JFK. Perhaps you’ve seen its ‘Unisphere’, Flushing Corona Park’s famous globe, in movies like Men in Black or Iron Man. You may be aware that The Ramones, A Tribe Called Quest (and, whisper it, Donald Trump) cut their teeth here.
But other than that?
And yet, in the space of a few hours, I can eat tostados from a Mexican food truck, visit an outpost of MoMA, peer into a pawn shop and take photos of the iconic 1930s Pepsi sign by the Hudson River.
The sense of energy and diversity is intoxicating. Queens is one of the most culturally varied places in the US (nearly half of its residents were born overseas); the soundtrack is of multiple languages, hammering construction, honking horns and trains screeching by on elevated subway lines. And yet many buildings are barely a couple of storeys tall.
“I feel like Queens is a little more relaxed, it’s very spread out, you need to explore a little bit more,” says Tomoko Kawamoto of the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) in Astoria. “It’s not a place you can do in an afternoon, or quick sprints... but it’s very liveable here. There are lots of new, interesting communities moving in.”
MoMI is one of many museums and galleries mushrooming around the borough — it provides a deep dive into movie making, with exhibits on The Walking Dead and Sesame Street (filmed in a studio next door) when I visit.
There’s also a tantalising collection of Tiffany lamps at the Queens Museum in Flushing, and a public school transformed into a contemporary gallery at MoMA PS1.
Walking around Flushing with Lori, we pass historic buildings like Bowne House, an Anglo-Dutch homestead built in the countryside in ca 1661 (today it’s surrounded by apartments, like Mr Fredricksen’s house in Up). Afterwards, I follow one of her foodie tips and eat dumplings from a bamboo steamer at Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao.
“This is a place where you could eat yourself to death,” is one of her asides. “And I tried that sometimes.”
More evidence of that is found at Birria-Landia, a food truck set under the raised subway line at Roosevelt Avenue and 78th in Jackson Heights. It’s famous for the two stars given to it by New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells during the pandemic, and worth travelling for.
We wait in the pouring rain as guys in red hoodies set up a small awning, a tip jar and trash can, and begin pulling at slabs of slow-cooked beef (birria is a type of beef stew or soup) to make tacos and tostados at $3.50 a pop. The consumé, a warming beef broth, is mouth-watering too.
“I wonder why so many napkins,” one of our group says, but it becomes clear as juices run from the tacos and mix with rainwater on our hands. The tender beef, punchy chilli, coriander and lime notes are licked up and wolfed down as trains thunder overhead.
In Astoria, we hop a couple of hip bars like The Highwater and Diamond Dogs, where craft cocktails are served by blow-in bartenders against backdrops of bare brick walls. I spot the Omonia Cafe, where the cake was made in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Fancy boutiques like Lockwood stand near Irish dive bars, delis and old-school shops like Jack’s Shoe Repair, where a sign taped to the inside of the window reads: “I will heel you / I will save your sole / I will even dye for you.”
As we push toward the waterfront, the lights of Midtown start twinkling across the river. I catch a glimpse of the Empire State Building, and take in the sunset from the piers at Gantry Plaza State Park, making a video call home to share (and gloat) about the magical moment.
Tomoko was right. Queens is not doable in sprints; nor is it doable in a weekend. I make notes to come back for Louis Armstrong’s House, a ride on the Roosevelt Island Tram (actually a cable car), and Rockaway Beach.
Of course, Manhattan will always attract the lion’s share of visitors. But NYC & Company, the city’s marketing and tourism organisation, is heavily promoting tourism in the boroughs. Queens can also be cheaper to stay and eat in, and its cultural diversity and breathtaking pace of change brings an energy all of its own.
“People came to Queens for space,” as an Uber driver says. “I can hear the birds chirping. Sometimes having whole conversations... New York is a fluid place.”
‘Meeting’ is an installation by artist James Turrell in MoMA PS1, a room with a square hole in the ceiling giving an unobstructed view of the sky. It’s strangely evocative in such a busy cityscape. Turrell is also responsible for the Sky Garden at Liss Ard, Co Cork. momaps1.org
Pól was a guest of United Airlines, NYC & Company and Renaissance New York Flushing Hotel at Tangram.
United flies from Dublin to Newark from €465 return (basic economy) and €1,695 (in its Polaris Business Class). united.com
The Renaissance New York Flushing Hotel at Tangram has doubles from around $165/€152 per night midweek and $280/€257 (plus taxes) at weekends in February. marriott.com
For more on Queens, and New York and its boroughs, see nycgo.com