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FINAL ESSAY (Community Essay Revised)

Filed under: Uncategorized — bipasha255 at 10:48 am on Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bipasha Dey

9 December 2010

Home Away From Home Yet Not Too Far

As a South Asian American, stepping onto 74th Street gives me a sense of being home, despite being thousands of miles away. This area of Jackson Heights highlights the South Asian community of New York City. On and around 74th Street you can find anything from Bengali sweets, to Indian samosas and even mouth-watering Afghani kebabs! The street is lined with stores displaying beautiful traditional attire, 24-karat gold, new and upcoming Hindi movie soundtracks and the beautiful aroma of burning incense sticks. Queens is one of the most culturally diverse areas known in which everyone is able to fit in and all cultures are openly and equally accepted. One can practically visit the whole world by just taking a trip around Queens. Included in this cultural indulgence would be the South Asian culture and a unique Queens phenomenon in that case would be Jackson Heights, 74th Street to be exact.

Being born and brought up in Queens all my life and coming from a South Asian background can be quite confusing at times, however, Jackson Heights fills the absence of not being back home during the holidays and festivities. Whether it is Diwali or Eid, you will find your outfits, groceries for cooking specific South Asian dishes and all other necessities in Jackson Heights. The atmosphere is just different in that area as it is very welcoming, when compared to other South Asian neighborhoods around New York City. People talk to one another even if they’ve never met before and can stir up a conversation. Strangers are friendly with each other and if you’re lucky enough, that stranger might just turn out being a distant family member of yours. You may be at the grocery store buying your vegetables, and you drop a tomato. The person standing next to you picks it up and hands it to you. He/she will then go on to recognize you, whether it’s through your parents, siblings or any other family member. You begin to have a conversation and before you know it, you have just discovered a distant family member! Reading this you may laugh however I speak from experience! It is a very close-knit community.

Diwali is a very important holiday in the Hindu religion and is celebrated mainly by people from India and Bangladesh. Since people like me never had the opportunity to celebrate the holiday back home, we don’t get the true feeling of the holiday spirit once it comes around. Thanks to the South Asian community in charge of the 74th Street markets, once Diwali comes around the corner, the stores and trees are all decorated with beautiful lights to signify Diwali, the festival of lights. Stores such as the Butala Emporium, which sells all South Asian holiday necessities, also begins selling diyas, oil lamps usually made from clay with a cotton wick dipped in ghee or vegetable oil. Even though it’s nothing compared to how the holiday is celebrated back home, it definitely puts us in the holiday spirit. In celebration, there is also a Diwali show that takes place on 74th Street around that time. The street is blocked off with vendors selling food, clothing and accessories to others distributing free things. The free show consists of singing, dancing and showcasing the talent of the South Asian community. Friends, family and I enjoy going to this show to celebrate our holiday. It is nice when the whole community comes together, as well as crowded. You get a sense of being back home for the few hours you are there.

The South Asian community in Jackson Heights is mainly broken down into two streets and their surroundings: 37th Avenue, Broadway and Roosevelt Avenue. 74th Street is known for being Little India and parallel to that, 73rd Street is known as Little Bangladesh. The famous chicken over rice dish is well-known in Jackson Heights and can be found on almost every corner along with every major bank. Being close to the city, the community consists of South Asians as well as people that come from all different backgrounds. One of the most famous restaurants in Jackson Heights is the Jackson Diner, which has been there for quite a long time. One of the first Indian restaurants I remember eating at was the Jackson Diner itself. A dimly lit two floor environment, with calm Indian medleys playing at all times offers you a beautiful array of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Similar to the community, this restaurant is famous to everyone and there are many who travel the distance to come enjoy Jackson Diner’s delicious Indian cuisine.  Jackson Heights, 74th Street can be considered as a little colony within Queens, New York.

74th Street first became “Little India” in the 1970’s and 80’s when Indians first settled in followed by many other South Asians. The opening of Sai and Ram, the first Indian store on 74th Street in 1976, initiated the growth of what has become Little India today. By the year 1990, 74th Street housed more than 70 establishments, such as Indian restaurants, grocery stores, jewelry boutiques, and clothing, electronics and appliances stores. The continuous arrival of Indian and other South Asian immigrants were welcomed by what was becoming their home away from home. 74th Street served as not only a home for these new immigrants, it also provided them with jobs, and a family within a community. South Asian immigrants, whom were at first majority of Hindus, personified this area of Jackson Heights and called it “Jaikishan Heights”. Jaikrishna means “trumph of [Lord] Krishna”, hence Lord Krishna’s heights. Later, in 1992, Mayor Giuliani officially renamed the 74th Street area between 37th and Roosevelt Avenue “Little India”.

After the tragic death of the first Indian female astronaut, Kalpana Chawla, 74th Street was renamed to the Kalpana Chawla Way in her remembrance. Mayor Bloomberg had announced the renaming of the street in honor of the Indian-born astronaut on July 12, 2004. I have a lot of respect for her as she put forth the name of Indian women in the world. Women were looked down upon in many parts of India and she was able to come up and out of that stereotype and in my opinion, she should be respected and remembered for what she has done. Kalpana Chawla died in the Space Shuttle Colombia disaster, which occurred on February 1, 2003. Although the street has been renamed, people still refer to it as 74th Street like it always has been known.

As you walk down 74th Street, apart from the aroma of Indian spices and Hindi and Punjabi music pumping in your ear drums and through your veins, you can find almost anything you are looking for. Patel Brothers, located in the heart of 74th Street, is one of the biggest Indian grocery chain stores, very well-known and famous. People travel from all over the tri-state area to come and get their shopping done here. It’s our family tradition to go there every Saturday morning, by 9 am in order to find parking, and we load up our car with groceries to get us through the week. My dad prefers fresh vegetables every week and cooks new meals every single day, not believing in leftovers. The store is lined inside and out with fresh fruits and vegetables from the homeland. You’ll find Indian ice cream and soft drinks available at any time you want. It’s a great feeling when you’re able to access all this despite being far away from home.

Last but not the least, chaats in Jackson Heights are very popular and one bite brings back memories of chaats found on the streets of Mumbai (Bombay). Chaat is a savory road side snack which is usually sold from stalls or carts in South Asian countries. There is a huge variety of chaats but they are all based on fried dough along with various other ingredients, chutney being one of the most famous. When I had gone to India for the first time, one of the things I was most excited about was eating the chaats. However, due to road side conditions, I immediately lost my appetite as I approached the stalls. From paani puri to bhel puri, all kinds of chaats can be found in Jackson Heights, luckily not on the road side, but in many of the stores 74th Street is lined with. One of the most famous places for chaat, and my personal favorite, would be on 37th Avenue and 73rd Street, a place called Rajbhog. It is a vegetarian restaurant and also has mouthwatering dishes. My favorite chaats, which I also recommend to people, are samosa chaat and papri chaat. Both have the right amount of spice and tang and leave you craving for more!

Coming about 40 years from when Jaikishan Heights was first established by South Asian immigrants, today Little India is home to over 200 businesses in literally a one mile stretch. 74th Street has prospered over the years into becoming a beautiful and vibrant neighborhood. It is decorated all year around, one way or another, to either compliment a holiday or just to give its visitors a warm sense of being in “India”. The energy 74th Street beholds from its soothing aroma of scents to the delicious aromas from the mouth-watering cuisines, from its Bollywood and Bhangra music to its homely-environment, at the end of the day, it truly serves as my home away from home.

India is a beautiful country, a place one should definitely visit. From its attractions to agriculture and most importantly the variety of food, it is something worth experiencing. However, making a trip to India isn’t as easy as said so the alternative to that in my opinion would be taking a trip down to 74th Street in Jackson Heights. Unfortunately, you won’t see the attractions, but the fresh vegetables straight from the farms of Punjab and the delicious food you can enjoy in the many South Asian restaurants will tantalize your taste buds. Beware, us South Asians tend to enjoy our food spicy, but do not fear: we are truly as sweet as our cottage cheese desserts.

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