When I first came to Sunnyside, when my kids were young these are some of the springtime bservations I made: I took these walks After the Kids went to sleep out and along the Streets of Queens. The businesses and people I saw there deserve cataloguing for future reference. As I look at my notes I see that there will be little or no way that I could possibly accurately recount the shops and businesses and streets and feel that I got there and tried to jot down. I want to include it in my fiction, and probably will. But I don’t know how.
One night, a hot and sticky night, I went for the first of my nocturnal rambles. I figured I’d see much the same thing as I saw during the day, just closer and at a kid-free more leisurely pace. In some ways that is exactly what happened. In other’s I was in for an awakening which I could have never predicted. First the small awakenings:
There was much more ethnic variety than I’d been able to comprehend. Shops which looked like fast food joints were actually new Asian fast-food chains like “Tofu and Noodles.” The thing that got me about that one was that it was not of any specific Asian ethnicity. Rather, this was the first sort of Pan-Asian fast food joint. They were marketing to the lively late night Asian teenager crowd that probably doesn’t self segregate along ethnic lines besides East Asian. There I saw the familiar throngs of well dressed teens with cool gear and nice cars hanging out, but because it wasn’t Chinese or Korean or Japanese on the face of it I sort of assumed it was Pan Asian. (I know now it is a Korean Restaurant, with some Japanese touches: good food.)
Another epiphany from my walk was that a lot of what had formerly been bodegas were now actually “Halal Butchers” selling meat and products from the Arab World. At least two of these born-again bodegas were run by Pakistanis. (My favorite is the Halal Chinese place on Greenpoint and 43rd that is packed on friday nites.) I doubt that there is much friction out on 74th street between Pakistanis and Indians (Muslims and Hindus) Or Caribbean Indians and South Asian Indians, but if there is this is the first show of a micro diaspora away from 74th Street by Pakistanis. (Actually, I’ve learned that Sunnyside is the center of a Bangladeshi and Nepalese satellite community.)
Now the biggest shock about that jaunt out Queens Blvd and back was the nocturnal emergence of white people. This is not to say that there aren’t Whites out during the day, in fact I’d say that there are always enough whites about to remind you of their presence, if not primacy.
This had been an Irish neighborhood once, and still is really. But the folks you see about during the day are an entirely different breed. Retired people, Mothers with kids, night workers with the pallor of capitalism, Drunks who’ve tippled their way out of the mainstream, and dopefiends forever proving the equal opportunity of the disease of addiction all wander, stumble, shop and carouse the streets during the day.
At rush hour you start to see a different class or crop of whites. Well dressed silver-haired men in expensive clothes of no definite vintage. Timeless men who look like Brooks Brother’s models and we’ve been told had all left the city for the suburbs salt the crowds leaving the stations with their Tip O’Neal white mops. Visually polished enough to look like bit players on a Lexus ad, these men have the broad working class brogue of the White New Yorker: Italian syncopation with a slightly jewish drawl and Broad Gaelic vowels. “They-e they go. Breakin’ me Shoes. Jheez-s.”
(Of course, just under my radar when I originally wrote this, were the Romanians, Turks, and Russians that live in Sunnyside by the hundreds. I really couldn’t see them when I was just visiting from California, but now that I live here I am .very aware of them because my kids play with their kids and we struggle for the same peace as new New Yorkers.)
The difference being that the people who aren’t Irish who live in the neighborhood now can’t pass as Native Born. I’d imagine that there are the same amount of Irish in the area as there always was, but now you can tell that they are a large minority or a small Majority. I reckon that there is less friction now that the physical/visible test for Irish no longer works. Getting along seems to be what folks do best here now.
But at night. At night there was a strange paradigmatic shift. Now it seemed like all of the Irish bars were twice as big and three times as bright. Where there might have been one per block amongst other shops and businesses, they were now the only business open on most blocks and they were lively. “The Wall,” “McSorley’s,” “The Ferryman,” and “McGuinness'” were all bursting with a surprisingly young and upscale clientele. Maybe it’s my Manhattan snobbery, but I just didn’t expect to see so many young and well dressed white folks in that black, brown, yellow, beige and gray league of nations in the shadows of the 7 train.
Handsome and happy Irish people were bursting out onto the street through the windows and doors. (It wasn’t hot enough for AC yet.) College kids and immigrant plasterers, Lawyers and office workers were the discrete leafs of some whole shamrock I could have never imagined until that night. Happy and indifferent to me and the other people of color who walked along, Sunnyside Irish, in contrast to the Boston Irish of my youth are unconcerned with “the other.” I guess that a good economy and a strong influx of Native born Irish will have that effect on a people.
Then there were the younger people. Dressed to match the silver haired gentlemen, there were preppy young Irish kids all over the place. Crossing under the el, coming out of all of the side streets north of the tracks there were blond happy kids who looked like they should have been at a country club someplace not on Queens Blvd passing the Halal Butcher or “Tofu and Noodles.” Little Black dresses below long blond hair, accompanied Polo Blazers over Gap white Chinos. Pearls and gold in discrete portions orbited like satellites these pale Lunas. These folks appeared out of nowhere, looking simultaneously out of place and right at home. I know that the only thing that made this noteworthy to me was my own narrow mind. I have bought hook line and sinker the lie that all the whites who could afford to leave the city have.
Visually these might have been Ivy Leaguers except better dressed. But their wraith-like appearance on Queens Blvd. showed them to be more real that the imagined blue bloods of the Ivy League and its sisters. These kids hazarded out into the real multi-cultural world in a way that college kids rarely do. This is not the veneer of multiculti, rather it is the “real-deal.” Not only do we have geographic diversity layered on top of ethnic and racial diversity but there is also class and dream diversity to boot. In fact there is more class diversity in one of those Irish pubs than in all the freshman comp courses I’ve taught at UC Berkeley in the last 7 years.