Is There a Queens Urbanism?

Last September, Joseph Heathcott visited Columbia University to discuss this question with a diverse group of grad students, faculty members, and guests. A Midwestern transplant living in Jackson Heights, Heathcott had been teaching his students at the New School to look carefully at Queens, a borough that has received less scholarly attention than Manhattan or Brooklyn. Historians have written about Times Square and Central Park, Brooklyn Heights and Canarsie, yet Queens has lacked its storytellers – in academia, if not in pop culture, as Ryan Reft highlights in our next piece.*

There is something that just isn’t urban about Queens, at least for many observers. One often does not find the fine-grained density of Manhattan, nor the brownstone elegance of Brooklyn in the borough’s boxy suburbs, or its façade of ticky-tacky retail architecture of the 1960s and 70s: a mishmash of concrete and vinyl, made shabby by time and weather. Even the most architecturally coherent neighborhoods, like Sunnyside, feature a bewildering farrago of periods and materials, wrapped around co-ops, multifamily homes, and standalone structures.

When I used to tell people I lived in Queens, they would often respond, “Oh, in the suburbs.” In his presentation, Heathcott was trying to get beyond this simple characterization. One does not cross the Queensboro Bridge and land in the middle of Levittown. The increasingly gentrified Long Island City offers pricey high-rise living to those who can afford it – a sort of colony of Midtown and the Upper East Side, just across the East River. Housing units may not stretch as high as they do in much of Manhattan or parts of Brooklyn, but the density of residences, shops, restaurants, laundromats and sheer human activity in neighborhoods like Astoria and Woodside challenge any notion of curvilinear suburban conformity. Heathcott suggested that a trip along Roosevelt Avenue introduces us to a kind of urban form that has been little studied – an intermediate zone between classic urban density (itself a relative rarity in the US) and the suburban sprawl that marks most of the American landscape.

What stood out most to me in the discussion last September was a comment by Professor Casey Blake, who pointed out that Queens is more defined by transportation than New York’s other boroughs. Highways, trains, planes, cars, cabs, bike paths – modes of transit have crisscrossed and shaped Queens’s fate in profound ways. Working from this observation, I set out to document the various ways transportation infrastructure pervades the lives of people in Queens – from the taxi dispatchers and auto shops to the railyards and bus depots throughout the borough:

Transportation City

* Steven Gregory’s 1998 Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community is a notable exception. See a review here.

Alex Sayf Cummings