The 7 subway train made its journey through a mass of crummy spray-painted buildings as it entered Queens from Manhattan. The scenery was a striking contrast to Manhattan’s glossy, elegant skyscrapers. But the train’s final destination could be the New York City’s next tourist hotspot - Flushing, Queens.
“Conventions are occurring here,” said Michelle Stoddart, the director of marketing and tourism of Discover Queens. “The areas are in high demand.”
With lively wide streets and small ethnic eateries, Flushing is a cultural delight to the senses. Throngs of people of all different ethnicities move up and down Main Street. Crowds push, shove, and wait to cross streets, across from stores with bold print names in Chinese and English. Here, tourists can buy bread from Al-Habib Grocery, select a colorful beaded sari from Libas Emporium, Inc., or eat at the Taipan Bakery.
“Rent is not too high,” said Muhammad Adnan Sharif, 29, from behind the cash register at Al-Habib Grocery. “Community is here. All the stores are here. Everything is nearby.”
Flushing has a large immigrant population of Asians, Hispanics, Middle Easterners, Greeks, and Africans. Foreign-born residents make up approximately 58.5 percent of Flushing’s population, according to the New York State Comptroller’s office. The majority of new immigrants to New York City have come to live in Queens, which brings a distinct diversity and flavor to New York City tourism.
“You can hop on the 7 and hear seven languages in your subway car,” said Andrew Vaupel, 25, a marketing coordinator. “Queens is one of the most diverse areas.”
Under the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Park, young skateboarders skidded and performed tricks in the empty fountain below the hollow stainless steel globe. Nearby, tourists emptied from yellow buses in front of the Queens Museum of Art.
Across from the Unisphere, children and adult leagues played soccer in the many green fields. Joggers and bicyclists made their way through the park alongside leafy trees, as well as a crescent shaped lake. The park is an oasis from the hectic environment of city life. It is also one of Queens’ main tourist draws and it is host to a slew of attractions, including Shea Stadium, the USTA National Tennis Center, the Queens Museum of Art, Queens Theatre in the Park, the Queens Zoo, a carousel, six playgrounds, and cultural events like Hong Kong boat races.
“It’s a really fun park,” said Jim Malloy, a park official. “It’s a really self-sufficient park. During the summertime, it’s one of the busiest parks in New York.”
But that is not necessarily good news for residents of Flushing. While other New York City hotspots are hip and trendy, all that glitz comes at a price as areas become gentrified. High rent and expenses can push out an area’s original populace, limiting the diversity that makes a neighborhood unique in the first place, according to a National Housing Institute journal article on gentrification by Kathe Newman and Elvin Wyly.
“In communities with large immigrant populations, older and even younger immigrants return to their country of origin when they are priced out of their housing,” the article said. “Still others move out of the city to Long Island, New Jersey and upstate New York.”
Take Park Slope in Brooklyn, for example, which was once a poorer immigrant community until it became gentrified in the 1990’s. The area is now upscale and home to many celebrities. Rent in Park Slope has skyrocketed as a result. Between 2001 and 2003, the price to buy a one-bedroom studio apartment in Park Slope increased from $103,000 to $130,000, according to New York Magazine.
Signs of gentrification, although minor, can already be seen in Flushing. More mainstream franchises like Old Navy and the United Colors of Benetton stick out next to slightly run down local businesses. And the Starbucks on Main Street is a telltale sign that change is coming to the neighborhood. The population of Flushing has increased by 13.5 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to the New York State Comptroller’s office.
“Too many people are here,” said Hasseb Syed, 20, a Rite Aid worker. “How much capacity does Flushing have? I don’t think it’s a place to visit anymore.”
But that is just what city tourist officials are trying to do - bring more people to Flushing. Tourism officials are concentrating on making Flushing better known to the other boroughs and tourists. New plans to revitalize the area could make Flushing a household name.
“We have spent millions of dollars in the park,” said Estelle Cooper, the assistant commissioner of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. “Right now we’re building a 58-million dollar indoor pool and ice skating rink.”
Apartment buildings and hotels are being built throughout the neighborhood. Shea Stadium, the Queens Museum of Art, and the Bowne House are all being renovated.
“Flushing is undergoing revitalization at this point,” said Donna Cartelli, executive director of the Bowne House Historical Society.
Efforts to stimulate Flushing’s tourism and economy can partly be attributed to efforts by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Flushing Council Member John Liu, and the New York City government.
“The work that the mayor had done to make the city attractive has definitely spurred the growth,” Stoddart said. “All the neighborhoods are undergoing some kind of economic boom because people are finding New York an increasingly attractive place to work and live.”
The internet has also allowed people to find out about events in Flushing and in other Queens neighborhoods, places where they might not have gone before.
“Overall, tourism in Queens is taking on greater awareness,” Stoddart said. “We got a lot of calls based on the fact the events are doing so well. The U.S. Open this year was very exciting. So people were very focused on Queens and just paying attention.”
While it is still too early for Flushing to become a full-fledged tourist hotspot, the area is well on its way to becoming a more attractive destination. The economy of the neighborhood is doing well, while crime has dropped by almost 75 percent since 1993.
“It feels like visiting a mini-city within a city,” said Terri Osborne, the director of cultural affairs and tourism for the office of the Queen’s borough president. “It feels more like a city today. A 21st century city.”