Crossing the Boulevard
Singh, Anika, The Next American City
Crossing the Boulevard
CONCEIVED, WRITTEN AND COMPILED BY WAR
REN LEHRER AND JUDITH SLOAN
W. W. NORTON & COMPANY, 2003
THE BEST WAY TO GET TO THE secOND floor of the Queens Museum of Art is to take the ascending ramp around the Panorama, a scale model of New York City designed by Robert Moses and Raymond Lester for presentation at the 1964-65 World's Fair. Moses and Lester intended the model to be used later for city planning purposes. But perhaps the most profound transformation of New York City over the past four decades has come from changes that no model of the city's buildings could reflect.
Shortly after the Panorama was unveiled at the World's Fair, Congress passed the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, repealing the decades-old discriminatory immigration policy which had imposed severe quotas on immigration from the non-Western world. By the late 1960s, new immigrants to the United States increasingly made their way from Asia and South America. Queens, a largely residential borough of New York City and home to two major airports that function as modern-day Ellis Islands, became a natural destination for thousands of new immigrants. Today, two million people, representing over one hundred nationalities, live in Queens. Ethnicity or nationality define many neighborhoods, as they did a century ago when clusters of Irish, Italian, Polish, or Greek-American residents marked the borders of individual neighborhoods. But because today's immigrants represent many more different groups than those of a century ago, ethnic neighborhoods flow into one another. Increasingly, families of different nationalities and races live on the same block and share the same public spaces.
On the Queens Museum's second floor earlier this year, Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan, a husband-wife team living in Queens, showed how they had "traveled the world by trekking the streets of their home borough." Their exhibit, Crossing the BLVD, told the stories of recent immigrants through writing, photographs, music, and recordings, now available in a book and CD of the same name.
The BLVD in the title refers to Queens Boulevard, a multilane highway where, according to a front page story in the New York Daily News three years ago, one pedestrian is killed every six weeks. The not-sosubtle metaphor for the difficulty of crossing from one place to the next defines Lehrer and Sloan's project.
In their extraordinary attempt to document "signs of migratory life, normally hidden within the mundane, sometimes hideous urban landscape of Queens," Lehrer and Sloan conducted interviews with post-1965 immigrants and their children between the 1999 and 2002. They undertook the impossible task of telling the story of modern-day Queens while providing a window into the geopolitical and cultural history of the postcolonial world.
Undeterred, Lehrer and Sloan succeed because they focus on seventy-nine powerful individual stories that deserve telling. These narratives' details vividly capture the impossibility of defining a single recent American immigration experience. Columnists and pundits have noted that the culture wars are more tenacious than ever: between the Christian right and the Hollywood left, between "red" and "blue" states. When political candidates consider the "minority vote," they focus on narrowly conceived categories such as African-Americans in suburbia or Latino swing voters in Florida and New Mexico. Reality, and real people, tends to be more complicated. Harjinder Singh Duggal's story starts with a personal introduction: "I'm Indian first. Sikh second. Politician third. No, I'm American first. I must be grateful to this flag. Actually, I'm human being first. American second. Indian third. I mean, Sikh third. Indian fourth. Irish, maybe fifth or sixth." Try explaining that to the United States Census Bureau or a pollster.
Lehrer and Sloan divide the book into five sections. The first includes interviews with very recent immigrants, including six practitioners of Falun Gong and an Austrian science teacher; the second tells the stories of refugees, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and Bhutan among other places; the third features families; the fourth focuses on individual Queens neighborhoods; the last explores places where individuals from a vast array of backgrounds meet: a ping-pong club, a high school, a political organization, and a rock band. It's telling that the book concludes with these ad hoc town squares. Lehrer and Sloan recognize borders and the difficulty of crossing or transcending them and, at the same time, want to prove their artificiality. Although often set far apart, the stories conspicuously echo one another.
In "Run for Your Life," the section on refugees, Lehrer and Sloan interview refugees from countries that many Americans could not locate on a map. In a one-bedroom apartment in Woodside live six Lhotshampas. Members of a Nepali-speaking Hindu minority group in Bhutan, they fled to India to escape persecution on the basis of their ethnicity, religion, and political activities. One describes herself as "Lhotshampa only by association." Born to a Buddhist family but married to a Lhotshampa, Yeshey Pelzom explains that her family disowned her when she refused to stop associating with Hindu classmates at college.
Meanwhile, in Far Rockaway, a Nigerian preacher wears a different tribe's ethnic dress to church each week so that none of her parishioners thinks that she favors one tribe over another. In Ozone Park, a young Indian immigrant meets his neighbor only when he buys a set of Butthole Surfer records from him on eBay. A Haitian immigrant puts a For Sale sign on his front yard in Laurelton. He soon realizes that a murderous former dictator, Toto Constant, lives in the neighborhood when Constant, now a local real estate broker, knocks on the door asking if he can show the house to a potential buyer.
Crossing the BLVD looks like a fourthgrade social studies textbook. Photographs of individual interviewees are stark against white backdrops, juxtaposed with first-person narratives, maps, photographs of immigration documents, and sidebars providing historical and cultural background information in red italics. Despite the book's textbook appearance, Crossing the BLVD is not overly didactic. Lehrer and Sloan shy from tying together the threads of the seventy-nine individual stories to prove some overarching point about immigration policy.
The accompanying museum exhibit and CD expand the project into a multimedia classroom experience. The CD contains traditional music from the native countries of interviewees as well as compositions by composer Scott Johnson built around "audio collages": words and phrases picked out of audio recordings of interviews. Included in the museum exhibit is a booth where recent immigrants and their children can participate in the Crossing the BLVD project by telling their own stories and posing for a digital camera. The project's website (www.crossingtheboulevard.org) also has a place for people to post their experiences of immigration.
Not all of the multimedia bells and whistles help us to understand the Crossing the BLVD stories. In Johnson's previous work, the words sampled are virtually meaningless, and the music supplies the missing depth. The music on the Crossing the BLVD CD, however, fails to provide its poignant words with any context, instead exoticizing the project participants by sampling their voices into electronic music. Words are disconnected from their speakers, which undermines Lehrer and Sloan's attempt to recall a tradition of oral history and, perhaps worse, bores listeners with a tired "East Meets West" formula. The website, on the other hand, brilliantly furthers the project by providing an ongoing mechanism for storytelling while making many of the stories and photographs published in the book and exhibited at the Queens Museum widely available.
Lehrer and Sloan may not have created a beautifully designed book nor a holistic multimedia experience, but they succeed nonetheless in telling a story that few people know-that of contemporary American immigration-by focusing on the individuals most affected by that process. The stories selected counter a prevailing trend toward oversimplification of American demographics and cultural history. For those interested in a good yarn-or seventy-nine of them-or for those interested in the raw material for sculpting policy, Crossing the BLVD is an important project with the admirable goal of encouraging people to listen attentively to rarely heard stories.
ANIKA SINGH is a law clerk to United States District Court Judge Janet C. Hall in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She very much enjoyed chatting with the Ying Yang Twins and particularly appreciated their gift of a complimentary "Shake it like a Salt Shaker" hand-painted baby tee.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Crossing the Boulevard. Contributors: Singh, Anika - Author. Magazine title: The Next American City. Issue: 6 Publication date: January 1, 2004. Page number: 42+. © The Next American City, Inc. Summer 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.