Riding the Trail of the New Pioneers

Article excerpt

When air travelers from abroad arrive in America, clutching tickets marked New York, they may carry visions of Manhattan's skyline. But they actually disembark in the borough of Queens. Here, in the 1930s, I was raised and went to school--in an environment almost wholly composed of the descendants of European settlers. Among the thousands of students I encountered, I cannot recall a single African American, Hispanic or Asian face. As late as 1960, Elmhurst, my community in Queens, was 98 percent non-Hispanic white.

Recently I returned to Queens to show my wife, reared on a Midwestern farm, the world of my childhood. In Manhattan we boarded the No. 7 Queens-bound train to revisit my old haunts, but when we reached Elmhurst, I was startled to find a scene out of a movie set in Latin America. Almost all the familiar landmarks had been displaced by enterprises with signs such as comida rapida (fast food), abogado (lawyer) and carniceria (butcher). A travel office advertised air fares for popular destinations: Bogota $529, Lima $349, Guayaquil $349. In the next town, a concentration of Argentine restaurants called itself Esquina Diego Maradona, in honor of the soccer superstar.

A stroll through my old neighborhood deepened the sense of disjunction. At the secondary school I had attended, the principal told me that students heard 40 separate languages at home. St. Bartholomew's, where my mother had been a parishioner, celebrated masses not only in Spanish but also in French--to oblige the local Haitians.

We reboarded the train and at the end of the line came upon a sight even more exotic. Flushing looked like downtown Guangzhou and Seoul fused together. Stores identified themselves in Chinese or blockier Korean characters. At a vegetable stand, an elderly man with a Fu Manchu mustache would have looked at home in Nanjing.

Our experience in Queens reflected a little-noted phenomenon: more foreign-born people are living in the United States today than at any other time since the barriers against immigrants were raised in the 1920s. With 900,000 legal newcomers each year, the United States is witnessing the biggest wave of immigration since the first decade of the 20th century.

Why did so many immigrants wind up in Queens? An area of nearly 120 square miles--almost as big as Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx put together--Queens has the room to absorb new arrivals. …