Exploring the Ethnic Future of Us All—Queens College Project Celebrates 20th Anniversary

On a December night in 1983, as Roger Sanjek was taking notes at a Community Board 4 meeting in Elmhurst, a fellow spectator, a local Lion’s Club member named Bill Donnelly, offered his business card and asked, “Are you our Margaret Mead?

A good question, one that would take another 19 years to answer fully.

Yes, Sanjek was an anthropologist, a professor of anthropology at Queens College. And yes, he was studying the Elmhurst-Corona sections of Queens the way Mead studied native cultures from Samoa to North America.

But he was not alone in this scholarly venture, and his method was one that flew in the face of some conventional anthropological wisdom. Sanjek was assisted, at that stage of the research, by Hsiang-shui Chen and Ruby Danta, natives respectively of China and Cuba, who were detailed to study the immigrant Taiwan Chinese and Latin-American communities in Elmhurst-Corona.

Sanjek’s study became “New Immigrants and Old Americans,” a research project that would, in time, focus the talents of four other ethnic anthropologists on what the New York City Planning Commission would call, in 1992, “perhaps the most ethnically mixed community in the world.”

In recent weeks, the groundbreaking study drew to a conclusion with the publication of the last of six books generated by this research: Becoming American, Being Indian, by Indian-born Madhulika Khandelwal. The book examines the issues that arise in the immigrant community over maintaining Indian culture within a Queens setting.

Gathered for the 20th anniversary celebration of “New Immigrants and Old Americans” are Roger Sanjek, rear, and, from left, Ruby Danta, current project director Madhulika Khandelwal, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, Milagros Ricourt. Photos, Nancy Bareis.
To mark the occasion—and celebrate two decades of pioneering urban ethnographic work in Queens—a symposium and reception for the six authors was held on March 25. Queens Borough President Helen Marshall was present, as was the New York City Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs, Sayu Bhojwani. She brought with her a letter of commendation from Mayor Bloomberg, which stated, “Our city’s diversity is our greatest strength, and your findings prove that we can learn from one another and come together to create a stronger and better New York for all.”

The titles of the “New Immigrants and Old Americans” books hint at the multifaceted ethnographic riches uncovered by the research project, as do the career achievements of the authors.

Chinatown No More: Taiwan Immigrants in Contemporary New York, published by Cornell University Press in 1992, was Hsiang-shui Chen’s 1992 study based on his field work in Elmhurst and Flushing. Chen received his Ph.D in anthropology from the CUNY Graduate School in 1990, and is professor at the Institute of Anthropology at National Tsing Hua University in Taipei, where he has taught since 1991.

Hispanas de Queens: Latino Panethnicity in a New York City Neighborhood is the just-published joint effort of Ruby Danta and Milagros Ricourt, based on their studies of how women of many nationalities—Colombian, Cuban, Dominican, Ecuadoran, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, Uruguayan and others—interact in the bodegas, hospitals, schoolyards and churches of Corona. Ricourt is associate professor of Latino American studies at Lehman College, where she has taught since 1997.

The Korean American Dream: Immigrants and Small Business in New York is Kyeyoung Park’s contribution to the bookshelf, based on her research in Elmhurst and Flushing. Park, who was born in Korea and received her bachelor’s degree from Seoul National University, joined the project in 1984. She later served as a research anthropologist at Queens College’s Asian/American Center and received her Ph.D. from the CUNY Graduate Center in 1990. She currently is associate professor of anthropology at UCLA.

Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community arose from Steven Gregory’s field work in East Elmhurst, North Corona and Lefrak City. Brooklyn-born Gregory joined the project in 1987 after receiving his Ph.D. in anthropology from the New School for Social Research. He has been associate professor of anthropology and African-American studies at Columbia University since 2000.

Sanjek’s own book, The Future of Us All: Race and Neighborhood Politics in New York City, sums up of the many parts of the New Immigrants and Old Americans project. As he notes in his introduction, one demographic projection says that by 2080, whites will make up just half of the American population (they are now 74 percent); Latin Americans will make up 23 percent; blacks will be 15 percent and Asians will be 12 percent.

A teacher since 1972—“my first and only job,” he said with a laugh—Sanjek had done anthropological work in Ghana and Brazil, and had studied the Grey Panthers (activists for the aged) in Berkeley and New York. He had grown up in Washington Heights and Fresh Meadows in Queens, the grandchild of immigrants. “When I grew up, I thought all grandparents had accents,” he said.

In 1981, he returned from a sabbatical and found his life’s work. “I always wanted to do anthropological work in the city I was born in,” he said. “When I came back here, I looked at a sea of student faces, faces from all over the world. Before, Latin American and Asian students had been here in small numbers. I wanted to look at the neighborhoods our students were coming from.”

He assembled the team of researchers over the next several years. The approach, using immigrant researchers to study their fellow-immigrant communities, was controversial. “There are many anthropological programs that forbid using field workers from the same ethnic group,” Sanjek said.

The objection was that members of the same group would take for granted behaviors and customs that would strike a foreign eye with the force of revelation. For Sanjek and his team, familiarity offered unusual access and insight that more than outweighed any such worries. Also, he noted in his book’s introduction, “Although each researcher conducted participant observation and interviews within a specific population, our common concern was interaction among the different groups.”

“The goal…
should be to see racial identity as one among the many characteristics of every person and to appreciate the full range of human physical diversity.”
– Roger Sanjek
Cultural differences were easy to spot when the researchers gathered to discuss their work. Khandelwal recalled Chen and Park discussing real estate practices in their respective communities: Korean immigrants tended to invest in business property and live in rented quarters, while Taiwanese preferred to put their money into the family home.

Paddling This Boat Together

The point is not to be color-blind; race, after all, is something one learns to see from childhood, and racial categories are in constant use. The goal, rather, should be to see racial identity as one among the many characteristics of every person and to appreciate the full range of human physical diversity in what always has been and is increasingly now an interconnected, color-full world…

Race divides, but people can change. This book, beginning as an ethnography of one neighborhood’s majority-minority transition, became a study of the roots, and weeds, of local democracy. “The political strength of citizens can only be aggregated by assembling the collective aspirations of the many into a coherent, reliable whole.” writes the journalist William Greider. “This is the daunting challenge of democracy, and it is difficult to do in any era. But it is not impossible.”

Early in my fieldwork, [longtime Elmhurst resident] Bill Donnelly told me, “All of life, everyplace, is the same thing—trying to get people to see that we’re all in the same damn thing together. I’ve been standing on the street corners and hollering for fifty years, and it doesn’t amount to nothing. But let one person say, ‘Yeah, we’re in the same boat together,’ then everyone says, ‘Hot damn, we’re in this same boat together. Let’s get together and paddle this boat.’”

Nothing is impossible if we believe that people can change.

— from the “Conclusion” of Roger Sanjek’s The Future of Us All

The multiethnic approach added special richness to the study, Sanjek said. He recalled visiting a Hindu temple with Khandelwal. “Madhulika is a Hindu,” he said. “Non-Hindus wouldn’t have known what they were seeing or what questions to ask. She saw things that other people wouldn’t have seen.”

On the other hand, the field work took Khandelwal to a Christmas Eve ceremony at the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown. “She would never have done that on her own,” Sanjek said. “It gave her a way of understanding the context of the people she was dealing with. She could see the importance of religion to white Americans.”

Khandelwal, who taught American history in India before coming to this country, learned a great deal in the field here. “The whole idea of race—how real an issue race is here—was a big shock to me. I had no idea of race as so important a factor. I tell people that it’s as real as religion is in India.” She added, “We learned so much about our own community by finding out about other cultures.”

While the conduct of the study may have been unconventional, it nonetheless impressed some observers enough that they paid it the sincere flattery of imitation.

In the mid-1980s, Sanjek explained, part of the funding for the study came from two small Ford Foundation grants that totaled $100,000. The foundation’s observers were so taken with the work and its results that “they funded six other studies around the country that were based on what we did,” Sanjek said.

The studies were done in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood (whose 58,000 residents speak 24 languages), as well as in Miami, Houston, Philadelphia, Garden City, Kansas, and Monterey Park in Southern California. The Kansas study looked at how immigrant workers drawn to two big meat-packing plants—Mexicans, Vietnamese and Ethiopians among others—lived and functioned together in trailer-park housing. Other slaughterhouses in the American heartland have attracted similarly diverse workforces.

“Our project in Queens was the model for those studies,” Sanjek said. “There are probably a dozen books that have come out of those studies nationally.”

At the 20th anniversary symposium, Sanjek spoke of five insights that had emerged from the field work.

The first, he said, was that quality-of-life issues—most dating back to the 1970s fiscal crisis in the city—had played a very important role in bringing people together. He mentioned school overcrowding, a lack of youth facilities, open drug sales, the indifference of police and the presence of illegal housing units as issues shared by every ethnic group.

Second was the role of houses of worship in mingling the newcomers. Churches that welcomed everyone prospered; some that didn’t make newcomers welcome saw their congregations dwindle. Some eventually closed. Third was the importance of civic ceremonies—park openings, Christmas-tree lightings and other social events—in bringing diverse groups together in common celebration.

Fourth, small-business coalitions organized to fight rising rents and the invasion of “big- box” stores like Walmart or Home Depot. “Businessman of all ethnic backgrounds met to discuss common problems,” Sanjek said. Fifth, Sanjek said, was the importance of women leaders. “Women are the glue,” he said. “They cross the ethnic lines; they build bridges and links.” He recalled attending civic and Community Board meetings. “The men would sit on the sidelines,” he said. “The women were leaning over to show pictures of their grandchildren to one another.”

Sanjek reserves special praise for civic activists, whom he calls “wardens” and describes as “the spark plugs in the civic associations—citizens of whatever background who care deeply about their neighborhood, watch its daily life carefully, and are politically sophisticated about how to nudge local government to get their wishes granted and their needs met.”

It was just such a “warden” who approached Sanjek and asked if he was going to be the Margaret Mead of Corona. In fact, Sanjek gives the last words in his conclusion to The Future of Us All to the same civic activist, who expresses the value and necessity of cooperation in down-to-earth terms (See sidebar above): “We’re in this same boat together. Let’s get together and paddle this boat.”


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