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 Lions 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.
Sanjeks 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
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 occasionand celebrate two decades of pioneering urban
ethnographic work in Queensa 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 citys 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 Chens 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 nationalitiesColombian,
Cuban, Dominican, Ecuadoran, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, Uruguayan and othersinteract
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 Parks contribution to the bookshelf, based on her research
in Elmhurst and Flushing. Park, who was born in Korea and received her
bachelors degree from Seoul National University, joined the project
in 1984. She later served as a research anthropologist at Queens Colleges
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 Gregorys 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.
Sanjeks 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 1972my first and only job, he said with
a laughSanjek 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 lifes 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
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 books introduction, Although each researcher conducted
participant observation and interviews within a specific population, our
common concern was interaction among the different groups.
should be to see racial identity as one among the many characteristics
of every person and to appreciate the full range of human physical
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,
Race divides, but people can change. This book, beginning as an
ethnography of one neighborhoods 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 thingtrying
to get people to see that were all in the same damn thing
together. Ive been standing on the street corners and hollering
for fifty years, and it doesnt amount to nothing. But let
one person say, Yeah, were in the same boat together,
then everyone says, Hot damn, were in this same boat
together. Lets get together and paddle this boat.
Nothing is impossible if we believe that people can change.
from the Conclusion of Roger Sanjeks
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 wouldnt have known
what they were seeing or what questions to ask. She saw things that
other people wouldnt 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 racehow real an issue race is herewas a big shock to
me. I had no idea of race as so important a factor. I tell people that
its 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
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
foundations 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 Chicagos 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
plantsMexicans, Vietnamese and Ethiopians among otherslived
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
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 issuesmost dating
back to the 1970s fiscal crisis in the cityhad 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
Second was the role of houses of worship in mingling the newcomers.
Churches that welcomed everyone prospered; some that didnt make
newcomers welcome saw their congregations dwindle. Some eventually closed.
Third was the importance of civic ceremoniespark openings, Christmas-tree
lightings and other social eventsin 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 associationscitizens
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
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): Were in this
same boat together. Lets get together and paddle this boat.