By Brian Prowse-Gany
Just over the East River of Manhattan lies one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the world. As any local can tell you, Queens has become New York City’s fastest-growing borough, with a recent influx of new families, young professionals and businesses both large and small.
It offers a healthy mix of new and old, as multigenerational families from countries all over the world are keeping their old traditions alive while sharing the space with new younger residents. The incredible diversity of the borough is its backbone and perhaps its greatest attraction.
“We have people coming from over 130 countries,” states Melinda Katz, president of the borough, “and with that they are bringing all of their culture, their arts, their dancing, their music and their food.”
Someone who knows about the diversity of Queens firsthand is actor John Leguizamo, whose family immigrated to the Jackson Heights section of Queens from Colombia. “It’s the perfect human experiment,” Leguizamo tells Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric, “everybody came to this neighborhood. Jackson Heights/Elmhurst is the most diverse place in the world per square mile… and that’s what made this neighborhood great.” Leguizamo’s childhood in Queens remains a big influence on his work, especially in Ghetto Klown, his acclaimed one-man show, which was recently turned into a graphic novel.
Leguizamo is one of many film and television actors who call Queens their hometown, including Ray Romano, John Turturro and Jon Favreau. And while many people think Manhattan is the center of film and television production, the business is booming in Queens. This is thanks to the variety of locations the borough has to offer, as well as the large studios, none more iconic than Silvercup Studios, right at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge. Silvercup Studios President Stuart Suna has seen everything from The Sopranos to Sex and the City to 30 Rock shot in his buildings and has watched the industry continue to grow over the years.
“The huge transformation of the industry was really due to the New York state tax credits,” Stuart comments. “It’s actually the highest return of investment of any tax break in the history of New York state. It’s created over 100,000 new jobs.”
And as Queens continues to be one of primetime television’s favorite backdrops, the skyline evolves. Tens of thousands of new apartment complexes and brand-new skyscrapers are quickly rising to complement the once solitary Citicorp Building. New businesses moving into the vastly changing Long Island City area include a large number of technology companies. Companies like Shapeways, whose factory in LIC produces amazing products using 3D technology. Shapeways has over 8 million items in its database and uses an online platform where over 40,000 people are selling their wares to customers around the world.
“You can design products in your computer, you can upload them to our site, and then we can turn them into real things using 3D printing,” says Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO and co-founder of Shapeways. “Our platform enables entrepreneurs to build their own business” — entrepreneurs like Sarah Awad and Dhemerae Ford, aka the Laser Girls, who use Shapeways to produce everything from 3D “manicures” to accessories for cosplay.
Just around the block from the Shapeways warehouse lies C4Q, a nonprofit organization that is using technology in the best way possible, for education and community building. Founded by Jukay Hsu and David Yang, both from immigrant families who made their home in Queens, C4Q helps adults move from poverty to the middle class by attending a 10-month program that teaches the students how to code. “On average our students go from making $18,000 to $85,000 a year, and they work at some of the best tech companies here in New York City and across the United States.” The program embraces diversity, with participants of all genders and races learning skills that may have been hard to come by otherwise. Ray, one of their graduates was able to leave behind a dead-end job working in a garage to work at a new Manhattan based company Healthie.
The perseverance of Queens was tested in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy ravaged sections of the borough. One of the hardest-hit areas was the coastal community of Rockaway Beach, where Queens native and muay thai champion Chris Romulo watched both his home and his business get destroyed. His business, CROM, wasn’t just a gym but an institution where Chris and his wife were able to help residents of the Rockaways with both physical fitness and direction. “We have kids that are, you know, in kind of the same situation that I was when I was a younger kid, that we’re tryin’ to bring along and help them understand that there — there is a vision or — or a future, you know, if you choose it. I wanted to keep passing on what was passed on to me.”
Devastated when his gym was destroyed, Chris kept his head up and continued to run classes anywhere he could, whether it was a friend’s living room or inside a local Knights of Columbus. Now, five years later, Sandy seems like a distant memory for the Rockaways. With new business, a new boardwalk, and, thanks to friends, students and members, a new CROM, now in a 5,000-foot space, “it’s beautiful to look back and see how far Rockaway has come,” says Chris, who recently published a book about his journey titled “Champions Uprising.”
It’s the perseverance and the diversity that have always made Queens an exceptional borough, one that sticks it out through the tough times and embraces change and innovation. As the skyline changes and new faces enter the borough, Queens has still maintained its identity as one of the greatest cultural melting pots in the world.