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The New Face of Immigrant America: Welcome to Jackson Heights

The camera pans over a cityscape at sunrise. In a rare quiet moment, the 7 train arrives at the Roosevelt/74th Avenue station in Queens, New York.

Jackson Heights is located 9 miles east of Manhattan.

Jackson Heights is located nine miles east of Manhattan.

The screen cuts local. Subzi mandi, an Indian grocery store. An elderly man picks mangos outside the storefront.

The scene changes to a small Muslim prayer room. An imam delivers Arabic prayers as snippets of Urdu arise from the congregation.

In Jackson Heights transports its audience into the commotion of a small community. Director Frederick Wiseman’s three-hour film provides a glimpse into what he calls “the new face of immigrant America.”

In his fifty-year career, Wiseman has directed over thirty documentaries, notably High School (1968), Central Park (1989), and Model (1980. He explores “institutions,” places that he believes define American life and society. This mission brought him to Jackson Heights, a neighborhood that local politicians claim to be the most diverse in the nation. The film’s introduction shows City Council representative Daniel Dromm boasting of the community’s 167 spoken languages, all found within half a square mile. Immigrants make up 65 percent of the population, with seventy percent of residents identifying as Latino, and twenty percent identifying as Asian. The community also houses an active LGBT community, hosting the annual Queens Pride Parade and numerous LGBT advocacy organizations.

Frederick Wiseman, the director of "In Jackson Heights."

Frederick Wiseman, the director of “In Jackson Heights.”

Wiseman’s unique style allows him to provide a true representation of this unique location. In Jackson Heights lacks narration, interviews, and allusions to the actual filmmaking process. Instead, audience members learn about Jackson Heights solely by following its residents and listening to their conversations. The audience visits a religious school for Muslim children, a taxi-driver class at the Himalayan driving school, and a union-organizing meeting in a hair salon. While viewers only see a small portion of the locality’s linguistic diversity and learn the stories of only a few residents, they gain an insight into one of America’s greatest perplexities: the immigrant community.



Jackson Heights became a neighborhood late in its development. Originally a planned district for white middle-class workers in the early 20th century, the neighborhood’s demographics changed drastically in the 1960s. A combination of the 1965 Fair Housing Act, Immigration and Nationality Act, and growing white flight to the suburbs caused Jackson Heights to metamorphose into an immigrant destination. While Jackson Heights took on this role fairly recently, the locality has followed trends from the earliest immigrant neighborhoods in America.

Immigrant neighborhoods have been coupled with American urban life since the arrival of European immigrants in the 19th century. In an interview with The Politic, Chloe Taft, a Post-doctoral associate in the American Studies department, spoke of the similarities between these early European immigrant neighborhoods and their current counterparts. “The legacy of early housing segregation policies shaped spatial politics, and housing continues to influence immigrant destinations today.” While inclusive immigration reforms allowed for the growth of Jackson Heights’ foreign-born population, exclusionary housing policies forced early immigrant neighborhoods in the 19th century. In the 20th century, redlined districts, which designated mostly poor and minority neighborhoods, were denied mortgages and social support services from the federal government.

This gap in assistance forced the formation of community associations to support their populations.  In addition to providing legal and economic support services, “community associations created pockets of identity and connection to home countries,” said Taft. She explained that “benefit organizations” like Catholic churches, social clubs, and labor associations played a large role in preserving the language and culture of immigrants. Such organizations allowed immigrant communities to flourish, as people moved to places that provided them with familiarity and a support system.


Community Organizations

These trends resonate in today’s immigrant communities. Taft reasoned, “In the past 30 years, federal funding to cities has been cut dramatically, and community organizations have been tasked with replacing social services formerly offered by the government.” In Jackson Heights highlights the comparable role of community organizations in Queens today, emphasizing both religious groups and immigrant-centered non-profit organizations.

The film cites Make the Road NY (MRNY), a non-profit that supports Latino immigrants by organizing labor, lobbying, and providing educational and legal services. Deborah Axt, MRNY’s executive director, told The Politic, “On any given night, we have committee meetings of 75-100 people, in which help members support each other.” In the film, the center serves as meeting space for Latino transgender groups, workers, and immigrants to talk about police surveillance, discrimination, and stories of their dangerous journey to the United States. Axt also described how cultural aspects of the organization build solidarity among members. Attendees enjoy a meal together after each meeting, they sing together, and MRNY offices are decorated with flags and colorful signs of members’ home countries.

Other organizations in the neighborhoods service different populations. The Center for Integration and Advancement of New Americans (CIANA), works in Jackson Heights to support recent Middle Eastern immigrants. Emira Habiby-Browne, CIANA’s Executive Director, explained “the center helps immigrants who may have trouble adjusting to American societal norms.” She emphasized the need for a welcoming community for new immigrants, as well as the role that nonprofit organizations play in immigrant neighborhoods. “We provide our clients with a support system to help them succeed,” said Habiby-Browne, “offering essential tools the government fails to provide for new immigrants.” These tools include legal services, English classes, and tutoring for children.

Students attend a taxi-driver training school in Jackson Heights.

Students attend a taxi-driver training school in Jackson Heights.

Community organizations tend to specialize their services towards certain ethnic groups, reflecting a neighborhood-wide trend. As opposed to being integrated with people of other backgrounds, Jackson Heights residents in the film stick to their own groups. The district itself is physically divided; locals can easily identify “Little India” and “Little Colombia.” Andrea Quintero, a doctoral candidate studying multi-ethnic Queens neighborhoods in the Yale American Studies Department, spoke about this segregative phenomenon. “Jackson Heights is a combination of overlap and semi-exclusivity,” said Quintero. This segregation occurs in small ways, as people deal with neighbors of different cultures, work in restaurants with each other, and walk on the same streets.

Residents live a contested existence: rising nativist sentiments criticize immigrant communities, and the neighborhood faces the threat of gentrification. Even with these challenges, Quintero believes that “communities like Jackson Heights put to bed conventional views of assimilation.”  In Jackson Heights, traditional markers of “foreignness” and “American-ness” do not define residents, and an outsider group is not forced to fit a local norm. The neighborhood instead may hold a new potential for immigrant communities and assimilation, one of cultural difference.

"Little India" in Jackson Heights.

“Little India” in Jackson Heights.


A Neighborhood Model

Growing immigrant destinations, such as Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Seattle, have begun to resemble this model in new, suburbanized form. Due to the suburban organization of growing cities in the South and West and a greater number of affordable housing options, more immigrants today live in suburbs than central cities. Audrey Singer, Brookings Institute Senior Fellow, commented on this trend in the 2008 book Twenty-first Century Gateways, “Many newer [suburban destinations]—not fully developed ethnic enclaves yet—are housing and catering to a multiethnic population.”

Singer explained that the development of transnational immigrant neighborhoods depends on the composition of entering immigrants. “Income and class make-up often influences the diversity of emerging immigrant neighborhoods,” said Singer. Middle-class neighborhoods, like Jackson Heights, attract the most diverse array of residents—even in a suburban context. She provided the example of Montgomery County, MD, outside Washington, D.C., where some suburban neighborhoods contain over one hundred nationalities.

Community organizations, which play a large role in Jackson Heights, continue to shape new immigrant communities. Singer suggested that immigrants living in the suburbs often commute to city centers for immigrant services and associations. In addition, new immigrant organizations that provide access and opportunity can attract more immigrants to a specific area. Some community organizations are already expanding—Make the Road NY recently opened new offices in New York suburbs in Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey, and their partner organizations around the country are doing the same.

These growing, diverse immigrant communities may force us to rethink contemporary political discussions of integration and assimilation. In these unique enclaves, the street level supplies points of contact and exchange between cultures. Small acts such as buying groceries, visiting playgrounds, and eating in restaurants now characterize the multi-ethnic experience of immigrants in America. In Jackson Heights offers a case study into this spectacle, a glimpse into the contested lives of its residents. The film ends with an Independence Day fireworks display over the New York harbor, allying the neighborhood’s multiculturalism with the American experience.

A music group performs on a street in Jackson Heights.

A music group performs on a street in Jackson Heights.