New York Story #4: Bad Words



From 1997 until 2000 I lived in Jackson Heights, Queens. At the time it was further from Manhattan than most of my friends lived, but it was a great neighborhood with plenty of “amenities”, as real estate agents like to call restaurants, supermarkets, and shops, and the apartment itself was actually one of the nicer ones I’ve lived in. There was an elevator, and laundry in the basement (something my then-boyfriend and I only discovered in our third year of living there, never once tipped off by the number of neighbors we saw in the elevator clutching bottles of Tide and wearing what were clearly bedroom slippers.)

Culturally, the population of Jackson Heights was a mix of Latin American and Indian immigrants. That meant amazing food, dazzling window-shopping, and – for a twentysomething white couple like us with no Spanish or Hindi language skills – a lot of impromptu life lessons, most of them positive and occasionally hilarious.

However, at the time that was not Jackson Heights’ reputation in the rest of the city. “Dangerous”, “drug-ridden”, and “violent” were descriptors commonly used to characterize our neighborhood in the local media. Conversations with new acquaintances drew reactions ranging from blank stares, to concerned shakes of the head, to literal gasps when I answered the question, “Where do you live?” Which mostly, just made me angry. I rejected the perception that I lived in a “bad” neighborhood, because it didn’t reflect my experience. Sure, I had witnessed drug deals and stepped through crime scenes on my way to the subway, but I had also enjoyed leisurely weekend breakfasts at our favorite coffee shop, quiet evening walks through tree-lined streets, and kindness from the fatherly superintendent of our building. Plus, the corner where we lived hosted the borough’s only Gay Pride celebration each year. I didn’t move to Jackson Heights for the street cred; I really liked it there.

Our only brush with crime came one evening when we returned to the apartment to find it had been broken into and ransacked – probably by junkies looking for cash. I remember how chilling it was to see our door ajar as we stepped off the elevator. Immediately I knew what it meant, and the words of Joseph Bittenbinder, the mustachio’d host of PBS’s Tough Target crime prevention series came back to me: “Don’t go in!” I said to my boyfriend, “They could still be inside.” He went in anyway, and whoever had broken in was long gone. Our place was a mess: chairs overturned, drawers tipped out, the floor covered in our belongings. Fortunately our pet rats[1] were unharmed (I later jokingly complained that we hadn’t trained them to attack the intruders, but it was scary to imagine them so vulnerable in their glass enclosure as strangers wrecked our home.) That night we collected a few items and went to stay at a friend’s apartment in Manhattan, but not before we called the police – which eventually required flagging down a police van on the street when no one responded to our call. An officer took my boyfriend aside in the kitchen and advised him to move out because as white people we “stood out”. He predicted I would get raped if we stayed.

But even after having some of the neighborhood’s worst qualities literally brought home to us, I refused to ascribe to the perception of Jackson Heights as a bad area. I suppose reductive descriptions like that are  necessity in certain contexts – if you’re a writer of tourist guides or a new parent trying to narrow down neighborhoods to move your family into – but they’re also a luxury of outsiders and a barrier to nuanced understanding. I say luxury because the person who lives in the neighborhood you’re trashing, who grew up there or who is just trying to make a life somewhere that’s been described as “bad”, doesn’t have the privilege or the impulse to talk about it that way. Why would they? Doing so would be to betray all the relationships, affection, and history that root them to the place. I say barrier because negative labels inhibit progress by discouraging discussion and investigation: with a single word, the topic of that neighborhood’s worth is closed, ineligible for debate or deeper reflection. And inevitably that assessment gets perpetuated – because in New York that’s what people do: we absorb others’ opinions into our own and repeat them with a knowing smirk. It makes us feel confident, authentic, awarding a sense of ownership over a city that threatens us with obsolescence by having the nerve to keep evolving at a whiplash pace. Ironically, the same impetus to imply authority by saying “that’s kind of a bad neighborhood” is the same one that prompts us to dismiss change by saying “that neighborhood’s not as edgy as it used to be.” I know am just as guilty of that as anyone else. It’s part of being a New Yorker, and it’s something I’m working on.

[1] Yes, okay? We had pet rats; four of them. Don’t hate; they’re nothing like the cat-sized sewer monsters of New York legend and were very clean and affectionate. Fun facts: one of them is buried in Strawberry Fields, two are in Corona Park, and the last got an Antigone-style guerilla burial in the flower bed of our apartment building.