Indo-Caribbean Content, Victorian Style


RICHMOND HILL, in southeastern Queens, is the ultimate study in New York diversity. It is a place to eat Caribbean cuisine, shop for Bollywood movies, worship at a Sikh temple and stroll through streets lined with Victorian-era houses, a slice of pure Americana, as Vera Haller writes in this article for The New York Times. Follow the link below for additional information and a photo gallery.

Extending down the south slope of Forest Park, the neighborhood evolves from the quiet streets just off the park, where the old wood-framed homes are found, to vibrant “Little Guyana” along Liberty Avenue, its southern border with South Ozone Park.

“There are churches next to mosques next to mandirs,” said Richard S. David, the executive director of the Indo-Caribbean Alliance, a social service agency that works in the neighborhood. (A mandir is a Hindu temple.)

Ivan Mrakovcic, the president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society and a vice chairman of Community Board 9, says he also sees religious diversity near his home in the Victorian section, where an Orthodox synagogue sits near Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches.

Mr. Mrakovcic moved to Richmond Hill in 1994, finding it more affordable than Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where he had originally looked in order to be close to family. The way he describes it, the area offers both urban and suburban living. “You can have a vegetable garden and mow the lawn, but the J train is three blocks away and it’s a short walk to the park,” he said, also noting that the Rockaway beaches are a 20-minute drive.

According to 2010 census figures compiled by the city Planning Department, Richmond Hill covers about three square miles and has nearly 63,000 residents, including Asians (27.4 percent), Hispanics (36 percent), whites (11.2 percent), and blacks/African-Americans (11.1 percent).

Among those populations are the neighborhood’s Indo-Caribbean residents: Guyanese immigrants of South Asian ancestry who began settling in the area in the 1960s, Mr. David said. Now, the community includes second- and third-generation Americans.

“A lot of people are renting basements or housing family members,” said Seema Agnani, the executive director of Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a housing agency that works with South Asians in New York City. “All floors of those homes are occupied.”

For immigrants especially, housing space has been particularly limited by the foreclosure crisis, which hit hard in parts of Richmond Hill. “People fell prey to predatory loan practices and many refinanced during the height of the high interest rates,” Ms. Agnani said. Financial troubles were compounded when homeowners who held service jobs or who worked in construction saw their incomes drop.

“It was really a loss of income together with the bad loans that pushed a lot of homeowners over the edge,” Ms. Agnani said, adding that the housing market is slowly improving.

It is south of Atlantic Avenue, in an area also known as South Richmond Hill, that Guyanese-Americans have settled in large numbers. There, homes are smaller and more closely spaced.

Liberty Avenue serves the Indo-Caribbean population with its many small businesses: sari stores, Guyanese bakeries and restaurants, and fish and vegetable markets. Colorful wares and clothing are displayed on sidewalks, which bustle with shoppers.

According to Mr. David, Sikhs took root here during the height of the real estate market in the early 2000s, when some Guyanese-Americans in the area moved to Florida, Pennsylvania and other states and often sold their homes to Sikhs. The city’s largest Sikh temple, the Sikh Cultural Center, is at 117th Street and 97th Avenue.

. . .


A mural depicting the neighborhood’s beginnings in the late 19th century can be found inside the Queens Library at Richmond Hill on Hillside Avenue. The American artist Philip Evergood painted it in the 1930s with funding from the Works Progress Administration. Covering a wall above the fiction section, the work shows three scenes: a crowded and squalid immigrant neighborhood in Manhattan; a group of prosperous real estate barons surveying plans for a new garden community near a railroad stop; and a bucolic scene of trees, homes and happy mothers and children in the newly created Richmond Hill.

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