Sunday, May 04, 2008

Flushing Queens

video
from the nytimes, 5/2/08
Weekend Explorer, The Melting Pot on a High Boil in Flushing, By JOHN STRAUSBAUGH
IT was slow going on the thronged sidewalks of downtown Flushing, Queens, one recent spring afternoon, in the heart of its huge and bustling Asian community. Along Main and Union Streets many of the signs and the conversations are in Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese. A street vendor blasted Chinese pop music. At a sidewalk counter you can buy Peking duck to go. I passed under the wide window of a tea shop where high school kids sat people-watching and text-messaging as they sipped bubble tea, the sweet Chinese tea with pearls of tapioca in it. At a Chinese grocery tiny grandmas elbowed me aside, the better to haggle with the grocers over vegetables and fruit.
I was walking with John C. Liu, the city councilman for District 20, which includes Flushing. Mr. Liu was born in Taiwan and has lived in Flushing since his family moved there in 1972, when he was 5. In 2002 he became the first Asian-American on the New York City Council. He was happy to play tour guide on the crowded streets.
Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans also make their homes in Flushing, alongside growing groups of Mexicans and Central Americans. They have all followed previous waves of Russians, Greeks, Italians, Irish and African-Americans.
If America really is a melting pot, Flushing seems one place where it’s on a high boil.
Mr. Liu agreed. “You could say that we’re kind of like the crusty concentrate at the bottom of that pot,” he said with a smile.
We ducked around a corner onto the quieter 41st Avenue and bought pork dumplings to eat standing on the sidewalk. They were hot, juicy and the size of tennis balls. But I wasn’t there just for the renowned Asian food that makes Flushing a culinary destination. I was seeking its houses of worship, the places that make it, in Mr. Liu’s words, “the true birthplace of religious freedom here in the United States.”
Today Flushing is chock-a-block with many Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, a few synagogues, several Hindu temples, a beautiful mosque and a brand new Buddhist temple. The free expression of religious beliefs is a tradition that goes back three and a half centuries, to Flushing’s beginnings.
You can see where it started a couple blocks east of Main Street, on Bowne Street, a long thoroughfare lined with apartment complexes and canopied by giant oaks. In the 1600s the area was the site of a small settlement of English farmhouses in the Dutch colony of New Netherland. (Flushing is probably an English corruption of Vlissingen, the name of a town in the Netherlands.)
One of those farmhouses, a simple brown-shingled home built by a farmer named John Bowne around 1661, still stands, near 37th Avenue. Bowne was among those who defied the authorities who denied Quakers the freedom to worship as they chose.
Fleeing persecution in England, members of the Society of Friends (also known, at first derisively, as Quakers) had begun to arrive in Flushing in the 1650s. Peter Stuyvesant, director general of New Netherland, saw them as dangerous radicals and forbade anyone in the colony to consort with them.
On Dec. 27, 1657, 30 citizens of Flushing, not Quakers themselves, signed a remarkable letter to him, now known as the Flushing Remonstrance. They refused to “stretch out our hands against” the Quakers, “to punish, banish or persecute them,” and reminded Stuyvesant that under Colonial law freedom of religion extended to “Jews, Turks and Egyptians” and “Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker.” One of the signatories, Tobias Feake, was a cousin of Bowne’s first wife. A century later a descendant of another signer, Richard Stockton, signed the Declaration of Independence.
Stuyvesant answered with fines and jail terms. Bowne, who let Quakers worship in his home, was arrested and banished from the colony in 1662. He successfully argued his case in Holland and returned to his home in 1664, where his descendants continued to live until the mid-1940s. In 1947 the house was opened to the public as a museum by the Bowne House Historical Society. Rosemary Vietor, the president of the society, is a Bowne descendant. The house, which has been showing its age, is now closed for “soup to nuts” restoration and renovation, Ms. Vietor told me, “which will take a couple of years.”
The Friends worshiped at Bowne’s house until 1694, when they built their own meeting house. It too is still standing, a plain brown-shingled hall a few blocks north on the heavily trafficked Northern Boulevard (formerly Broadway, and an Indian trail before that). Except for a period of British occupation during the Revolutionary War, Friends have met in this place every Sunday for more than three centuries.
Naomi Paz Greenberg showed me the main meeting room, which looks much as it did in 1694, from the hand-cut nails in the plank floor to the wavy glass in the windows. The sturdy wooden benches date from the 1780s; British soldiers used the originals for firewood.
On a typical Sunday 18 to 25 Friends meet there, Ms. Greenberg said, adding: “Ours is an unprogrammed meeting, which means there are no prescribed prayers that must be said. There is no prepared sermon. There’s no paid minister. We listen for the divine, and when there is a message that is irresistible to share, to deliver to the Friends in the meeting, we stand up and deliver the message.”
Many members, like Ms. Greenberg, were drawn to Quakerism from other religious backgrounds.
“I was raised Jewish,” she said. “I have never stopped being a Jew. That is my community. That is my culture. But my religion is Quakerism.”
We strolled out to the small cemetery behind the meeting house. Somewhere there, in an unmarked grave, lies John Bowne.
Today, across Northern Boulevard, on a single block of 33rd Avenue between Union Street and Parsons Boulevard, you can get a sense of how many different religions are practiced in Flushing.
There’s the small B’Nai Abraham synagogue on one corner, the Korean St. Paul Chong Ha-Sang Roman Catholic Chapel and Center around the other corner, the Evergreen Presbyterian Church in the middle of the block, and, right next door, the blue-topped dome and minaret of the Hazrat-I-Abubakr Sadiq mosque, opened in 1999 by the Afghan Turkistan Islamic Foundation in America.
Two blocks up Parsons Boulevard I turned right on Bayside Avenue, another leafy, almost suburban thoroughfare. There among the large, comfortable-looking single-family homes I came on the startling apparition of a soaring pagoda-roofed Buddhist temple still under construction. It’s being built by the Korean organization Hanmaum Seon Won, founded in the 1970s by a Buddhist nun, Dae Haeng Sunim. It’s typical of Flushing that a Christian Science reading room sits right next door.
I walked back to Bowne Street and down past Ash, Beech and Cherry Avenues to Holly Avenue. The streets’ names, like the stately trees that shade them, are reminders of a horticultural tradition thought to go back to French Huguenots who came to Flushing around the same time as the Quakers, also seeking religious freedom. Lewis and Clark sent plant specimens to the commercial nursery founded here by Robert Prince in 1737. Remnants of Samuel Parsons’s nursery, established in the 1830s, are all over Flushing, from Weeping Beech Park near John Bowne’s house south to Kissena Park.
On Bowne Street near Holly Avenue ornate blue towers rise on a block of small town houses and storefronts: they top Maha Vallabha Ganapathi Devasthanam, one of Flushing’s several Hindu temples. In English it’s called the Ganesh Temple for its main deity, the elephant-headed Ganesh.
The temple’s spokesman, Ganapathy Padmanabhan (G. P. for short, he said), told me that its history begins with two dates associated with freedom. The Hindu Temple Society of North America, which built the temple, was formed on Jan. 26, 1970, India’s Republic Day. The group purchased a disused Russian Orthodox Church on the site and brought over craftsmen and materials from India to construct the temple, which was consecrated on July 4, 1977.
As is customary, we removed our shoes before entering the temple, a square hall with polished black-granite statues of various gods standing in shrines all around. The central shrine houses Ganesh.
“We believe there is one supreme being, but according to our scripture there are also 3.3 million gods,” Mr. Padmanabhan explained. “These gods are manifestations of the one supreme being. Ganesh is special because he clears any obstacles before we start any project. So he is the first god we pray to, before the other gods.”
The temple has 10 priests whose duties include chanting the thousands of Sanskrit verses of the epic “Ramayana,” Rama’s life story, and reciting the traditional names of the gods.
The temple keeps fruits and flowers on hand for devotees to offer up at the gods’ shrines. We watched as a woman in a sari reached into a tub of coconuts, cracked one open in a basin set against a wall and placed the two halves on Ganesh’s shrine as an offering. A bearded and robed priest sat crossed-legged on the floor and cut flowers to be offered during the spring festival, Vasanta Navaratri.
The temple’s largest festival honors Ganesh’s birthday in the fall. The nine-day festival concludes with a procession up Bowne Street to Main Street, with Ganesh riding a silver chariot and “much dancing and rejoicing and singing all the hymns,” Mr. Padmanabhan said.
The temple is undergoing renovation and expansion, which will include a grand new entrance. Its large, modern community center next door has a canteen in the basement, which serves traditional Indian food and is open daily.
I stopped in for a crisp, spicy dosa to fortify myself for the walk up Kissena Boulevard back to Main Street. I passed the salmon-colored Sri Shirdi Saibaba Temple, dedicated to the Indian guru Sai Baba, on Robinson Street near Holly Avenue, and the lofty pink spire of the Hindu Center at Kissena and Holly. A few blocks farther on, the imposing neo-Classical stolidity of the Free Synagogue of Flushing dominates the corner of Kissena and Sandford Avenue.
I re-entered the pedestrian throngs on Main Street, recalling a claim of Councilman Liu’s:
“This is the only Main Street in New York City,” he told me in a burst of civic pride. (Actually, there are others. But not, at that moment, for Mr. Liu.) “We call it Main Street U.S.A.”

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