Something for Everyone The Resurgence of Jackson Heights

Something for Everyone

Home to residents from more than 70 countries speaking more than 40 languages, Jackson Heights, Queens stands as a truly international community. And it is a community in every sense of the word; It’s not unusual to see a Peruvian shop owner dining side-by-side with a Long Island-born accountant in a Taiwanese restaurant, or a Bangladeshi shopper perusing crates of fruit imported from South America. This diversity is part of what attracts residents to Jackson Heights–and more importantly, it’s part of what keeps them there.

"Jackson Heights is very hot right now," says Leonard Jacobs, vice president of MPJ Realty, Inc. in Flushing, New York. "Co-ops and condos priced right are usually sold the same day they go on the market."

Bounded by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway on the west, the Grand Central Expressway on the north, Junction Boulevard on the east and Roosevelt Avenue to the south, Jackson Heights has undergone a renaissance of sorts in recent years. Thanks to groups like the Jackson Heights Beautification Group and the activism of residents eager to improve their neighborhood, the streets are cleaner, graffiti is seen less frequently, and crime has decreased.

"The area’s improved drastically over the last few years," Jacobs says. "Most buildings have been putting a lot of time and money into improvements. People saw people working together and they wanted to join in, to improve the neighborhood. It helps everyone, bringing in business and improving market prices."

A Little Town Called Trains Meadow

Originally known as Trains Meadow, Jackson Heights was part of the English colony Newtown, founded in the 1600s. The neighborhood began its present incarnation in 1909–the year Edward A. MacDougall purchased 325 acres of Newtown farmland for $15,000. Seven years later, MacDougall formed the Queensboro Development Company and began dividing his land into lots for apartment buildings and one- and two-family homes. The move capitalized on the area’s new accessibility to Manhattan. Taking into consideration the completion of the Queensboro Bridge, new trolley car routes, and a soon-to-be subway system, MacDougall knew a fledgling suburban enclave when he saw one. He named the development after John Jackson, builder of Northern Boulevard.

Jackson Heights’ first apartment building, called Laurel Court and located at 82nd Street and Northern Boulevard, was completed in 1914. A few years later, MacDougall popularized a relatively new concept in American real estate: tenant ownership, also known as cooperative living. Renters could buy their apartments for $500 down with mortgage payments of around $52 per month. By 1921, some 700 families in Jackson Heights owned their apartments, kicking off a revolution in New York homeownership.

MacDougall is also credited with bringing the European idea of the garden apartment to New York. Complexes were created around central gardens and park-like areas, which were for the exclusive use of residents. According to Cityscape, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s policy development and research journal, buildings in Jackson Heights covered 30 to 50 percent of a block, rather than the more typical 70 percent in Manhattan. The buildings were highly desirable, bringing a sense of country living to the brick and mortar of city life.

Jackson Heights apartment buildings also were among the first to begin the vertical climb that would become so prevalent in other areas of New York. Automatic elevators were introduced first in Jackson Heights’ residential buildings, allowing for six-story structures rather than the more common four-story walk-ups.

Jackson Heights grew exponentially throughout the 1920s, increasing its population more than ten-fold in two decades. Building continued, with local development becoming fully saturated by the mid-1950s. By the late 1960s, the neighborhood began to take on the more diverse profile it enjoys today, with its overall population increasing steadily since then.

The World on the Doorstep

After suffering some growing pains in the 1970s and 1980s with urban blight and crime, Jackson Heights has regained its appeal in recent years as a solid, diverse community, offering an atmosphere uniquely its own. Signs of urban renewal are everywhere: the shops lining Roosevelt and 37th Avenues sell fruits and vegetables rare in even the toniest Manhattan produce shops, and diners can choose from a dizzying variety of restaurants tempting even the most jaded palate.

Jackson Heights also boasts the only greenmarket in Queens, located on 34th Avenue between 77th and 78th Streets. Neighborhood night-spots like The Caffe Greco on 37th Avenue offers live music, poetry readings and art exhibitions, and for more than 50 years, the Jackson Heights Art Club on 82nd Avenue has offered art classes to children and adults in a variety of media. A look at the Jackson Heights Beautification Group’s cultural calendar shows a nonstop mix of entertainment taking place just about every night of the week, from readings to live music to walking tours.

"It’s an extremely livable and real neighborhood," says Daniel Karatzas, president of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group. "It’s a human-scale neighborhood, coherently designed. There are young people, old people, singles, families, immigrants."

In 1993, Jackson Heights earned historic district status, becoming the second district named in Queens and the first 20th century development to be given that title. "Since we were landmarked, I think people have become a little more appreciative of their neighborhood," Karatzas says. "There’s a pride that comes with that distinction."

Karatzas also feels that the historic district status has led a new group of home buyers to look at Jackson Heights. He’s noticed younger crowds at neighborhood events. "We’re on the radar screen of people looking for alternatives to Manhattan prices, who still want distinctive architecture and fireplaces in their apartments," he says.

Friends Telling Friends

Prospects are indeed bright for the future of Jackson Heights. The area has been generating good word-of-mouth. "Once one person moves in, others follow," Jacobs says.

Area co-ops and condos have become particularly attractive to potential buyers, says Saadia Ali of ReMax International. "The co-op and condo market is strong," she says. "The house market has gone up so much that people are now looking for co-ops and condos because they’re more affordable."

Jacobs concurs, saying the neighborhood attracts residents who want to be close to Manhattan but don’t want to pay the sky-high prices. "A lot of people have been priced out of Manhattan." They’re looking for bargains and in Jackson Heights, co-op and condo owners can get a lot for their money. According to Fernando Arias, owner of Morrocoy Realty Corporation in Queens, about 90 percent of Jackson Heights buildings with more than 20 units are co-ops, while only about 5 percent of the market consists of condominiums due to the high cost of conversion. The neighborhood harbors about 6,000 single-family homes, "But," says Arias, "the co-op market is great because home prices are rising dramatically, but co-ops are still affordable."

Studio-size apartments in Jackson Heights hover between $50,000 and $60,000, and one-bedrooms occupy the mid-$70,000 to mid-$80,000 range. Two-bedrooms go for around $140,000.

Space-starved Manhattan refugees are also flocking to Queens for the sheer square-footage available across the bridge. "The apartments are fairly large," Jacobs says, and groups like the Jackson Heights Beautification Council have been encouraging building owners to preserve the original elegance of the garden-style apartments. Jackson Heights also features a wealth of brick-fronted buildings, especially appealing for people looking for a unique home rather than just a place to live.

With reasonable prices, rare and historically significant architecture, and a modern sensibility, Jackson Heights has become a destination of choice for homebuyers and new arrivals to the city. More than that, however, beyond all the restaurants, shops, and meticulously-maintained garden buildings, according to Jacobs, "It’s a beautiful place to live."

Ms. Lent is a freelance writer living in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

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