The Socio-Historical Development of Jackson Heights, 1909-1965 By Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph. D

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The Socio-Historical Development of Jackson Heights,


By Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D.
In the following exposition, I identify and discuss the historical genesis of Jackson Heights, New York as a planned urban community and its subsequent development up through 1965. For expository purposes the development of Jackson Heights will be organized around two historical brackets: 1909-1945 and 1945-1965. The years 1909-1945 exemplify the top-down corporate establishment and consolidation of Jackson Heights as a planned and explicitly exclusionary residential community, while the years 1945-1965 were marked by the influx of Jewish residents, the incremental shift towards a Euro-centric mode of ethnic pluralism, and a corresponding bottom-up redefinition of the social construction of the Jackson Heights community. In effect, the transition between the pre-war and post-war years marks a partial “break” with a nativist and exclusionary social construction of community. Nevertheless, this “break” concurrently represented a social redefinition of the Jackson Heights community around the binary racial categories of black and white. As such, the shift towards partial inclusion emerged in tandem with a place-based construction of whiteness that excluded racial minorities from the social and institutional landscapes of Jackson Heights.

Jackson Heights 1909-1945:

During the years encompassing the close of the nineteenth and the start of the early twentieth century, the United States emerged as a world-class economic power and as a major labor market for immigrant labor (Mink 1986: Ward 1989). New York City, during this period and up through World War I, consolidated its position as an economic and light industrial powerhouse (Abu-Lughod 1999) that was fueled by immigrant labor (Foner 2000). During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, New York’s economic and political elite took a jaundiced view of the massive inflow of Eastern and Southern European immigrants (Binder and Reimers 1995) and the urban disorder triggered by rapid urbanization and industrialization. In light of the perception of urban disorder, a vigorous municipal and planning reform moment emerged (Boyer 1983). The thrust of this modernist reform movement1 was concerned with ameliorating the most glaring examples of disorder and urban diseconomies via a “rational” public planning process. This “rational” urban-based approach to problem solving was complemented and reinforced by efforts to geographically expand and centralize New York’s political and administrative structures.

In 1898 New York City was reorganized and expanded to include the five boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Richmond (Hammack 1982; Wallace and Burrows 1999). This administrative and political centralization was the flip side of the growing spatial decentralization of New York’s population. As Greater New York’s Manhattan-centric economic and political elite consolidated their hegemonic position, the so-called outer boroughs emerged as spatially decentralized residential growth poles2 and as important sites of light industrial activity. It was in this historical context that Jackson Heights, Queens emerged as an upper-middle class residential neighborhood.

The establishment of Jackson Heights was a commercial real estate venture that was driven by market considerations. Its construction was a response to the market forces that drove the economic growth of Greater New York at the turn of the century. As a residential real estate project, Jackson Heights’ prospective market viability was directly related to: the economic and physical expansion of New York City; the growth of a small yet robust middle class; an emerging effective demand for upper-middle class housing; and the anti-immigrant and racial/ethnic segregation1 that marked the period. In addition the functional and spatial distinctions between place of work and place residence emerged as important characteristic that marked the expansion and deepening of market relations (Katznelson 1993). These processes in turn and facilitated the rise of residential neighborhoods that were defined by class, ethnicity, and race (Katznelson 1981). The confluence of these economic and social forces set the framework for the development of Jackson Heights as a residential market niche for an emerging upper-middle class.

In the years prior to World War I, Queens County was overwhelmingly rural. The borough’s economic base revolved around the production and sale of foodstuffs to Manhattan’s growing population. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Long Island City (LIC) was the site of several railroad and ferry terminals that were used by Manhattan-bound commuters. Moreover, because of Manhattan’s increasing congestion and escalating land rents, LIC emerged as a cost-effective location for light industry (NYC Department of City Planning 1993). Located adjacent to the East River and connected to lower Manhattan by ferry service, LIC was strategically positioned to take advantage of New York’s growing industrial presence. In 1909 the construction of the Queensboro Bridge, connected LIC and northwestern Queens County with the growing Manhattan economy. As a result of these locational factors, LIC developed as a fast growing industrial district and as an economic vector for the subsequent development of northwestern Queens.

The confluence of the above mentioned market forces opened the door to residential real estate speculation in Queens County. It was in this context that a group of real estate speculators realized that, as New York City expanded economically and demographically, the sparsely populated farmlands of Queens County would emerge as a profitable site for residential development (Karatzas 1990). Following in the wake of these market forces, in 1909 Edward A. MacDougall and a small group of New York investors established the Queensboro Corporation as a vehicle for real estate speculation in Northwestern Queens.

Between 1910 and 1914 the Queensboro Corporation purchased 350 acres of undeveloped farmland in Northwestern Queens County (NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission 1993). The Corporation’s working assumption was that the 1909 opening of the Queensboro Bridge, connecting Manhattan with Queens County, would eventually jump-start the economic development and residential prospects of Northwestern Queens. Working from this assumption, the Queensboro Corporation spent a considerable amount of time lobbying for the extension of IRT elevated subway line1 (the number 7 subway), to connect their undeveloped property with mid-town Manhattan (Karatzas 1990). This was accomplished in 1917, when the Number 7 subway line was extended to traverse the properties controlled by the MacDougall combine (Hood 1993; Kroessler 1992). With the opening of the subway line, Jackson Heights burst on the speculative real estate scene that drove the residential construction frenzy in New York’s so-called outer boroughs during the 1920s (Plunz 1990).1 In effect, the inauguration of the elevated subway line, converted the 350 acres of raw undeveloped land into a viable market commodity.

The Physical Design of Jackson Heights:

Jackson Heights was constructed as a planned upper-middle class residential community2 that represented the growing importance of urban planning as a technical response to the growing diseconomies and social dislocations associated with industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. In effect, during the second half the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century, New York’s reform minded Whiggish elite were increasingly preoccupied with addressing what they perceived as the negative externalities associated with unregulated urban growth (Bender 1987). Urban planning emerges in this context as an upper-middle class technical solution to unbridled urban growth. The reformist thrust of: the Parks Movement; the City Beautiful Movement; the City Efficient Movement; and the Tenant Reform Movement were all representative examples of the so-called technical solutions1 applied to the emerging problematic of the city (Boyer 1983; Rosenzweig and Blackmar 1992). As such, by the early twentieth century, the ideal of rational urban planning gained legitimacy among New York’s upper-and middle-classes as a viable approach for addressing the glaring contradictions associated with rapid urban growth. It was in this optimistic context that Jackson Heights emerged as a planned community.

The planned middle class residential community of Jackson Heights approximated the idealized vision of an urbanized bourgeois utopia.2 The Garden City design and planning concepts of Ebenezer Howard (Fishman 1994; Howard 1960) were the guiding influence for the development of Jackson Heights.3 The intent of the design/planning concept was to combine a full range of urban amenities with a bucolic semblance of rural life. As a community Jackson Heights was designed to include an interesting mix of apartment buildings and individual homes. The spatial planning design took the city block as the unifying physical element. In this regard, the residential buildings constructed by the MacDougall combine were limited to only 30 to 50 percent of a city block. This use of land allowed for apartment buildings to be built around landscaped communal interior gardens and for the private one- and two-family homes to be designed with expansive and manicured lawns. A golf course and tennis courts provided an additional sense of bourgeois entitlement. The commercial streets and the accompanying businesses were also included as part of the larger design and were complemented by stately designed temples of worship, schools, a library, and a post office (Karatzas 1990; New York Landmarks Preservation Commission 1993; Plunz 1990).

The architecture of the apartment buildings represented an eclectic derivative mix of styles that were reminiscent of English, French, Spanish, and Italian sources. While the design of the attached and semi-detached homes, clearly reflected the influence of Tudor and Georgian architecture. The influence of continental architectural motifs imparted the built environment with a stately class bounded Euro-centric ambiance. On one level, the historical architectural allusions inscribed the built environment with an explicit set of symbolic values that harked back to a pre-industrial and highly stratified social hierarchy in which one’s place was a function of lineage. And on another level, the sense of continuity and social privilege embedded in these architectural styles is an interesting contrast to the massive social change that early twentieth century industrial America was experiencing. In short, Jackson Heights’ built environment highlighted a sense of timeless stability and privilege at a time when the U.S. social structure was rapidly urbanizing1 and middle-American values were being destabilized by the pervasive influences of industrial modernity.

Jackson Heights organic design was structured to enhance a sense of implosive community and was reinforced by: organized communal activities; a newsletter published by the Queensboro Corporation; and restrictive covenants that explicitly excluded Jews and other so-called “undesirables” from this rustic garden in the city (Bazzi et al 1996; Kasinitz et al 1998). Moreover, as a planned upper-middle class community, Jackson Heights combined a full range of innovative planning and design principles with the reigning class, ethnic, and racial prejudices of the time. It was product of the historical moment that reflected a market-based approach to the degradation and inefficiencies of industrial capitalism.

The Marketing of Jackson Heights and the Corporate Construction of Place:

As a real estate venture, the Queensboro Corporation illustrates how commercial capital, at the turn of the century, was reorganized to develop middle class housing at a capital-intensive scale. This represented a fundamental shift from the traditional form of individual lot-based development to the horizontal integration of large-scale land acquisition, financing, design, construction, marketing, and long-term maintenance. This modern, sophisticated, and complex form of real estate development was clearly a capital-intensive undertaking. For example, excluding the larger costs associated with developing the necessary infrastructure, construction, and marketing, the total cost for purchasing the 350 acres was $3.8 million dollars (Karatzas 1990, p. 15).

The financing of the Jackson Heights project involved the creative interplay of legislative changes that facilitated the shifting of capital into the growing real estate market, the establishment of tax incentives, and indirect public subsidies - via the construction of a subway network - which successfully repositioned northwestern Queens as a viable site for residential development. For example, during the 1920s the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company lobbied the New York State Legislature to amend the State Insurance Code to permit insurance companies to invest in housing developments. The successful passage of the insurance amendment permitted Metropolitan Life to become an important financial backer of the Queensboro Corporation’s construction of Jackson Heights. In 1921 they lent $1,400,00 to the Corporation and by 1922 their Jackson Heights loan portfolio reached the sum of nearly $8,000,000 (New York Landmarks Preservation Commission 1993, p. 16). Legislative changes in the real estate tax structure were also a key factor in structuring Jackson’s Heights’ economic viability. For example, in light of a severe housing shortage, New York City’s real estate tax structure was changed to encourage new residential construction. The new regulations exempted new structures, four or more floors in height and built between April 1920 and April 1922, from real estate taxes until 1933. And as knowledgeable observers have noted, the Queensboro directors availed themselves of these lucrative publicly financial incentives (Karatzas. 1990, p. 53). Clearly, public subsidies were an important element in ensuring that Jackson Heights would be a profitable financial venture for actual and prospective investors. This was the case with regards to the role of publicly financed subway construction in opening up peripheral areas to real estate development (Plunz 1990, p. 130) and structuring the prospective commercial viability of Jackson Heights.

The economic viability of Jackson Heights was also predicated on the development of a sophisticated sales strategy. The corporate marketing of Jackson Heights was based on constructing what Pierre Bourdieu has termed “distinction” (1984). In effect, the notion of “taste” can be used as a cultural classificatory ranking that marks or sets off social boundaries. Understood in these terms, the consumption of cultural artifacts - as in the case of the built environment - is a mode for differentiating status, prestige, and group-based worth. And in the case of Jackson Heights, the Queensboro Corporation marketed an aesthetic view of the built and social environment that conformed to the existing class and racialist ideas of New York’s upper- and middle- classes. The corporate marketing emphasized a set of anti-urban proto-suburban values that highlighted the class-based benefits of a restricted residential enclave -- as a refuge from the increasing densities associated with rapid urbanization and the social dislocations triggered by immigration. For example, the Queensboro Corporation in one of its early ads states that:

There is no need to ‘go away’ for your vacation…. In this restricted residential community, covering 100 city blocks, the Tenant-Owners have their own Golf Course, Tennis Courts, Country Club House and Playgrounds for their children – right by their homes (Karatzas 1990, p. 82).
Here one can note, the notion of implosive separation and exclusion. The idea that via the crafting of the built environment and the provision of privatized and socially distinct amenities the “better classes” can separate themselves from and exclude the “undesirable other.” This emphasis on the restricted character of the neighborhood and gracious upper-class amenities was a typical example of the socio-economic distinctions that drove the marketing of Jackson Heights.

The corporate construction of distinction was not merely limited to social class. In a historical period, characterized by nativist and anti-immigrant sentiments (Higham 1963), a reductive Americanism served as an important symbol for establishing distance from unassimilated newcomers and in constructing a distinctive sense of place. For example, the Queensboro Corporation’s place naming of major streets in honor of U.S. presidents can be interpreted as a subliminal appeal to the reigning ethnocentric “Americanism” of the period (Brumberg 1986). This retreat into a nostalgic reconstruction of a supposed pre-immigrant America was in counter distinction to the perceived immigrant disorder of the modern metropolis.

An important component in Queensboro marketing strategy was the eminently modernist vision that privileged progress, technology, and order. The notion of an orderly planned residential community reflected an eminently modernist notion of the city. The issues of urban disorder and the negative externalities associated with rapid urbanization were technical issues that could be efficiently addressed through rational urban planning. The physical separation between home and work reflected a modernist attempt at segregating urban functions and homogenizing social spaces. This modernist vision was implicitly integrated into the marketing of Jackson Heights as a planned and efficiently designed quasi-suburban community. The supposed unity of technology, progress, and nature was an explicit theme in the marketing of Jackson Heights.1 Many residential units were marketed as quasi-suburban housing cooperatives2 that included technological advances such as push button elevators.

The Queensboro Corporation also strategically positioned Jackson Heights as residential compound that addressed the modern automobile age. Jackson Heights, in effect, was marketed as the first community designed to accommodate the nascent automobile culture by integrating residential units with individualized garages for private parking (Karatzas; 1990; Plunz 1990). The emphasis on contemporary technology was also evident in the use of radio programming as a sales tool. And within the real estate sector, the Queensboro Corporation was the first firm to use the new medium of the radio as a marketing mechanism (Karatzas 1990).

The fusion of a nostalgic vision of a pre-industrial social landscape, Euro-centric architectural styles, reductive and nativist Americanism, and the wonders of technological innovations strategically positioned the Queensboro Corporation in attracting a middle class client-base that was engulfed by the tumultuous social change that marked the United States during the early twentieth century. In effect, the social anxieties engendered by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration were addressed by a corporate construction of place that combined a nostalgic re-imagining of a lost world with the benefits that flowed from technological progress associated with modernity. In a period characterized by a dizzying rate of social change, a syncratic and backward looking modernism - combining elements of the old and the new - was a calming balm for an anxious middle class.

Clearly, up through the end of World War II, the Queensboro Corporation was able to successfully construct a version of community as a middle class quasi-suburban haven. As a marketing strategy, this top-down version of community was a success. The niche-based marketing approach facilitated project capitalization, established a strong client base, and maintained an ongoing standard of corporate control over the social and built environment. Moreover, the Queensboro Corporation’s successful marketing strategy was a product of the historical moment. In a highly stratified city, consisting of working class ethnics and first- and second-generation immigrants workers, the opportunity to live in a restricted residential enclave was an attractive option to an important segment of emerging upper-middle class administrators and professionals.

Demographic Growth and the Development of Infrastructure:

By 1930, Jackson Heights had a population of 44,500. This represented a significant increase over the 1910 figure of 3,800 residents (Bazzi et. al. 1996). The demographic growth of Jackson Heights was associated with the economic boom of the 1920s and the effective economic demand for middle-class housing. Moreover, while many residents employed in the growing administrative and professional sectors, there were also a significant number of residents who were employed in the entertainment district in and around Times Square. Many of these entertainers were gay and lesbian and were attracted to Jackson Heights because of the fast subway commute to midtown Manhattan and the gracious quality of life (Bazzi et. al. 1996).

According to informants, who were long-time residents, the gay presence in Jackson Heights increased with the development of a small entertainment strip on 37th Avenue that traversed the neighborhood.1 This strip catered to many of the stopover travelers who used LaGuardia Airport2 and many gay and lesbian found a local employment niche in Jackson Heights. Although, homophobia was the coin of the realm in New York City (Kaiser 1997), this small nucleus of gay residents increased gradually and eventually emerged as an important presence within Jackson Heights’ social and political landscape.

The construction of major transportation networks, during the 1930s, increased the spatial centrality of Jackson Heights. During the throes of the economic depression, the Keynesian pump priming associated with infrastructural projects had an important impact on the larger New York City economy (Kessner 1989) and on the neighborhood of Jackson Heights. The construction of LaGuardia Airport, the Grand Central Parkway, the Mid-Town Tunnel, the Triborough Bridge, and the opening of the E and F subway lines were important developments in the transportation linkages connecting Jackson Heights with the rest of New York City (Caro 1974; Danielson and Doig 1982), while the building of the 1939 World’s Fair, in the adjacent neighborhood of Corona, further highlighted the growing presence of Jackson Heights within the New York’s symbolic economy (Gelernter 1995). During the 1930s and the early 1940s these important physical and symbolic linkages placed Jackson Heights on the proverbial New York City map.

Jackson Heights 1945-1965:

The end of World War II witnessed the rise of what Henry R. Luce coined as the “American Century” (Swanberg 1972). As the hegemonic global power, the United States entered a new cycle of economic growth (Agnew 1987; Castells 1980) that was accompanied by the explosive growth of the middle class and mass consumption, the influx of African Americans and Puerto Ricans into large urban centers, de-industrialization, and state subsidized suburbanization. On the domestic level, the confluence and unequal distribution of these macro-economic processes impacted regional growth and the internal spatial structure of major U.S. cities. As suburban economic development exploded the older industrial cities imploded economically. This linkage between suburban growth and urban decline was a defining element in the hegemonic discourse on the post war U.S. urban crisis (Beauregard 1993).

As a major light industrial center, New York City was not immune to the structural changes sweeping through the economic and demographic landscapes of U.S. municipalities (Freeman 2000; Wilson 1987). During the post war years, New York underwent a significant restructuring that spatially accentuated racial and class segregation (Cannato 2001; Lemann 1992). The influx of African Americans and Puerto Ricans, the middle-class flight to the surrounding suburbs, and the gradual dismantling of the light industrial base had a significant impact on many New York neighborhoods (Rieder 1985; Winnick 1990).

The aggregate impact of demographic and economic changes and the skewed distribution of public resources resulted in the downward slide of certain neighborhoods and the stabilization of other neighborhoods. And as neighborhoods were repositioned within the local socio-economic queue, the public and private discourses on urban decline were increasingly framed in racial terms (Sleeper 1990). It was in this context, that Jackson Heights emerged as an illustrative example of how an established neighborhood was repositioned and stabilized in the wake of highly racialized circumstances.

During the post war years, New York’s racial demographic profile was significantly transformed. By 1970, the city’s white population had decreased by 700,00 (Sanjek 1998, p. 41). The absolute decline in the city’s white population was a result of white out-migration and low natural increases (Tobier 1984, p. 25). Nevertheless, in light of these demographic changes, Queens County registered an absolute increase of 15.5 percent in its white population during the years of 1950 and 1970. During the same period, the white population decreased 25.6 percent in Manhattan, 17.6 percent in the Bronx, and 22.9 percent in Brooklyn (Danielson and Doig 1982, p. 52).

As a low-density quasi-suburban borough, Queens County was well positioned to draw a growing share of white middle-class housing. Consequently, the borough of Queens was able to attract an upwardly mobile white population from Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. Many of the recently arrived white residents to Queens County were fleeing from neighborhoods that had registered an absolute increase in African Americans and Puerto Ricans residents. And in the case of Jackson Heights, the growth of a middle-income residential housing market was an important pull factor in attracting an emerging sub-set of middle class white residents. It is in this historical context that Jackson Heights’ post war residential development occurred.

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