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New York Times
Sunday, July 17, 2005

A Neighborhood Traveled in Dozens of Languages

By Nancy Beth Jackson

Jackson Heights, a middle-class Queens neighborhood only three express subway stops from Manhattan, is so ethnically and culturally diverse that some people call it "a utopia of diversity."

A walk down 74th Street amounts to a day trip to Mumbai, India. In the shops along 82nd Street, you can habla espanol with Latinos from almost every spanish-speaking country. Stroll the leafy historic district of garden apartments and you'll think you've stumbled into suburbia.

In the 2000 census report, fewer than 20 percent of the households reported that English was the only language spoken at home. More than half also speak Spanish. And Arabic, Chinese, French (including Cajun and Creole), Greek, Hindi, Korean, Polish, Russian, Urdu and Yiddish were among the more than 30 languages tallied.

"Like Manhattan, it's urban," said Jeffrey A. Saunders, president of the Jackson Heights Garden City Society. "People are from all over. Nobody teaches us to get along. It just works."

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated much of Jackson Heights as a historic district in 1993, spurring real estate values. Yet only recently has it begun to be touted as a hot market.

"Basically, Jackson Heights is half the price of Brooklyn and a quarter of the price of Manhattan," said Michael P. Carfagna, a longtime Jackson Heights real estate broker specializing in the historic district. "We're way undervalued. It's actually too cheap here. People think there is something wrong."

Real estate firms from outside the neighborhood are taking notice. Coldwell Banker Laffey Associates Fine Homes & Estates of Long Island opened a Jackson Heights branch early this year on the advice of Barbara Armas-Coronado, a Laffey real estate broker who grew up there.

"Jackson Heights is one of the most robust markets in Queens with a diverse real estate, from single-family homes to commercial and investment properties," said Emmett Laffey, the firm's chief executive

Two years ago, Liz and David Josefsberg, both 34, rented in Astoria, Queens, but yearned to find more room, better housing stock and an affordable starter apartment. Mr. Josefsberg, an actor in the musical comedy "Altar Boyz," considered Upper Manhattan until friends who lived in Jackson Heights invited them to visit.

"We couldn't believe how beautiful the apartments and private gardens were," Mr. Josefsberg said. "It's like having your own Central Park." Plus, the trip to Broadway was quicker than from Washington Heights. Ms. Josefsberg, who works for, could be in her MIdtown Manhattan office in 12 minutes.

They found a "stunning" amount of space for $108,000: a one-bedroom co-op with an eat-in kitchen and a bathroom with a separate bath and shower stall. The price left them with enough money to remodel the kitchen and reglaze the bathroom. After their son, Cooper Jackson, was born six months ago, they decided to trade up to a two-bedroom, two-bath garden co-op in the neighborhood. They listed their apartment at $239,000, and are shopping in the $275,000 to $400,000 range.

The neighborhood has a definite family air with children on bicycles and young parents of various backgrounds pushing baby strollers. The neighborhood's gay and lesbian population is second in size only to Manhattan's and sponsors its own Gay Pride Parade each year.

What You'll Find

Jackson Heights is its own world of private gardens, some bigger than Gramercy Park; prewar co-ops featuring towers and mansard roofs; attached private homes and pulsating commercial streets where mom-and-pop enterprises predominate.

Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism and various Christian denominations   are part of the community's fabric. The Community United Methodist Church, with services   in English, Korean, Spanish and Chinese, doubles as a community center.

Much of the housing stock dates from the 1920's and 1930's, with apartment complexes that have private gardens in the center of the block. Lobbies, mostly without doormen, are spacious and well maintained. Apartments are often oversized with eat-in kitchens, cross ventilation, sunken living rooms, architectural detail and sun rooms. Buildings of five and six floors look out on landscaped interior gardens and are set back from the sidewalk to give extra room for greenery.

"I can go to sleep at night and smell the grass; I know what the season is by the sounds the leaves make," said Mr. Saunders, who lives in a prewar building with views of the Manhattan skyline.

What They're Asking

The market today is "very competitive and very strong" with the bigger apartments selling withiin three to five days, says James Hubschmitt, a real estate agent with the Galamax Realty II Corporation, who moved to Jackson Heights from Manhattan six years ago.

Prices depend not only on size but also on how much updating needs to be done, if the building is a prewar in the historic district and what amenities are offered. Three- and four-bedroom apartments run from $350 to $450 a square foot, Mr. Carfagna said. A 1,750-square-foot three-bedroom "classic seven" at the Towers just set a neighborhood sales record of $699,000 for apartments.

Recent open houses have featured an "as is" postwar two-bedroom apartment just off Northern Boulevard for $189,000; a similar apartment, also in need of bath and kitchen renovation but with garden views in a prewar building, for $225,00; and an immaculate prewar one-bedroom with garden views offered privately by its owner for $266,000.

Attached single-family homes, rarely on the market, are popular with buyers who want to combine home and office. Prices range from $500,000 to $800,000.

Rental apartments begin at $1,000 for a one-bedroom and $1,200 for two bedrooms.

What To Do

Jackson Heights is a daily exercise in international relations - and international cuisine, from Argentine steaks to Middle Eastern kebabs to take-out sushi to South Asian Curries and sweets. The neighborhood's Little India offers unequaled shopping for saris and 22-karat bangles and a wide selection of Bollywood films.

There are sidewalk art shows or one can sign up for art classes sponsored by the Jackson Heights Art Club. Test your vocabulary skills at the Scrabble Club at the Community Methodist Church, where Alred Moshe Butts invented the game in the 1930's, calling it Lexiko and later Criss-Cross Words. Check out books in eight languages at the busy public library. Go to the Greenmarket or concerts at Tavers Park.


The Schools

Jackson Heights is said to have more school choices within walking distance than almost anywhere else in the United States. The neighborhood offer options of private, parochial, charter and new public schools, intended to ease overcrowding.

Most elementary students attend Public School 69 or 212. St. John of Arc offers prekindergarten through eighth grade. The Renaissance Charter School, for kindtergarten to grade 12, opened in a former department store in 1993.

The Garden School, nursery to grade 12, sends 99 percent of its graduates to four-year colleges and offers summer enrichment and after-school programs. Tuition is $9,000 a year for the private school, which was established in 1923.

Intermediate School 145 draws from the neighborhood and beyond and has magnet programs in telecommunications and technology.

The Commute

Five miles from Manhattan, Jackson Heights is served by the E, F, V, G and R trains, running underground, and the Flushing Line No. 7, elevated in its two stops in the neighborhood and presenting spectacular skyline views. Commutes to Midtown are between 12 and 20 minutes. Public buses go to LaGuardia Airport and Pennsylvania Station. The E subway connects to Kennedy International Airport. The Roosevelt 74th Street station, where train lines and buses converge, is undergoing a $140 million renovation that includes escalators and elevators.

The History

Edward MacDougal and his Queensboro Corporation established the nation's first planned garden community early in the 20th century. Inspired by Ebenezer Howard's Garden City Movement in England, he transford 325 acres of farmland, bought for $3.8 million, into a haven for middle managers, employed in Long Island City industries.

The Queensboro development was known for its innovations, including the first automated elevator and the use of Murphy beds to turn sun rooms into guest rooms.The site of the first conversion of a rental to a co-op in New York, its co-op laws became a model for the rest of the city.

The neighborhood's signature apartment buildings were built around lush private gardens and set back from the streets lined with trees 12 feet apart. The Tower (1923-25) covers only 25 percent of the property while the Chateau (1922) covers 37 percent. After World War II, other builders began constructing distinctive modern buildings as Jews and Catholics began moving into the previously Protestant neighborhood.

Jackson Heights had its rough spots in the late 1980's and early 1990's with reports of drug sales, gay bashing and street crime, but crime in the 115th Precinct, which includes the neighborhood, has dropped 70.42 percent since 1993.

What We Like

The area is a foodies delight with an amazing selection of ethnic restaurants and food emporiums like Patel Brothers where you can buy basmati rice in 40-pound sacks.

What We'd Change

Planned as the first garden city in the United States, Jackson Heights is sadly lacking in public green space. What passes for a public park is a playground at Travers Park. Weekend soccer matches take place in concrete schoolyards.