Philadelphia poet Nicole Steinberg grew up in Southridge, a complex of co-op apartments at the corner of Junction and Northern Boulevards in Jackson Heights, Queens. I once lived several blocks away. Like Nicole, I had many friends who refused to cross the 59th Street Bridge from Manhattan. As far as they were concerned, Queens was a lackluster place with two airports and the remains of the 1964-65 World’s Fair.
Now Nicole has edited a welcome collection of essays and other pieces called Forgotten Borough: Writers Come to Terms with Queens. You don’t have to be from Queens to like it. Not if you care for writers like Julia Alvarez, Jill Eisenstadt, and Victor LaValle, among many other contributors.
The secret about the huge slab of New York City called Queens is that many of our country’s most gifted writers have lived there. Yes, I use the past tense. With Manhattan so close–and with other glitzy places (not to mention teaching and other posts) beckoning from across the country–Queens-born writers often leave. But before they do they are immersed in humanity in a way that is still rare elsewhere. With a population of immigrants from throughout the world, the borough provides an extraordinary window on our country’s multicultural future.
This is apparent in Dogfight: A Love Story, a new novel by Matt Burgess. Also a Jackson Heights, Queens, boy, Burgess went to Dartmouth and the University of Minnesota, then came back to write this wonderful novel about a nineteen-year old named Alfredo Batista, who is small-time Queens drug dealer down on his luck. Alfredo and a Haitian friend steal drugs from a young Russian and . . . well, read the book. Only in Queens! Publishers Weekly calls Dogfight “a post-9/11 shout-out to the borough of Queens, with its rolling mix of cultures.”
Writers as different as Mary Gordon and Jimmy Breslin have come from the neighborhoods of Queens. I confess that it’s the ones from Jackson Heights who intrigue me. One day a few years ago, I was sitting in a publisher’s offices with Billy Collins, then the U.S. poet laureate, and learned that he’d grown up not far from me in Jackson Heights. On another occasion E.L. Doctorow told me about his own stint living and writing in the neighborhood.
Somebody should create an annual get-together, maybe at a hotel out by LaGuardia Airport, and bring all the Queens authors, both famous and little-known, together. Maybe Nicole Steinberg and her contributors will do it. They could create a gang and go rumble with all those hacks out in Brooklyn.