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THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Meltingest Pot
By SUKETU MEHTA
October 5, 2003
The building at 59-21 Calloway Street in Corona, Queens, is grandly named the Calloway Chateau, but it is really the 21st-century version of Ludlow Street, the first stop off the long-haul plane from Bukhara or Bombay. You put your bags down here, a half-hour's drive on the Grand Central Parkway from J.F.K., and pause to gather breath for the journey into the hinterland.
The residents of the Calloway Chateau are brown, white, black and olive; Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Russian Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist. Joseph Salvo, director of the population division at the City Planning Office, calls what's happening in Queens ''probably the greatest social experiment in history.'' It is the most ethnically diverse county in the country. In 1990, there were 243 census tracts in Queens County that were predominantly white; by 2000, the number had dropped to 116. For the past 10 years, Salvo, along with two colleagues, Arun Peter Lobo and Ronald Flores, has been charting with great specificity where different ethnic groups settle in New York. They have found that there are an increasing number of areas, dubbed ''melting-pot tracts,'' in which no single group dominates. The bar for being classified a melting-pot tract is high: there must be three separate groups who account for at least 20 percent of the population. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of melting-pot tracts in the city rose from 64 to 84. More than half of them are in Queens.
The Calloway Chateau is in Tract 437, in Corona. The tract is Hispanic-dominated as a whole (it is 52 percent Hispanic), but it is also significantly white, Asian and black. The number of people in Tract 437 who identify their ancestry as ''United States or American'' (173) are outnumbered by those who list their ancestry as ''sub-Saharan African'' (199). ''Then you break it up by block,'' Salvo says, ''and you got the U.N. in there.''
Five of the blocks within the tract have been classified as melting-pot blocks. One of those is Calloway Street. Of the 907 residents of the block, 29 percent are Hispanic, 23 percent are white, 23 percent are Asian and 19 percent are black. ''This is extraordinary,'' Salvo says, even for Queens. ''These percentages are not typical.''
Despite this astounding diversity, groups tend to stay within enclaves in the borough; even in mixed blocks, one group or another predominates in each individual building. When I read out the list of nationalities residing in the Calloway Chateau -- Uzbeks, Afghans, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Koreans, Filipinos, Ukrainians, Russians, Argentines, Colombians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Peruvians, African-Americans, Guyanese -- Salvo draws in his breath. ''If you look at this building relative to all the buildings in Queens, this is going to stand out. Here is a rather extraordinary example of the melting-pot concept.'' While the Census Bureau doesn't compile data at the level of the individual building, it is quite possible that, for its size, the Calloway Chateau is the most diverse building in New York City.
he building has 110 apartments. It was built in 1968 as middle-class rental housing, then went co-op in 1988. In the 70's, there were a lot of South Asians living there, probably because the owner was an Indian doctor. Then a number of Uzbek Jews started moving in, directed there by a Jewish real-estate agent; their population peaked in the mid-90's. The building acquired a reputation in certain villages in Uzbekistan as a ''lucky building,'' says one tenant, Avram, who works as a cook. ''It's a building from which people go on to buy houses.'' As they saved enough money to buy houses in the suburbs, they made way for Hispanic and African-American families. Today there are very few vacancies. The exodus from New York that many observers projected after 9/11 never took place. There are actually more people living in the city now than before the catastrophe.
About a quarter of the apartments are owner-occupied; the rest are rented out by the owners or by the building's sponsor. The residents range from people receiving Section 8 housing assistance to successful investment bankers who want their kids to grow up with a sense of the culture of their homelands. Most fall into the striving middle class; they work for the subway or own small shops or work in hair and nail salons. The board checks the credit histories of the tenants, but not much else. ''We don't reject anybody,'' says Orlando Medina, the 29-year-old Puerto Rican super.
The exterior of the seven-story building is unimpressive, all brown brick and fire escapes, but the entryway lends itself to collegiality. What was originally meant to be a driveway has been blocked to traffic by iron posts and now serves as a communal front porch. On warm evenings, Russian grandmothers stake their claim with folding chairs and tables and settle down for their nightly card games. Little girls skip rope behind them; boys ride around on their bikes. People coming home from work stop for a chat before walking into a lobby painted a vivid shade of green and going up into their apartments.
The incidental marvels of the Calloway Chateau begin in its very foundations. Seven years ago, a group of Eastern European entrepreneurs converted a disused swimming pool in the basement into a recreation center with Russian, Swedish and Turkish steam rooms; a Jacuzzi, a cold-water pool and a swimming pool; a massage room and a restaurant. It is nothing like the gleaming health clubs of Manhattan. A sign hung next to the pool orders: ''No Spitting Blowing of Nose or Urinating in Pool.'' This clientele is the least athletic of any facility devoted to physical exercise that I've ever seen. They emerge from steaming in the sauna or thrashing in the pool and promptly rush into the wood-paneled restaurant to guzzle beer and eat shish kebabs. As a result, it is an amiable place. If you're fat, you can be sure that someone fatter than you will be along before long.
Boris Polyakov, one of the owners, sometimes regrets not having a weight room, which would draw in a younger crowd. But then he is reminded again of the real mission of his (technically co-ed) spa, where groups of naked men sit companionably, flogging themselves with birch branches: ''It's a place for men to get away from their family. There's no competition for women here. We're like a pack of wolves, barking our manhood. But it's all straight,'' he hastens to add. ''No homosexuality.''
As you make your way through the hallways, you notice that many of the doors of the apartments are wide open, as in a dollhouse. Within each one you can see people sleeping, watching TV, eating. Most of all, you notice the aromas of competing cuisines -- the cumin and mustard of Indian cooking, the yeasty aroma of Russian bread, the sizzling pork chops of the Latinos.
The most basic kind of interaction in the building is the exchanging of food. On the Muslim holy day Eid al-Adha, the Pakistanis distribute choice cuts of goat meat -- the liver and the testicles -- to the Indians; on the holiday of Dewali, the Hindus give boiled milk sweets to the Muslims. An Uzbek lady who bakes and sells big rounds of salted bread to her own people for a dollar gives it free to the Abichandani family. They are Hindu refugees from Pakistan who came via Bombay and now own four units in the building; the grandmother sometimes fetches the Uzbek woman's daughter from the school bus.
At the center of this flow of food is Orlando, the super. The people of the building repeatedly bestow the foods of their homelands upon him, and he tolerates it. ''I hate that fish they keep giving me,'' he says. ''Whaddyacallit? Gefilte. I throw it away.'' Orlando's wife tells me that she recently helped an elderly Russian lady fix her stove and was rewarded with a bag of potatoes. ''Don't ever take them,'' Orlando warns. ''They leave them out on the window ledge. The pigeons sleep on them.'' It was a package of mashed potatoes, she reassures him. Along with a jar of applesauce.
When he is stressed, Orlando goes up to 4G to relax with Tasleem Mohammed, a Pakistani housewife with five children, who makes him curries (with few chilies; he hates spice) and gives him tea. He likes looking at the cockatiels Tasleem keeps in her living room, and he likes talking to her daughters about what they're doing in school. He talks about his own sister, his brothers back in Puerto Rico. ''Our family makes him miss them less,'' Tasleem says.
Orlando came to the building this past spring from the Bronx. ''My last building was very close to hell,'' he says. He recalls finding a large, heavy box in its garbage area that he assumed a tenant had stuffed with construction material. He kicked it out of frustration, then ripped open the plastic garbage bag covering it and found a nearly decapitated human head loosely attached to a skinny old man's body.
So he moved with his family to the Calloway Chateau. He is a cheerful super. Every day he walks his two children to school and back; one of the tenants has prevailed upon him to take her two children along as well. The building functions on a system of exchange of goods and services. Rajesh Abichandani works for the Postal Service. He regularly brings home packages for the building's residents to save them the trip to the post office. If you look closely, you'll notice that many of the men and boys in the building sport the same bad haircut. Rajesh's neighbor Boris is the building's official barber. He will come to your apartment and cut your children's hair. In return you might lend him a Bollywood movie, which nearly everyone in the building seems to have developed an appreciation for. (For a while, everybody -- Latinos, Russians, Indians -- was also hooked on a popular Spanish telenovela that had all the Bollywood themes, but was shot on a lower budget and without the elephants.) Jose, in 5H, fixed the plumbing in Rajesh's kitchen; the electrician on the fourth floor has fixed his light and fan; Artur, the Ukrainian in 2C, fixes his computer and TV.
The residents bring to Artur's attention a multicultural hodgepodge of electronics of Israeli, Asian, European and Russian design; VCR's that play formats unknown in the Western Hemisphere. Artur gets on the Internet and downloads whatever manuals he can. ''I get the schematic to see how it works,'' he says. ''It's a lot different.''
The building also takes care of its sick. ''In this building, anybody's sick, everybody know what's going on,'' Tasleem says. Remedies are constantly being proposed, many of them involving the sustained use of homemade laxatives and antacids. Detailed conversations about the intestinal tract and its proper function are not considered impolite. Again, Orlando is the target of much of the free medical advice. When he had an upset stomach, an Argentinean woman told him to boil an herb named ruda and drink it. When he had a headache, Tasleem advised him to get plain white yogurt and spread it all over his head. For his sore throat, a Russian woman suggested that he gargle with salt and baking soda. When his daughter had an earache, an Indian woman told him to heat a clove of garlic in some oil, throw away the garlic and drip the warm oil in his daughter's ear. He tried it out on her, and it worked. ''Another lady from Russia said you take milk, olive oil and salt, and you warm it up and soak your feet in it,'' he tells me. ''That will make them smooth and nice.''
he building is not without its tensions. Kids sometimes run around throwing garbage through the open doors of apartments. The co-op board and the sponsor have had uneasy relations with many of the tenants, over parking fees, for example, which were recently lowered after much tenant agitation. I ask a group of Bukharan grandmothers out in front about their relations with the Latinos. One of them, with her legs propped on the card table and her nightgown riding up, says, ''We don't say anything to them; they don't say anything to us.'' She disapproves of the way the Spanish girls wear miniskirts and smooch with their boyfriends. ''The boys put their hands on their thighs,'' she exclaims.
One of the Latino apartments had 15 people in a one-bedroom, the Russian woman remembers disapprovingly. But at the same time, when a Latino family's apartment was burned down, they all gave money to help them -- Russians, Indians, everybody.
In a coffee shop at the BP gas station nearby, I talk to Imran Ahmed, who moved from New Jersey to the Calloway Chateau because he wanted his children to experience Pakistani culture. A sign near the cashier advertises: ''American Flags -- Show Your True Colors.'' Imran is a Pakistani with an M.B.A. from Berkeley. Last year, he was in line to be the C.F.O. of the semiprivate city agency he works for. He was passed over for a promotion because, he guesses, he is Pakistani. After 9/11, he says, he feels unsure of his future in the country. ''Thirteen hundred Pakistanis they forced to leave,'' he says bitterly. ''Then you see those WorldCom and Enron people stealing billions of dollars, and they walk away. How can I base my future on such a place?''
Imran says that when Pakistanis were rounded up by the F.B.I., the Jews in his office joked with him, ''Are you one of those?'' But he holds no grudge against Jews in general, he says, because he lives and interacts with them in the building.
Although the older residents of the Calloway Chateau studiously avoid talking about politics and the violent disputes between many of their homelands, the children aren't always so reticent. ''My kids talk with the Jewish kids when they're playing PlayStation,'' says Tasleem. ''They say: 'Why are they fighting? We are Jewish and Muslim and not fighting.' '' Thus it is that Indians and Pakistanis, whose countries are at each other's throats, find that their differences here are overwhelmed by their commonalities; that the Arejas, a Hindu family that had to flee Kandahar during the days of the Taliban, are lent money to buy a fried-chicken franchise by the Afghan Pathan owners who are selling it to them; that Avram, an Uzbek Jewish cook, tells me that he bears no grudge against the Uzbek Muslims who forbade the teaching of Hebrew and denied him a university place in Bukhara.
''In this building, we have fights and arguments, but it's never about race,'' Orlando notes. ''It's about 'He left something in front of my door.' Never about race.''
There is one minority that seems excluded, though maybe not consciously, from the commerce of the building. Willie Mayzck is not Polish but African-American, from South Carolina, one of the few black tenants in the building. He doesn't know any of his neighbors' names; his conversation with them is restricted to hello and goodbye as he goes back and forth to his two jobs. ''They don't speak my language,'' he says, but he is not displeased with the building. ''It's not a racial building,'' he says. But he keeps to himself. ''I wouldn't know about the immigrants. They don't touch me at all.''
he building also has an active internal love life. Neighbors remember the Uzbek Jewish teenager who was in love with a Pakistani boy. They were together all the time, and she would come up to Monisha Abichandani's apartment to get her hands painted with henna like the South Asian girls, learn how to wear Indian clothes and watch the latest Hindi movies. It all got to be too much for her parents, and eventually she broke up with her boyfriend and married an Uzbek man, with whom she had kids and lives in Forest Hills. As an Uzbek man explains to me, ''You can have love affairs with people from other cultures, but when it comes to marriage, you have to come home.''
Short of marriage, though, the building enjoys a vibrant dating scene, and not just across cultures. Victor, 65, is a Filipino accountant for a shipping company and has been living in the building since 1974. He's had a successful run among ladies in the building much younger than he is. There was the 25-year-old Pakistani woman who at the time they dated was 20 years his junior. They saw each other discreetly for a year, and then her parents arranged a marriage with a man from her homeland. Then there was another woman from the building, a 30-ish ''American'' -- a white woman. His current girlfriend is a 40-year-old Colombian. He sometimes refers to her as his fiancee, but then thinks better of it. With a sly smile, he says, ''I like to taste different kinds of food.''
Usman, who lives in the basement, has not had quite the same experience. He lives next to the meter room, in a small space that contains four beds and little else. The beds are occupied by Usman and three other Muslims from Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. The room is lined with three gorgeous woolen rugs that his brothers have sent. In the spaces above the rugs are pictures of Uzbek models, torn out of magazines, and a large black-and-white photograph of a woman sleeping on a bed, her buttocks prominently presented. It competes for your attention with a poster of Samarkand, the turquoise domes of its mosques and mausoleums illuminating the dim basement.
On the dressing table is a row of bottles and aerosol cans, perfumes alternating with insecticides. I ask him if his room has rats. He raises his hand, runs his fingers along an invisible track and makes a scuttling sound. ''I kill one for you tomorrow,'' he says. He traps them between the door and the wall and then hits them with a stick. Tail to head, they are half the length of his arm.
Usman brings out trays of mints, rock candy, walnuts and raisins from his homeland. He puts them out on the tablecloth, a Russian newspaper opened to the obituaries page. ''Pilaf?'' he offers, lifting the lid of a cast-iron pot, revealing a pile of rice and meat. He's been here for six years; he's working to send money back to his wife, who has to have a heart operation. He also sends money to his daughter to study law in Tashkent. He speaks to his family twice weekly, using a $5 phone card that gives him 25 minutes of connection with them.
Usman's room has two views. The first is through a window up by the ceiling: a red-and-white sign that says, No Parking 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday. The other is on a television screen, on which a video shows a continuous procession of men feasting in the courtyard of a large white house. It is the inauguration of Usman's house, or rather, the house that Usman's money built. The house has two levels, and each bedroom has its own bathroom. The wooden furniture looks solid, the carpets look expensive. There is no dialogue on the video, but a tamboura is being played by a solemn-faced musician wearing a suit. Usman received the video from his family; he has a drawer that is stacked with them, movie-length postcards from home. They are filled with shots of Samarkand, of markets full of fresh produce and halvah, trucks full of bread, scenes of Usman's friends and relatives and imams praying at his new house, which he has never set foot in.
I look around and think: it can't be much of a life, always working, always in want of a woman. Then I realize why he watches the videos so intently. In the cramped basement, this is his transcendence. He needs something to work for: his family's house, his wife's medical care, his daughter's education. The videos reaffirm his status as provider. And then he can sleep contentedly on his threadbare mattress, with the rodents scuttling overhead, the laundry machines whirring next door.
And there is this: in the Calloway Chateau, even a migrant worker in the basement is part of a community. Usman does odd jobs for people in the building -- he fixes a faucet, hangs a picture, patches a wall. He has good friends on the third floor, a Jewish family also from Uzbekistan. Once, he felt sharp pains in his stomach, and they took him to St. John's Queens Hospital, where he was discovered to have intestinal bleeding; he needed a blood transfusion. When the Jewish family went to Samarkand to visit their parents' cemetery, they were fearful about their security in the Muslim country. Usman arranged for his family and friends to be their hosts and to take good care of them.
At the end of a hard day, Orlando likes to relax in front of his aquarium. It contains brightly colored tropical fish, an anemone with its creamy white tentacles unfurling and waving in the currents of the tank, starfish, squid, crayfish and shrimp hiding among the rocks. Although there's a little blue fish that sometimes nips the bigger fish, they generally leave each other alone, he tells me. ''It's like our building,'' he says, crumbling a green sheet of algae into the water as the fish race up to take little nibbles from his hand. ''They don't eat each other.''
Suketu Mehta is the author of ''Maximum City: Bombay Stories,'' to be published next year by Knopf.