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New York Borough, Country's Most Diverse, is Focus of New Book - 2003-11-04


Traveling in their own neighborhood, a husband and wife team have written a new book that highlights the many distinct cultures they found virtually in their backyard. They live in Queens, New York, the most ethnically diverse area in the United States, with a population of two million people who speak 138 languages.

Judith Sloan and her husband Warren Lehrer include an audio CD with their new book, Crossing the Boulevard, so that readers may hear the voices of the many different immigrants living in Queens, people like Janet, a follower of Falun Gong who fled China to settle in America.

The sound mix is rich, layering voices over music as immigrants tell their stories. The book is colorful. Nearly every page shows large photos of Queens residents from different countries, including the Philippines, Afghanistan, Russia, and Egypt.

There are 55 neighborhoods in Queens, one of the five counties in New York City. Queens spans 290 square kilometers.

Judith Sloan and Warren Lehrer are both longtime residents of Queens, but Mr. Lehrer did not always value the county's ethnic diversity. "Living in Queens, it was really just an address for us. We did not feel that we knew our neighbors or felt connected to this place as a neighborhood or a home," he says. "And when we realized we were at this incredible crossroads of the world, we decided to not just leave that as a background texture, but to penetrate it and go out and actually meet our neighbors and find out their stories."

Crossing the Boulevard is a series of touching vignettes that highlight the paradoxes of American culture. The book takes its name from Queens Boulevard, a 12-lane road that is nicknamed the "Boulevard of Death" because dozens of people are hit and killed by speeding cars there each year.

"That is why a lot of immigrants get hit by cars, especially on Queens Boulevard," says Arthur Gulkarov emigrated from Russia. "They are thinking what are they going to do in America in the future, how are they going to make money, how are they going to pay rent."

For the authors, the Boulevard became a metaphor for the dangerous crossings that many immigrants make when fleeing difficult situations in their home countries, and for the arduous journey of navigating a new culture in America. Cultural conflicts and misunderstandings are a recurring theme in the book. Ms. Sloan recalls a boy named Mohammed from Kuwait, whom she met while teaching a cross-cultural workshop at a local international high school. He struggled learning English and was picked on because he had a lisp, a speech impediment that makes pronouncing certain words difficult. "One day I just stopped talking to anyone for a whole year. That was a bad idea because I did not practice talking," he says . "First year in high school, I started quiet. When I begin talking again, I think of how to say a sentence without 'c' or 's' before I open my mouth. It takes me a little bit longer to answer, so some people, including teachers, think I do not understand, but I understand very well."

"That was amazing to me, that he would be sitting there thinking of a sentence to say and all of these people thought he did not understand English," says Ms. Sloan.

Some of the people interviewed in the book escaped violence and war, other were targets of political persecution. Many recount what it was like to try and fit into society. An immigrant named Nasser El Gabry tells his version of working to attain the so-called "American dream." "I had like 800 jobs. I am Egyptian, American, and African. I work in construction, I work at Burger King, I work at McDonald's. I tried everything," he says.

After interviewing hundreds of people for the book, Ms. Sloan says Queens is no longer a place where she lives, but a home. "I am also more likely to ask the person at the laundromat or behind the counter what they think about what is going on currently than I used to, and not assume anything," she says. "Often the person that is at the cash register might have a PhD [graduate degree] from another country, but that is the job they have here."

The authors say Queens is often congested, noisy, and an aesthetically odd mix of urban and suburban neighborhoods. It may not be the prettiest place in New York State, but by working on the book, they eventually found its beauty in the people.

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