If you walk through Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, you will encounter small stores with window displays of vibrant saris, traditional South Asian garments worn on special occasions. You would smell Pakistani kebabs, Indian samosas and Nepalese momos being prepared in local restaurants.
What locals call the “Gateway to Jackson Heights,” Diversity Plaza is a mecca of immigrant communities in Queens. It is a center for significant numbers of South and Central Asian and Central American immigrants: Nepalis, Bangladeshis, Tibetans, Pakistanis, Mexicans and Guatemalans.
The plaza, which opened in 2012, sits adjacent to the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue subway station. It is a pedestrian-only public space at 37th Road and Broadway and draws local residents for events often held here, such as rallies, communal meals and a renowned annual event called the Momo Crawl, which attracted 1,100 people this year.
In July, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $4.45 million project to expand the plaza, which received support from the local councilman Daniel Dromm. The renovations will include new trees, raised planters, bike racks, moveable furniture, direction signs and more open space. The project is scheduled to be completed by June 2018.
Eirik Davey-Gislason is a co-chair of Friends of Diversity Plaza, a coalition of neighborhood groups, volunteers and activists. He said that Councilman Dromm has personally contributed to the plaza’s upkeep and included maintenance services for the area in the district budget to help keep the plaza clean. The group coalesced in 2013 to offer programs, recruit performers and find creative uses of the plaza. Its goal is to make sure that every local resident is able to tap into the space at their leisure.
“It’s really a unique neighborhood in terms of its food, in terms of its cultural makeup and history. And it’s a really special place and it was important for us to honor that diversity and culture,” Davey-Gislason said.
The plaza is home to many mom and pop diners with authentic foods. One especially popular dish is the momo, Tibetan steamed dumplings filled with meat or vegetables. The Momo Crawl, the marquee gala celebrating this heritage, takes place here every year around November.
Jeff Orlick, the founder of the Momo Crawl, said it’s a one-day festival where people come to eat momos at each of the 25 momo sellers within one square mile — all in three hours. The momos are sold for one dollar each. There’s also traditional Tibetan music and dancing alongside to mark the occasion.
“The event itself, on the low end, it’s about 1,000 people eating about 10 momos each. That’s $10,000 that gets injected into the community within three hours. And almost all of that money is coming from outside of Jackson Heights,” Orlick said.
This year was his last as the head of the Momo Crawl, and he is handing over the crawl to an organization called Students for a Free Tibet.
Orlick and Davey-Gislason both agree that the plaza expansion will be a beneficial addition to the neighborhood, and the fact that the city decided to fund the project has special meaning.
“I think it’s great to have some support from the government, and people are actually paying attention and supporting us. It’s more of a working-class neighborhood. It’s a community of immigrants right here. And new immigrants. There’s not as much tourism here, so it’s nice to see this funding from the city,” Orlick said.
Ian Michaels, NYC Department of Design and Construction’s Executive Director of Public Information, said the work team is anticipating the official opening of the plaza in July 2018. However, some business owners at the plaza see the expansion as too slow and unsatisfying.
Naveed Alam, the owner of a cellphone store, said his business has been impacted because the construction blocks the plaza,.
“My shop has definitely seen a huge fall in customers since the plaza has been blocked off. What was once an easily spotted store is now obscure. Many other stores are complaining of the same fate,” said Alam.
But they hope after the reopening of the plaza, the traffic will rebound and even flourish, making up for their losses during the one-year construction phase.
“I definitely expect a huge boost once the construction is done,” said Alam. “I have no doubt.”