The culture of Queens: Embracing the future without forgetting the past

By Brian Prowse-Gany

If you’re looking to sample culture from around the world, without ever leaving the country, then look no further than Queens, N.Y. Boasting a diverse community with residents from over 100 countries, a new influx of tourists have come to realize that Queens offers a potpourri of cuisine, art and lifestyle. It’s a marriage of traditional and modern culture, as new arrivals enjoy current attractions as well as visit popular institutions that have been around for decades.

One of the most engaging aspects of Queens is the variety and authenticity of the borough’s food. If it’s made anywhere in the world, chances are you can find it well represented in Queens. The food, particularly Colombian food, is one of the reasons John Leguizamo revisits his old neighborhood of Jackson Heights. The actor believes that, “the food’s all great. You get Indian food. Korean food. Chinese. Mexican. Colombian. And it’s all good and homemade. So it’s an exciting area.” Leguizamo brought Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric to one of his favorite haunts, La Pequena Colombia, where they savored scorched steak, plantains and a traditional side of rice and beans.

No one should visit Queens without stopping by the Lemon Ice King of Corona, made famous in the opening credits of the popular sitcom King Of Queens. A local favorite, these delicious ices have been served at the Lemon Ice King of Corona since 1944. Showing no signs of slowing down, the place is now serving ices to the children and grandchildren of their original customers.

Over in Astoria typically large crowds can be found enjoying Czech beer and bratwurst at the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden. Established in the early 1900s, this building is one of the oldest in Astoria, with much of the neighborhood being built around the large structure. The establishment survived the era of Prohibition and remains the largest beer garden in New York City, with a capacity to accommodate over 1,000 guests at a time (and on busy days, more than 6,000 people patronize the place). A majority of the profits from the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden help finance educational programs run by the Bohemian Citizens’ Benevolent Society of Astoria, where both children and adults of Czech and Slovak ancestry can participate in classes that help to maintain their cultural identity and teach them about American traditions and culture.

Bareburger CEO and founder Euripides Pelekanos knows a thing or two about opening successful restaurants. His Bareburger chain, which started in Astoria, now has more than 45 locations in five countries.

“Bareburger was a pretty simple, straightforward idea,” says Pelekanos, “which was to serve a burger and to serve it the cleanest way possible. So, that meant sourcing organic food and sustainable food and local food. And it just took off from there.”

Pelekanos opened a new Astoria eatery called Salt and Bone that serves barbeque. He was cautious about wasting food, which can be much more common in a barbeque restaurant, and which led him to partner with Robert Lee, a young man from Flushing who started a successful nonprofit called Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC).

As the son of Korean immigrants who struggled with food insecurity (i.e. not having a reliable and consistent access to food) during his childhood, Lee left a successful job at J.P. Morgan to establish Rescuing Leftover Cuisine. RLC cooperates with over 150 restaurants in New York City to deliver more than 40,000 pounds of food per month to families and individuals in need. Lee recently expanded the program to include his hometown of Queens.

“It’s obviously worthwhile,” says George Wolf, owner of the restaurant Queens Comfort, “because just throwing out perfectly good food — it’s just not good. So people like Robert, when they came here to ask if we wanted to do it, I was right on board immediately.”

Other than food, the unique culture and history of Queens can be found in its many museums. Nestled away in Corona is the Louis Armstrong House Museum. A national landmark, the house has been preserved in such a way that you can almost feel Louis and his wife, Lucille, going about their daily routine. The house also represents an important part of jazz culture in a borough that included renowned musicians like Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gilespie and Billie Holiday all lived in Queens. Several decades later, these same neighborhoods would be home to a new wave of musicians — pioneers of hip-hop.

Queens was an important place in the creation of hip-hop. The writer and producer Devon Smith says “Queens has a history of producing lyricists and storytellers, there’s really not an element of the culture that someone from Queens didn’t touch and either implement or completely change the game behind.”

The first superstar rap group, Run-D.M.C, and the first hip-hop mogul, Russell Simmons, are both from the borough. Queens also produced such mega acts as LL Cool J, 50 Cent, Nikki Minaj and one of the strongest musical voices, Nas. His album “Illmatic really set the tone for what it means to paint pictures with words,” Smith argues.

Hip-hop and jazz weren’t the only genres of music born in Queens, however. The quintessential punk band the Ramones hails from the borough as well, and they were featured in a recent exhibit at the Queens Museum.

“I think that in a way the Ramones exhibit opens up a whole other level of relatability about what can happen in a museum,” says Laura Raicovich, president and executive director of the museum.

The Queens Museum is also home to the Panorama, a 10,000-square-foot replica of New York City, as well as rotating exhibitions that illustrate both the creativity and ethnic diversity of the people of Queens.

“The Queens Museum is a place that represents art and culture, about the times in which we live,” Raicovich says, “it is a place that connects the artistic visions of artists with the ways that we see the world around us.”

Right near the border of Astoria and Long Island City sits another of the borough’s great destinations, the Museum of the Moving Image. The museum is devoted to the art, history and technology of film, television and digital media. After a recent renovation, the museum boasts new interactive exhibits that explore all forms of media production, a vintage arcade exhibit, as well as a large-scale theater that shows classic and contemporary films, including, for example, Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dunkirk. The museum’s most exciting new addition is a permanent wing dedicated to the work of puppeteer Jim Henson.

“There’s a deep connection between Jim Henson and Queens,” says Carl Goodman, the museum’s executive director, “and that is the values imbedded in his work. Acceptance of others, appreciation of difference, tolerance, the importance of diversity, creativity and collaboration not only embodies Jim Henson’s work, but also in a sense embodies Queens itself.”

The culture of Queens has a deep history and is constantly evolving as more and more people find a home in the borough. It’s a unique part of New York City, embracing what the future without forgetting its past.