Thursday, July 10, 2008

Is This the American Dream?

By Steve Tiszenkel

Sometimes it seems like nobody wants to talk about the hot potato of Forest Hills life. Your typical FoHi local will go on and on about restaurants, shopping, public works, crime, government, you name it. And sure enough, the Forest Hills residential construction boom is often a hot topic—who doesn't have an opinion on the monstrous, ornate houses with paved-over yards that have been sprouting in the neighborhood for years, towering over the modest ranches they're increasingly replacing?

But who's building those houses? Everybody knows the answer, but few can discuss it without raising their voices above a whisper. But this under-the-radar issue exploded into Forest Hills' collective consciousness last week. And in this day and age, when people who have never met can become the closest of friends by connecting through blogs and message boards and social-networking sites, it took the oldest of old media institutions—The New York Times—to do it.

“To the Bukharian Jews of Central Asia,” the Gray Lady announced in Saturday's local edition, “a big house is an essential tradition ... Nowhere has their love of big homes been on more opulent display than in a section of Forest Hills known as Cord Meyer, an upper middle class neighborhood long cherished by its residents for its tranquility and architectural charm.”

Consider the powder keg officially blown. The Times' take on the Bukharian McMansion situation, rightfully deemed a “must-read” by the comprehensive blog Splitting Hairs in Forest Hills, was chock full of great quotes that offered some rare, valuable insight into the thought process that goes into building the controversial houses. Forest Hills is a heterogeneous community, and I continue to firmly believe that relations between its divergent groups are some of the best you'll find in New York, possibly some of the best in any major American city.
But pan-ethnic harmony is a lofty goal, and the fact that we're doing better than others doesn't mean that we couldn't be doing a lot better. Truth be told, those old-line Queens types don't make many attempts at communication with the Bukharians whose enormous houses they deplore, and vice versa.

Fortunately, The Times has done the heavy lifting. For Bukharian community leaders, the age-old American dream narrative predictably comes into play: “We're dreaming of this freedom! We were dreaming to build big house,” the president of the Bukharian Jewish Congress of the U.S.A. and Canada told the paper. Certainly, many an immigrant group has wanted to stake a claim in its new home.

But others interviewed by The Times made comments suggesting a troubling, fundamental disconnect in values between themselves and their neighbors. One Bukharian rabbi, born in Uzbekistan and raised in Kew Gardens Hills, called front yards “useless” and a “waste of time,” seeming almost disgusted as he observed the very thing many in the neighborhood would fight to save.

I have no doubt there's a strong thread of xenophobia running through many protests against the Bukharian houses. Newcomers' arrival and old timers' visceral reaction against them and their traditions is the story of America, of New York in particular, and of Queens even more specifically. Nobody hates immigrants more than the children of immigrants. But when two sets of beliefs are so radically different, it's easy to see some validity, maybe even a whole lot of validity, in the incumbents' complaints.

So. What do I think about the McMansions when I force myself down from my moralizing pedestal? Well, you want the honest truth? I think they're a blight on the neighborhood and need to be stopped by any legal means possible. I think they're both ostentatious and generic.

I think that they're in horrible taste and that no serious architectural critic anywhere in the world would find any value in them whatsoever. I think that despite the protestations of their builders, they are, in fact, a deliberate display of wealth by people who don't understand that the most effective and tasteful way to convey success is to go the understated route.

I think the concept of stone lions standing guard at a private home is ridiculous, and I think that just because something is shiny, doesn't make it look good. But then, I grew up more than 6,000 miles from Uzbekistan, here on an island where a different generation of immigrants once aspired to get away from all the concrete and own a little green plot of their very own.

Steve Tiszenkel is also the author of Log on to read more about Forest Hills and the surrounding neighborhoods.