Queens Art Express: Walking Tours

Queens Art Express is an annual arts festival aimed at celebrating the culture and work of the mostly immigrant communities that are situated along the 7 line. Every year several art workshops, performances, and open facilities are available to the public along this historic line. The Queens Art Express events are held out in public spaces at certain stops, welcoming any passer by, whether they are regulars of the neighborhood or just passing on through.

The Queens Museum of Art was stationed in the Corona section of the festival at the 103rd street stop. The festivities opened up to the public at 11 am and continued on until 4 pm. The Queens Museum of Art

Ayazamana, one of the many performances and activities provided for the crowd that gathered for the Queens Art Express

along with other sponsors such as the Louis Armstrong House Museum, Corona and Langston Hughes Libraries, Corona Community Action Network, Fundación Empresarias Hispanas, and Secretaria Nacional del Migrante, worked together to bring a variety of art activities for kids, dance and music performances, and free services to the people of Corona. As part of the programming for the day, the Queens Museum of Art offered free historical walking tours of the neighborhood. I was lucky enough to walk two of the tours, each definitely an eye opening and unique experience.

My first tour, in fact the first tour of the day, was lead by Jack Eichenbaum who was recently named the official Queens borough historian. He is well experienced at leading these kinds of walking tours and his vast knowledge of the region became obvious the moment he started giving his opening speech about the general area. As we walked through the northern part of Corona he pointed out several architectural points of interest and spoke about their significance to the culture of Corona at large. He flawlessly integrated chronological and geographical facts and concepts in communicated them in a way that was both interesting to listen to and easy to understand.

Jack Eichenbaum leading his tour around the North Loop of Corona

One of the more interesting things he pointed out was how store names can give an easy clue to which country the people in that surrounding area immigrated from. For example, store fronts with Quisqueyana and Cibao as part of their names are most likely run buy and surrounded by people from the Dominican Republic because those are the names of the indigenous peoples of the Dominican Republic. It was also a special treat that one of his regulars, who lives in Corona, came on the tour with us. He added a special flavor to the tour since he had first hand experience of what it was like for African Americans to move to Corona in the 60’s, a time where Corona was mostly white immigrants. He had a special take on the mass immigration from over crowded apartment style Harlem, to back-yarded, spacious Corona. Jack Eichenbaum offers regular walking tours around Queens and other parts of New York City. Signing up for his mailing list will send you e-mails about upcoming events he’s holding. I definitely recommend you sign up for one of them.

The second tour I went on was lead by Tahir Hemphill and his mother. This tour’s specifically dealt with the history of African Americans in Corona. The dynamic of the tour was very different from the first tour with Jack, mostly because these are two people who saw things happen first hand and they each had such an incredibly unique insight on their times in Corona. Tahir could speak of what Corona was like growing up in the 80’s and his mother had an inside view on Corona in the 60’s. It was a treat to hear the differences in their memories and what connotations they had for the places they pointed out to us. A great example of that difference is their thoughts on Angelo’s pizza (one of the many participants in the Queens Art Express promotion guide). His mother remembers when Angelo’s was a tiny room with a huge pizza oven, and being unlucky enough to have to sit behind it sometimes when she went to enjoy some of what she called the neighborhoods best pizza. By the time Tahir came around the place had expanded and lent itself to more social gatherings with friends, but the pizza was still good.

The highlight of the tour was our stop at the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center.

Executive Director of the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural center giving a talk about the history of the library to the tour group

While we were there we got a chance to look through the current art exhibition (a collection of works from and about Haiti in light of the recent earthquake), and the Executive Director of the museum, Andrew Jackson, gave us a short speech on the history and cultural importance of the library. Tahir remembers spending his childhood after school periods in the library while it was situated in an old Woolworth’s building where it was founded. This historic library still serves such an integral role in the community, and is being threatened with budget cuts that would shut it down. To learn more about the library visit its website and be sure to visit the library itself and sign a petition against these harmful budget cuts.