Punjab Avenue and the Guyanese Community in Queens, New York  

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The Sikh community has come a long way and this sign is a testament to their hard work.

By Dr Dhanpaul Narine

If, from the public steps, you make your way onto Liberty Avenue and Lefferts Boulevard, you might ask, “where is the sign that says Little Guyana?” You will realize that there is no sign, and there are good reasons for it. Guyanese are politically sleepy. Most of them are interested in Guyana affairs, rather than in local politics. How many can name their congressman or senators in Washington? Guyanese children form a large percentage of the school population in Richmond Hill, but only a handful of parents bother to attend the open school meetings. They patronize other business, rather than their own, and don’t get them started about Jagan and Burnham!

Given this apathy, it must come as something of a surprise for Guyanese to pass at 101 Avenue and Lefferts Boulevard, in Queens, and see something different. Their first reaction was, ‘OMG, the Punjabis have an Avenue that is named after them!’ Yes, there is a Punjab Av, and it is more than a symbol. It is a landmark, a testament to the achievements of Sikhs, etched on a signpost of dreams and enterprise. It is a cause for celebration, because while other communities were sleeping, Sikhs were able to combine hard work with political astuteness and get the City Council to approve Punjab Av. One question on social media touched a nerve: How long were Guyanese in the Queens area and why there is no ‘Little Guyana’ sign? A short history lesson is in order.

Guyanese began to move into Richmond Hill in earnest by the mid-eighties. There were three Guyanese stores in Liberty Avenue in 1985, and a year later, a Trinidad roti shop was added to the mix. The real estate industry, and attorney offices, expanded on Liberty Avenue, and it was bustling with energy and enterprise. In 1985, the Indo-Caribbean Federation was formed with Rudra Nath as its president. Around that time, Liberty Avenue and the surrounding streets, were referred to fondly as ‘Little Guyana.’ The Masjid-al-Abidin, Lutheran Church, and the Mandirs, added to the vitality and religiosity of the community. There were good reasons for ‘Little Guyana’ to become part of the Guyanese psyche. In 1989, the first Phagwah Parade took place; it grew to become the biggest street festival in Queens. In that same year, the East Indian Diaspora Committee (EIDC), led by Dr. Prem Misir, Tilokie Depoo, Dr. Tara Singh, Frankie Ramadar, Dr. Basdeo Mangru, and others, held an International Conference on the diaspora in New York. The invited guest was Dr. Cheddi Jagan. Queens College published a monograph of the conference titled ‘The East Indian Diaspora.’  It wasn’t long after that the EIDC put up its candidate, Tilokie Depoo, to run for a City Council seat. Tilokie gave the community a foot in the door from which others have benefitted. Pandit Ramlall, of the Arya Spiritual Center, was an important figure in the mobilization of the community. He was respected, and temperamentally suited to bring peoples together. He worked with leaders in a bi-partisan way to help create greater understanding and tolerance in the community.

In October 1996, the New York Times ran a series of articles to point out the problems with illegal conversions in the City.

The statistics showed that the majority of such conversions occurred in Queens, where Indo-Caribbeans lived. The City employed Building Inspectors that would wait for hours outside homes, to inspect them, and to issue violations. Fines in the sum of thousands of dollars were levied against homeowners for renting their basements. Matters came to a head when the Giuliani administration introduced legislation (Intro: 363 A) in the City Council, to officially outlaw basement occupancy.

This writer organized a rally at the Masjid-al-Abidin, and the New Concept Democratic Club held community meetings at Richmond Hill High School and at the then Chateau Royale in Queens. Ed Ahmad hired eleven buses and around 400 persons rallied outside the City Council to have the Bill withdrawn. There were hearings at which community leaders testified, and at the end of those hearings, the Bill was withdrawn. That was the first time in the history of the Indo-Caribbean community, in New York, that local activism, and organizing, led to a positive outcome.

Today, in a complete reversal of the discriminatory policies in the nineties, the City has revisited basement occupancy and has given approval for basements to be rented to ease the housing shortage.

By the year 2000, the Indo-Caribbean community was among the highest property-owning group in Queens. It was also well established in business, construction, education and professional employment. Liberty Avenue reflected the growth, dreams, and aspirations of the community. It was around this time that the influx of Sikhs began into South Queens. The point to note from the foregoing history is that by the time the Sikhs arrived, a space was already created for them by Indo-Caribbeans.

The Punjabi community found it easy to navigate the system and to expand their business, in construction, and in the hospitality industry. Indo-Caribbeans supported Sikh businesses and continue to do so today.

The Sikh community has experienced tragedies as immigrants. In September 1907, they were attacked in Bellingham, Washington, due to racism. In Southhall, London, in the United Kingdom, a Sikh was killed in race riots. Southhall, incidentally, is popularly known as Chota or Little Punjab. In 2012, a mass shooting happened at a Gurdwara in Oak Cross, Wisconsin, where several Sikhs were killed. These bitter experiences have taught Sikhs to negotiate with the prevailing system. They register to vote, support candidates that are running for office, and help to bring out the votes. They also run for office and win elections. Guyanese, Trinidadians, and Surinamese, and others, need to learn from the Sikhs.

It was a feather in their cap, when on a bright day in October 2020, 101 Avenue and Lefferts Boulevard in Queens was co-named “Punjab Av.”

Councilwoman Adrienne Adams rightly lauded the efforts and contributions of the Sikh community. But, inevitably, questions were asked about the ‘Little Guyana’ sign on Liberty Avenue. There is no shortage of opinions from the Guyanese community concerning the installation of a ‘Little Guyana’ sign. Annetta Seecharran, of Chhaya, says that action is needed to have it done. Ashook Ramsarran of IDC supports the sign and asks that it be done with urgency.

Lakshmee Singh of Divya Jyoti Association says that such a sign is long overdue, while City Council Candidate Dimple Willabus points out that Liberty Avenue is among the first stop for Guyanese immigrants. Rozanna Beaumont praised the Sikh community and would be happy to see a ‘Little Guyana’ sign as well.

District Leader, Richard David, is aware of the responses, but his job would be much easier, if the community can join hands and work in unity. As we give thanks and praise, let us salute the achievements of Sikhs, and wish them well. Perhaps 2021 will be the year when Liberty Avenue is proudly co-named “Little Guyana.”

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The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.

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