On weekends, the trains bring streams of worshipers to Flushing, one of the religious centers of New York City. Day in and day out, more passengers get on and off at the Main Street station of the #7 subway line in Flushing than at most stations in Manhattan. In 2015 over 19 million riders came through this subway stop.
As you exit the station into the downtown, the sidewalks are crowded, the stores stack on top of each other like moss grabbing space in the crevices of a cliff. You have entered the gigantic Community District 7 of Eastern Queens.
There are more people living here than in any other community district of New York City. In 2012 the United States Census estimated in its American Community Survey the population as 251,741. Developers are stuffing into Flushing a record number of high priced condos with the highest number of units coming online in 2019. Downtown Flushing is also the third largest retail area in the city, ranking behind only Times and Herald Squares as a retail economic engine.
The rapid growth has pressed against the use of space for religious and community service groups. Schools are underfunded and the most overcrowded in the city, according to the Independent Budget Office. The Flushing masses have made the Queens library system the nation’s leader in items circulated.
Geographically, the district is the fifth largest, encompassing 11.7 square miles with 285 miles of streets. It includes the heavily populated Flushing and East Flushing as well as College Point, Whitestone, Fort Totten-Bay Terrace-Clearview, and Murray Hill, Queensboro Hill, and other communities. The district also has an extensive shore line that at one time was the terminal for ferry boats coming from Manhattan.
Downtown Flushing has come a long way from the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s when a ride on the #7 train was surrounded by the perils of “Code Reds,” indicating dangerous structural defects in the subway line. Exiting, you were faced with a Main Street that was emptying out of stores, fading into dilapidation surrounding by a startling increase in crime. Religious leaders bemoaned the decline of their congregations—several had to merge in order to survive.
Kids protected themselves by joining gangs or by inventing ways out of the gang life. Flushing's Duce Martinez was one of the founders with some kids from Jamaica, Queens of the pioneer break dancing group "The Dynamic Breakers" in the late 1970s. They added the gymnastic twist to break dancing that you see today. Here is a 1983 video of their big entrance to international fame at a contest in 1983.
The turn-around came when the immigrants from Asia swept into the Flushing area, particularly the south part.
In 1965, the doors of Flushing were officially opened to more immigrants because of the federal approval of the hart Cellar Immigration and Nationalities Act. The co-sponsor of the bill, Representative Emanuel Celler, at one time represented northern Queens in Congress. It took about five to ten years for the flow of immigrants to kick into high gear, abetted by catastrophic global events like social catastrophes and religious persecutions.
First, came immigrants from India, then Korea, and finally, China. Hispanic, Russian, and other immigrants have also added to the mix. Over half (51%) of the district identify themselves as Asian American with Chinese Americans accounting for the largest number. With 36% of the population, White Americans are the second largest racial or ethnic group in the district
Almost one in five (17%) of the community are Hispanic Americans, who are mainly from Central and South America.
There are also Filipino Americans (1.3%) and South Asian Americans (listed as part of the 2.3% “Other Asians” in the federal census).
Consequently, the community also has become a global center for religion. Flushing today is an odd-couple mixture of religion and commerce as if Pope Francis and Donald Trump were uneasily joined together for common purposes.
In front of the public library, you can stand at the center of gravity of religion and economy in Flushing. There are dozens of religious sites within a couple of blocks on each side of you, whichever way you face – North, South, East or West. Last Fall, the library taught kids how to celebrate the Hindu festival of lights, “Diwali.” The space in front of the library itself is regularly used by religious groups to put up stands and tables from which to hand out their religious literature.
Falungong, a new religious movement that arose out of the qigong exercise groups in mainland China, is almost always there. Sometimes, Chinese government-inspired persecutors are there to cause them trouble. The FBI has detected Chinese Communist government operatives coming into the United States to harass religious groups in Flushing. This is because the government is afraid that fast-growing religious groups might gain more legitimacy as a ruling ideology than the generally discredited Communism.
Christian groups sometimes set up a prayer station for people to pause on the busy streets for a bit of spiritual refreshment. Across the street in front of Starbucks, Buddhist and Taoist monks and nuns hand out pamphlets and fliers. You can occasionally see their orange, brown and blue robes pass by.
We have gone down every street, every alleyway, and shopping mall to map the visible religion sites in Flushing. On one Sunday, we visited 31 sites with two breakfast buns, three lunches, four teas, and two dinners (lightly eaten). And there were often sweets to take a good taste in our mouths on the journey. If the religious people of Flushing were any more friendly, we would have to check into fat clinic for months!
We have found that there are more religious sites in Flushing, Queens than in most of the other neighborhoods of New York City. Four hundred and fourteen religious sites generate spiritual warmth, innovations, and social services. In comparison, big numbers of religious sites are also found in Harlem in Manhattan with 442 religious sites and Williamsburg, Brooklyn with 354 sites. Jamaica, Queens has 567 religious sites.
Quite a few of the Flushing religious organizations serve as central switchboards for global religious movements. They introduce new religious movements into the United Sates, move along missionaries overseas, shelter believers persecuted for their faith, produce religious literature, faith-based innovation in caring for the poor and needy, and aid to areas hit by disasters around the world, particularly in Asia.