Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Ghetto United Nations of Queens

My bedroom window looks out over an unpretentious supermarket that has been in the same location next to my apartment building for over fifty years, under various owners. You won’t find fancy stuff in this store, like organic kale, but you will find more brands of ethnic rice and beans than any other supermarket in the city. And they also have good pickles.

The supermarket is an ugly box-like structure built in the 1960s, so the last owner decided to pretty the place up in celebration of the neighborhood’s ethnic diversity.  He placed fifty national flags around the perimeter of the parking lot which represent all of the immigrant communities that live in the community.

My friend Barry and I jokingly called it “the ghetto U.N.” but there was also a deep sense of pride in this corny display of flags waving in the wind in the middle of Queens.   The flags were as iconic to this neighborhood as the skating ring at Rockefeller Center is to midtown Manhattan. Whenever I passed by, I quizzed myself on the flags’ countries of origin.  Some were easy — Lebanon, Turkey, India, Israel, Mexico, Japan.  But is that one El Salvador or the Dominican Republic?

The flags were arranged in random order, and it was amusing to see odd relationships developing, like Pakistan and South Korea suggestively rubbing against each other in the fall coolness.

Last spring, I noticed the Taiwanese flag hanging in a tree. It was ripped in half and stuck in the branches on purpose. Flushing has a large Chinese population and there are always political controversies involving Taiwan and China.  Events in Hong Kong have only increased the tensions in the Chinese community. Was this vandalism some sort of political statement?

I mentioned this online, but others thought it was kids playing games, not political media grandstanding.  This was a quiet supermarket in Queens where residents bought their milk and Pepperidge Farm cookies, NOT a hot-boiled environment like Twitter.

A few months ago, I was awoken by an angry voice outside.  I went to the window and saw a bearded man shouting in Arabic and ripping the Israeli flag down from her spot on the Ghetto U.N. display. As the police arrived, he ran away. I mentioned this on Facebook and I sensed a discomfort, as if I was trying to promote Fox News’ Islamophobia rather than sharing a real-life scary incident that I just witnessed.

In retrospect, these two little events at the supermarket were unimportant, not international incidents.  These perpetrators were individuals, and not representatives of agenda. We continue to all live happily in Queens, loving our diverse neighborhood.  I am writing this post from the McDonald’s next to the supermarket. At the tables near me are an elderly African-American couple eating Chicken McNuggets, two Asian dudes with Big Macs, and a Muslim woman wearing a scarf and drinking a Strawberry-Banana smoothie.  America:  Unity in Bad Nutrition.

But something has changed on our block. Something sad. The supermarket has decided to take the flags down — all of them. I have no idea if this has anything to do with the vandals, but whatever the reason, it’s as if New York City has decided to dismantle the Statue of Liberty because it was too much trouble to protect it from being graffiti.

There is a symbolism here that bothers me.  It is a culture that extends from name-calling on social media to the destruction of ancient relics in the Middle East.    It is the power of destruction over creation.

In his song, Imagine, John Lennon wrote the powerful lyrics,

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too”

He also imagined the flags coming down. But he imagined it happening because of love and peace, not because too many of the flags were getting ripped down in anger and hate.

6 Comments

  1. I feel sad, as though maybe those little flags coming down symbolizes the end of the hope of peace forever.

  2. Maybe you should ask the manager of the grocery why they are removing the flags.

  3. I’ve seen America polarized before. I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s. The John Birchers two doors down from us. The anti-Catholics in the 1960 election. There were knockdown/ drag outs at our kitchen table in Midwest suburbia over Viet Nam and Tricky Dick. But, I’ve never seen it so comfortable in its polarization, nor so entitled. We at least knew that we were disagreeing with someone we cared for and liked or loved- our dad, our neighbor, our best friend’s brother-and it weighed on us, making us reexamine the position we’d taken. Now we seem to have a bunch of zealots screaming their mantras, protecting their molehills, and nobody’s listening.

  4. Beautiful and sad. xoxo

  5. “America: Unity in Bad Nutrition” – Somewhere in the deep South there’s a politician who just experienced a sudden wave of sadness. How will he ever know that it was because he’ll never meet you.

    I’m sorry about the flags. It sucks when our little symbols are squashed by the city.

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