New Immigrant Mansions Trigger Tension in Forest Hills

An ad for home remodeling in the Bukharian Times newspaper. Photo Credit: Bukharian Times

An ad for home remodeling in the Bukharian Times newspaper. Photo Credit: Bukharian Times

Wet cement fumes rise and mingle with the syrupy scent of crab apples, which drop from Forest Hills’ scrawny trees en masse and ferment in residential gutters. Several antique Tudor homes on these quiet streets display construction permits. But the charm of their Gothic gables and quaint brick blanches in comparison to the large homes built by the neighborhood’s newest neighbors. Glistening pink marble, Romanesque columns, Palladian windows, and stone lion gargoyles butt up against the hedge, looming large, loud and conspicuous.

An influx of Bukharian Jewish immigrants has compelled Queens residents to share their lawns, though some do so begrudgingly. Indifferent to established local aesthetics, many in the tight-knit Bukharian community build large mansions some say are incompatible with Forest Hills houses’ sedate romanticism – in so doing, they mount tension amongst neighbors.

A group recurrently marginalized in their native land Uzbekistan, Bukharians sought asylum in New York during the Soviet Union’s collapse from 1989 onward. Over 60,000 Bukharians now reside in Forest Hills and Rego Park; their presence is felt, though not always welcomed. Long time locals resent an immigrant out-group unapologetic for their cultural divergence.

Evidently, ‘Love thy neighbor’ doesn’t always mean love thy neighbor’s taste. The “Garage Mahals,” as less keen residents dub the homes, generally exceed 3,000 square feet, forsaking energy efficiency and choosing enormous rooms over lawn space.

Recent luxury developments in the neighborhood have brought discord to a tense simmer. The new Aston condominium on Queens Boulevard brings high-rise views and market rate hikes, and has heightened dissension amongst locals, who feel edged out: gentrification on one side, immigrant grandeur on the other.

“Lately whenever we drive through those parts of town, you see more mansions going up,” says Rob, 60, a 16-year Queens resident. He said that he empathized with them but that perhaps it may “sort of feel like a threat to our piece of the world.”

Many neighbors like Lancaster feel edged out on their own turf. Bukharians often bear the brunt of the blame, perhaps unfairly, though they say they have nothing for which to apologize. They keep to themselves, and build large behind high fences, though respecting local zoning laws. Bukharian real estate attorney Nathan Pinkhasov says they have tried to be  respectful, especially since they don’t want to escalate resentment within the community. “[We’re] not here to cause problems,” he said. “We just like to use all the space we can.”

Local government officials make continual attempts to mediate the conflict amongst their constituents. Cynthia Zalisky, executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, says she has made many attempts at soothing the Bukharian home discussion.

“It’s a very delicate situation, and we’ve spent a lot of time trying to make [Bukharian immigrants] feel comfortable,” says Zalisky. “But we also need to encourage their assimilation.”

Borough President Melinda Katz says the main priority is to foster a “more stable community.” Yet heated street talk, indignant anonymous blog comments, and general malaise were in fact the impetus behind a 2009 rezoning ordinance. Lobbied by frustrated community members, the Department of City Planning adjusted building requirements for the Cord Meyer area of Forest Hills, in an attempt to limit the “out of character” buildings’ spread and ensure future building sites “reflect the prevailing scale” of the area’s aesthetics – a proposal sans subtlety on the part of community leaders.

Representatives of the Bukharian community say that local governmental xenophobia should not disguise itself in bureaucratic red tape. Attorney Nathan Pinkhasov says land use laws were amended specifically to prevent the community’s building houses of conflicting aesthetic – especially since the Cord Meyer area is approximately 80 percent Bukharian.

“Part of it has to do with jealousy,” says Pinkhasov. “It’s a battle between older and newer generations, but even more, a disagreement over what’s considered beautiful.”

Many Bukharians bear more combative opinions, indignant that their tastes should be reined in. “Why should we apologize? Why should we feel ashamed?” asks Simon, 44. “Why should we be like everybody else? We want to be like us.”

“They pave over everything!” says a 20-year resident of Forest Hills, who said a brief building respite followed the 2009 ruling, but recently new lots have undergone the telltale construction. He declined to give his name on grounds of privacy, worrying his words would incense his neighbors.

In Forest Hills, caution tape marks off many older houses and announces new construction ©Sasha Pezenik 2015

In Forest Hills, caution tape marks off many older houses and announces new construction ©Sasha Pezenik 2015

For a group so long marginalized in their own land, building a new home becomes an important aspect of life. Boris Kandov, president of the Bukharian Jewish Congress, has cited the architecture as the product of the community’s dreams of affluence, safety, and symbolic freedom. Moreover, Bukharian culture revolves around family unity – on average, three or four generations will live together in one house. This necessitates at least five bedrooms – more room during high holy days and weekly Sabbath, when traditionally, extended family and friends feast and celebrate as one.

“Any reason to gather together, they will,” says Yaniv Meirov, Bukharian founder of the community nonprofit Chazaq and member of Community Board 6. “So a regular house won’t fit everyone. [People] need to understand that.”

Meirov says he encourages participation in local government, so Bukharians can have their voices and interests properly heard; some remain insular and do not actively participate in community legislation. “We need to be better represented.”

Yet most agree that no good can come of continually mounting tension across their white picket fences –  so Bukharian officials push for more voter registration, more community activism, and more intercultural involvement.

“We’ve got to be ambassadors for ourselves,” says Meirov. “Everyone needs to sit down at the same table.”