Friday, March 26, 2010

The Great Bukharan Bazaar (Part 1)

“This must be the longest subway ride I’ve ever taken to a foreign country,” remarks Dave as we are thundering along on the V train one chilly March afternoon.

“How many nationalities do you think there are in this one car?” I ask.

“I don’t know, maybe six or seven,” he says, glancing around at the brown, black, tan faces, stoic MTA commuters bundled up against the cold.

“I’m guessing more like fifteen, and we may be the only white people here."

We are on the initial leg of a foray into the Bukharan neighborhoods in New York. Our first stop: Forest Hills, Queens. Several weeks ago, in between shots of infused vodka at the Russian Samovar on West 52nd Street in Manhattan, it dawned on me that I really didn’t know squat about New York’s so-called ethnic communities—I hate the term “ethnic,” though it will have to suffice for now.

It was January 7th, and Russian Christmas was in full swing: the pianist pounded mournful Slavic tunes, the owner quietly read Gogol at a table in the corner, sleek young Russian women with waists no bigger in circumference than blini wove their way between the tables en route to the loo.

“Hey, Dave,” I said. “I want to know more about Russian life in New York. In fact, I’d like to know more about a lot of different communities in our fair city.” And thus was born this blog, which will weekly and maybe bi-weekly bring you chronicles and photos and posts about New York’s astonishing cultural diversity, and we do not mean Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue. Because Dave speaks fluent Russian—a language he learned as an undergraduate, studied further on the way to a Ph.D., and perfected during job postings in Moscow—we decide first to investigate New York’s Bukharans. He has a source of info on this community: his barber on 14th street and his watch repairman are from this group.

One of the most isolated Jewish communities in the world, the Bukharans were scattered throughout Central Asia for 2000 years, with concentrations in the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. They developed a special language scholars call Judeo-Persian, blending elements of Farsi and Hebrew, but also speak Russian. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, some 40,000 Bukharan Jews have settled in New York, arriving here from the former republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. And many of them are right here in Queens, in houses and apartments to either side of the broad and busy commercial strip along 108th Street.

Our first glimpse of the neighborhood is a bummer. Just a bunch of what looks like project housing and unremarkable storefronts interspersed among Dunkin’ Donuts, Rite-Aids, liquor stores, and other predictable strip emporiums. But look more closely….there is a beauty-parlor-cum-jewelry store, where a fur-hatted matron examines a bauble through a loup; there are windows filled with evening dresses and bridal gowns that look like spun sugar; here’s a downstairs banquet hall, in the process of being readied for some special celebration. And the Russian grocery stores! Pure enchantment….but more on these later.

Dave and I wander off the main drag in search of some spectacular houses we’ve read about in the Times. And there they are, just beyond the blocks of nondescript bland brick apartment buildings that could be anywhere in the city and are a blight on the landscape—why the hell can’t even low-rent housing be built with an eye to aesthetics? Commanding tiny lots in a neighborhood of sedate Colonials and bungalows that suggest any prosperous mid-Atlantic suburb, these sand-colored brick anomalies draw on a grab bag of architectural traditions.

They have Ionic columns and Palladian windows, marble balustrades and French mansard roofs, and the strangest shiny stainless steel gates that belong to no history of ornament I’ve ever seen. We spot an ultra-sleek structure with tall curving windows, suggesting a drug-fueled collaboration between Darth Vader and Robert Gwathmey, and another house that resembles an early Christian basilica with 20th-century brick wings. Most have small paved courtyards holding the neighborhood cars of choice—a late-model Mercedes or Lexus. A light shines from deep within some of these stately residences, but they are eerily empty, either newly built or their owners have fled to warmer climes for the season. We speculate that these are the houses and compounds of wealthy diamond dealers and wonder if Architectural Digest might like to pay a visit. Dave can’t stop snapping photos, but I am getting absurdly hungry. And so we are off in search of Bukharan eats.

IF YOU GO: Take the R or V train to 67th Avenue in Queens. From 42nd Street in Manhattan, the trip takes about 40 minutes. Head toward the residential neighborhood, to your right as you climb the subway steps, to find the McMansions.


stillsmokinhot said...

This is interesting, but I am amazed that the Russians in Azur were drinking scotch.

D said...

Fascinating part of New York, one most folks don't know about.... Hope they were drinking good scotch at that as I prefer vodka for sure

Anonymous said...

Why do you hesitate to use the word "ethnic"?

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Ann said...
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Anonymous said...

think this blog is clever, energetic, and well written. Plus I like the idea of doing a big chunk of a community. Better that than to rush through the richness of the city. And it makes you distinctive.

Three comments, two corrective.

1) It is the life work of the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consorzio (in addition to making cheese) to keep shopkeepers and supermarkets in the United States from saying things such as Reggiano Parmesan. It is incorrect, and implies that there is more than one Parmesan. There isn't. The battle is endless. And the erroneous signage an increasingly serious problem. Best, and most accurate, to say Parmigiano Reggiano (hyphen only in name of Consorizio).

2) Chilean Sea Bass (actually Patagonian Toothfish) is severely overfished, and on the critically endangered species list. In addition, most Chilean seabass in the U.S. market come from boats that are fishing illegally and do a lot of damage to seabirds because of the way they are rigged. I am so glad that you left it in the store.

3) I love Taam Tov. Yes, the food is more lusty than great, but there was an awful lot of pleasure in some of it.