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Dominicans in Sunnyside and Woodside

Randy Jimenez and Pete Dzierzynski


     Over nearly twenty years, we, Pete Dzierzynski and Randy Jimenez, have lived in the community made up of Sunnyside and Woodside in southwestern Queens. Although we grew up no more than thirty minutes away from each other, our environments were very different. Pete grew up as a Caucasian living in a mixed community of Arabs, Caucasians, and Hispanics. Randy grew up as the child of Dominican immigrants in a community made up almost entirely of Dominicans. The work presented in this paper is the product of both almost twenty years of direct observation from various perspectives as well as three weeks of rigorous research. It is a survey of the speaking of languages other than English in this community, with a focus on the Spanish-speaking Dominican community.


     According to the New York City Department of City Planning's analysis of immigration to New York City in the early nineties, The Newest New Yorkers 1990 - 1994 (see The Newest New Yorkers 1990 - 1994, Executive Summary), the Dominican Republic was the top source of immigrants to New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, maintaining that position in the early 1990s. During the period from 1990 to 1994, immigrants from this Caribbean nation accounted for one in five immigrants, an increase of 52 percent over the annual average in the 1980s. When most people think of high concentrations of Dominican immigrants and their children they usually think of such neighborhoods as Washington Heights in Manhattan, Corona in Queens, or certain parts of the Bronx. They rarely think of the southwestern Queens neighborhoods of Woodside and Sunnyside, just east of Long Island City and south Astoria. Sunnyside and Woodside gained notoriety during the Great Depression when over half of the original tenants, mostly of Irish descent, were evicted because they weren't able to afford their mortgages. This left the neighborhoods open to immigrants from all over the world, and from the seventies on, open to a large influx of Hispanic immigrants. Sunnyside, zip code 11104, and Woodside, zip code 11377, extend from roughly from 39th street to 74th street. Although these neighborhoods have a great population of Dominicans, 1st generation and later, it is also home to several other immigrant groups, providing for an interesting blend of culture and language.

     The Dominican population in Woodside is very centralized, focused almost entirely within three square blocks of identical apartment buildings. These buildings, owned and operated by Cosmopolitan Associates, Inc., are located on the blocks of 46th and 47th Streets between 48th and 47th Avenues, 48th and 49th Streets between 47th and 46th Avenues, and 64th and 65th Streets between 39th Avenue and Broadway. These six-story buildings are identical and collectively surround grassy gardens and courtyards. According to residents and employees of Cosmopolitan Associates, an estimated 95% of the residents in these buildings are Dominican. Dominicans do live in other residences in Woodside, but the vast majority live in these buildings.

     This social unity among the Dominican community is also evident simply by walking the streets. One is likely to see friends hanging out on a street corner, people walking down the street, or young children with their parents, all speaking Spanish. The Dominicans in Woodside are more comfortable speaking Spanish among each other, just as many other highly concentrated ethnic groups are. This level of familiarity is evidence of a strong ethnic solidarity.


     The Dominican community in Woodside is very well represented in commerce. There are many different Spanish newspapers sold in the stores and newsstands. "El Diario", the most popular Spanish newspaper of American origin, is sold in most newsstands. Newspapers imported from the Dominican Republic, such as "El Listin Diario", "El Sol", "El Nacional", and "El Tiempo", are also available. There are newspapers in a variety of other languages, but we were unable to tell what the names of these publications were, because they were printed in languages like Chinese and Korean. Their presence, however, shows that non-English-speaking communities other than Dominicans have enough of a presence to warrant the sale of newspapers in their languages. There are a number of Dominican restaurants in Woodside, such as several simply called Dominican Restaurant, and others like Reyes Restuarante and Luisito Bar Restaurant. Several other restaurants, while not Hispanic owned restaurants per se, bear the influence by the Dominican community, as well as the other Spanish-speaking populations. Most restaurants, such as McDonald's, hire employees who can take orders in Spanish. Most of these establishments, however, are very small, with nothing fancier than a plastic tarp awning. Some of the fancier restaurants, such as Side Tracks Restaurant Bar and New York Style Eats, make no claims of catering to any non-English-speaking communities, Dominican or otherwise. There are several establishments for other ethnic groups in the neighborhood, such as a couple of Mexican and Colombian restaurants, a few pubs like McGuinness's which serve the local Irish-American community, and like everywhere else in the city, there is a Chinese restaurant on every other block. There are also several grocery stores that cater to the Dominican community, such as Smoke Shop, which has signs in their windows about what they sell, both in English and Spanish, though the latter is filled with misspellings and grammatical errors. There are also two Hispanic butcher shops, Carniceria "El Paisa" and Carniceria Las Americas on the same block as each other. Several small corner stores have Dominican flags in the windows, and signs proclaiming "Se Habla Español". Other ethnic groups have their own grocery stores, most notably the recent influx of Islamic immigrants, which brought about stores such as Fatema Halal Grocery and Everest Grocery Halal Meat. Other commercial services to the Dominican community include Greenpoint Electronics, which has signs for everything in both English and Spanish; Llamadas Internacionales Pronto Envio, which offers special long distance rates to several Latin American nations, but advises customers to "pagamos en dolares"; and Gil Travel & Business Services, a Spanish-speaking travel agency which helps arrange trips to visit family in the Dominican Republic and other Latin American nations.


     Catholic churches in Woodside, such as St. Theresa's Church, always offer Spanish Mass for their Dominican congregation. This is in contrast to the policy of churches nearer to the Astoria side of Woodside, such as St. Joseph's Church. There, there is a greater English-speaking community, and so the Spanish Mass is held in the auditorium of the attached school, because English Mass takes up the actual church. This illustrates the differences that can be caused by a very localized population, since the two parishes are not very far from each other at all. The Assembly Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses, or Salón de Asambleas de los Testigos de Jehová also services Spanish-speaking Jehovah's Witnesses in Woodside, as half of its signs proclaim.

     There are also Islamic services in Arabic held in Woodside, at locations such as Jame Masjid. However, these are, rather obviously, unrelated to the Dominican community, as they service a different and wholly separate Islamic community.


     There are a few elementary schools throughout Woodside and Sunnyside including PS 12, PS 229, PS 11, PS 151, PS 152, PS 150, and PS 199. PS 199 and PS 152 are the schools that serve the primary areas of Dominican concentration. All of these schools provide bilingual classes for Hispanic immigrants and children of Hispanic immigrants. However, all speakers of languages other than English and Spanish are placed together in remedial English programs. The local junior high school is IS 125 within one of the areas of Dominican concentration (47th street and 47th avenue) has a continued Spanish bilingual program as well as a Korean bilingual program and a general ESL program for those students who speak other languages. Private and Catholic schools, such as St. Theresa's Catholic School, provide remedial English programs but don't provide bilingual classes for specific languages.

Other Ethnic Groups

     While there is a strong Dominican community in Woodside, it is definitely not the only one. As we have mentioned, there are also significant Irish, Chinese, Korean, and Islamic populations, as well as large groups of Mexicans and Colombians. Besides those groups, there are also ethnic groups that are more concentrated in other nearby Queens neighborhoods. For example, there are many Indians and Pakistanis, though Jackson Heights is better known as a home to this group. Even so, they have a noticeable community, owning and operating a few small shops and selling a few publications in their native languages, as well as maintaining their culture. In a similar situation is the Greek population of Woodside, spilling over from nearby Astoria, as well as a few different Eastern European groups, who emigrated since the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are also other Spanish-speaking groups, such as Ecuadorians and Puerto Ricans. These groups, like the Mexicans and Colombians, are less distinguished from the Dominican community, at least to the outsider's point of view, due to the common language. There are also smaller African-American, Caribbean, and German populations, but these groups tend not to cluster and instead maintain their culture privately, within their own families.

Medical Services

     The Medical Institute that serves the neighborhoods of Sunnyside and Woodside is Elmhurst Hospital Center and affiliated clinics located at 79-01 Broadway in the Elmhurst neighborhood just east of Sunnyside (zip code 11373). Elmhurst Hospital Center provides interpreters fluent in over 30 languages, including Spanish. Hospital access to the AT&T language line increases this range of languages to 140 languages. Signage is printed in English, Chinese, Korean, and Spanish with Russian signs soon to come. In addition, most if not all of the hospital's printed reference materials for patients are prepared in English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean. The hospital also offers special bicultural mental health programs to Asian and Hispanic patients in Spanish and most Asian languages and dialects for both an inpatients and outpatients. The few private practices within the communities, for the most part, have members fluent in Spanish either because they are native speakers or because they have picked up a necessary level of fluency after years of serving the Spanish speaking community.


     There are a few organizations that provide services to immigrants in the neighborhoods of Sunnyside and Woodside. The American Immigrants group offers citizenship classes, legal services, and immigration services to Woodside residents in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. The Latin American Integration Center offers free immigration and citizenship services in Spanish to Hispanic immigrants in Woodside. The Sunnyside Community Services group offers legal and immigration services to immigrants in English, Chinese, French, Greek, Italian, Korean, Polish, Romanian, Russian and Spanish for free. The highly active Dominico-American Society, located in Corona, serves Dominicans in several neighborhoods of Queens including Woodside, Corona, and Elmhurst. They provide a variety of services to Dominican immigrants including citizenship, legal, job counseling, and immigration services all in Spanish. The Emerald Isle Immigration Center is a not-for-profit organization established in 1988. Its main goal is to provide immigration and legal services to Irish immigrants in the United States, but they also provide legal and immigration services in Spanish to residents of Woodside.

Government Services

     Like many other communities in Queens, voting and campaign materials are provided in many of the languages other than English that are spoken in Sunnyside and Woodside including Spanish, Korean, and Indian dialects. Because immigrants make up such a great part of these two communities, local representatives make a great effort to campaign to the different immigrant groups and to attend to issues pertinent to each group. The vast Dominican community is no exception. Social services and social service information, including welfare, are readily available in more than 30 languages. The social workers and interpreters are available in many languages including but not limited to Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Indian dialects. However, other services aren't offered in as many languages. The school system, New York City Board of Education, offers all of their information in English, Spanish, and Chinese. In addition, the school system offers translators in these languages and has an entire Spanish translation of the NYCBE website, http://www.nycenet.edu/spanish/. The local police force and court system have translators and officers available who speak Spanish, Chinese, and Korean but have to rely on relatives and social workers to provide interpretation. The Queensborough Public Library system has come a long way in the past few years. Books and periodicals are available in English, Chinese, French, Greek, Italian, Korean, Polish, Romanian, Russian and Spanish as well as other less commonly spoken languages. Services, programs, and publications from the library are available in many languages including Spanish and Chinese.

Case Study

     Tanni Calderon is representative of many Dominican immigrants who come to Woodside. He came to Woodside from a rural town in the Dominican Republic where he was a secondary school teacher to local children. He arrived here with his wife five years ago after the birth of his son in order to find financial opportunities and to assure that his son would have the educational opportunities. He didn't speak English when he came to America, only Spanish. Through a family member he was able to secure an apartment in one of the Cosmopolitan buildings on 47th Street and a job at a textile factory in Woodside. In the five years since his arrival, Tanni himself has not learned English. This is not because he is unable to grasp the concepts of the English language it is because he chooses not to. All his friends and neighbors speak Spanish. All of his coworkers speak Spanish. According to him, he hasn't encountered any real difficulties with not knowing English. But after five years he is still at that same factory. Although he and his wife mostly watch the Spanish channels that are widely available in New York, his son, who is now five and has begun kindergarten at PS 199, prefers to watch children's programming in English. Although Tanni does not watch these programs with his son, he picks up many of the English words his son learns from these programs as well as in the school bilingual program. Through his son, Tanni has acquired the ability to use code switching to a limited extent. His son, like many of the first generation Americans in the Dominican community, has probably already surpassed the highest level of English language skill his father will ever attain. Because of the environment presented in schools, the first generation is typically more interested in assimilating into American culture and also learns English more easily. Tanni is content where he is. He is happy that his son is progressing in English and will hopefully someday be successful in his chosen career. That is his only concern.


     Through both careful observation and diligent research, we have found that the Dominican population is a very significant part of the Woodside/Sunnyside community. It is very well represented in most societal capacities, such as education, commerce, religion, and medical facilities. However, we have also found that rather than being a dominant group, it is one of many diverse cultures living together in the neighborhood.

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