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The making of a promised land: religious responses to gentrification and neighborhood ethnic diversity.

Since the 1980s, Flushing, Queens, has been the site of a new and revived commercial zone. Its prosperity reflects not only the successful investment of Taiwanese and Korean merchants, but also the formation of a new Asian community with a unique kind of religious pluralism. This article, consisting primarily of case studies, seeks to understand how immigrant congregations/temples are responding to the increasing racial/ethnic diversity in Flushing, Queens, which results from the global processes of migration/immigration.

Throughout its history, New York has always been a city of immigrants and one of the gateway cities in the United States. The flow of immigrants has changed not only the demographics of New York, but has also revitalized the practices of faith groups. My research has found that Flushing is not a "satellite city" of the traditional Chinatown (Manhattan) as described by sociologist Jan Lin. By studying the faith groups in Flushing, this essay argues that the rise of Flushing has created a promised land for Taiwanese enterprisers in the 1980s and 1990s and has more recently became a new center for ethnic Chinese immigrants after September 11, 2001.

The 2000 United States Census Bureau ranked Queens County as the ninth most populous county in the United States with over 2.2 million residents. According to the Census Bureau, Queens County experienced over a 14 percent increase in population since the 1990 census. The 2000 Census also reflected the growth of the Asian population in Queens County with over 391,500 people identifying themselves as Asian Americans. More than half of Flushing's population is Asian American, and many of the neighborhoods around Flushing also have a large number of Asian American residents. It is also claimed that Flushing has the largest ethnic Chinese community in the New York metropolitan area, surpassing the number in Manhattan's Chinatown. Today, Flushing is the second-largest town with Chinese ethnic residents in the United States. (1) With these dramatic changes in Flushing, I intend to examine how immigrant faith groups interact with the increasing racial/ethnic diversity in this dynamic section of the city.

Vision and the evolution of research method

As Lowell Livezey stressed in his previous study, since World War II, changes in American cities has been so fundamental as to be termed "urban restructuring." "Both structural changes are further linked to the social transformation of the 1960s and 1970s, which extended the presumption of individual autonomy and the moral legitimacy of personal choice at the expense of traditional collective authorities, including religion" (Livezey 2000). Despite its differences from other cities, Flushing exemplifies the processes of urban restructuring identified by Livezey and his team in Chicago: religious restructuring and social transformation with which religious organizations must interact if they are to participate effectively in urban life. In this study, congregations, throughout the city are made up of people who are financially successful but always on the move. Recent immigrants in Chicago are highly mobile and widely distributed as well. Thus the local ties of the more prosperous congregation of all faiths are weakened by the centrifugal forces of people on constant reassignment and the speed of capital allocation (Livezey 2000).

As Livezey pointed out, in the last decades of the twentieth century, a new metropolitan structure was emerging, one that was highly decentralized and multipolar, with edge cities and other concentrations of employment and commerce distributed throughout the metropolitan area (Livezey 2000). just as the Chicago School methods were adapted to study churches by Graham Taylor arriving in Chicago in 1892 to teach at Chicago Theological Seminary, the Religion in Urban American Program, directed by Livezey, continued this history of religious and community research in Chicago, paying particular attention to the responses of religious organizations to the processes of post-war urban and religious restructuring and social transformation (Livezey 2000).

In 2006, Livezey launched the Ecologies of Learning Project as another attempt to study faith groups and communities. We made ethnographic case studies of congregations the core of our investigations in order to see urban religion as much as possible "from the native's point of view" as Geertz said. Livezey also believed that the ethnographic method helped us to be equally attentive to self-initiated mission and adaptive strategies and to analyze a full range of public actions, including cultural production as well as social services and community organizing.

So what is the story in New York? Are the local ties of the faith groups weakened by the centrifugal forces of people on constant reassignment and the speed of capital allocation? Since the intention of the Ecologies of Learning Project is to study congregations in relation to their geographic and social contexts, we first selected neighborhoods that would represent the city's range of social, economic, demographic and religious characteristics. From 1880 to 1920, close to a million and a half immigrants arrived and settled in the city, so by 1910 fully 41 percent of all New Yorkers were foreign born. More than two and a half million have arrived since 1965. A survey of New York City households taken by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1999 has revealed that 40 percent of the city's 7.4 million people are now foreign-born. The top five groups in 1990--Dominicans, Chinese, Jamaicans, Italians, and those arriving from the USSR--were just under 30 percent of all post-1965 arrivals there. In 1998, the top five groups are Dominicans, people from the former Soviet Union, Mexican, Chinese, and Guyanese.

Ethnic Chinese immigrants in New York City

From 1990 to 2000, the Chinese population in New York City rose from 232,908 to 374,321, or 61 percent--far more than the city's overall 9 percent increase but less than the 71 percent expansion of the city's total Asian population. In 1998, the number went up to 159,973, which was more than 17 percent population growth. (2) Asians comprised nearly a quarter of the city's post-1964 foreign-born population. By 1998, foreign-born Chinese (China, Hong Kong and Taiwan) living in New York City comprised more than twice the number of any other Asian immigrant group. In fact, in 1990 New York had the largest Chinese population among American cities (Foner 2000).

Asians coming to America, including Chinese, have increasingly settled in Queens, New York. From 1990 to 2000, the Asian population in Queens jumped by 83 percent. We have witnessed the concentration of Asian residences and the new formation of Asiantown in Queens. In 2000, half of Asian New Yorkers lived in Queens, where Asians constituted 19 percent of the population.

The investment of a new promised land

Flushing, Queens, has a long history of religious diversity. Flushing was the first battle ground for religious liberty in the American colonies. This ideological battle began just two blocks north of Bowne Street Community Church (BSCC), one of the case studies in this essay, in 1662 at the home of John Bowne. The American colonists in the 1660s had not yet become supporters of the principle of freedom of religion, including the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. John Bowne built his home in the farm village of Flushing in 1662 and immediately he and other fellow Quakers began meeting there. He was later jailed because he refused to abstain from having the Quaker meeting at his home. In many lectures, historian Scott Hanson refers to Flushing as "the most religiously diverse community in America...There are over 200 places of worship in a small urban neighborhood about 2.5 square miles." (3) Today, you can find the Quaker Meeting House, St. George Episcopal Church, the Free Synagogue of Flushing, St. Andrew Avellino Roman Catholic Church, and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, existing side-by-side with immigrants' churches, Buddhist Hindu, and Sikh temples in Flushing.

However, as for the early Taiwanese developers, the decision on investing in Flushing seemed to be a secular one. The capital investment of Taiwanese immigrants in downtown Flushing is a significant element in the commercialization of this area. Korean immigrants were also involved in this hot market (Chen 1992). Flushing was declining in 1980s. In the eyes of Taiwanese immigrant developers, Flushing is a place serving as an important transportation hub in Queens, a location with great potential to realize their dream in the United States, and a promised land for economic and social well-being.

Gentrification in the area can be traced to a Taiwanese developer and the savings he brought with him from his home country. During the 1930s through the 1950s, the neighborhood had been predominantly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant and most churches had large, active memberships. In 1981, there were only two restaurants in downtown Flushing; by 1998, this area had became the fifth-largest shopping area in New York City. How did this development take place? One man, Tommy Huang, created a real-estate empire in Queens by raising hundreds of buildings, a tale begun on Main Street in Flushing. No one could have predicted that the twenty-seven-year-old Huang would create New York's second Asiantown in 1990s. There are two reasons for the concentration and investment of Taiwanese business capital in downtown Flushing. First of all, since the late 1970s, because of the development of Taiwan's economy, these familial-type of immigrants were middle-class people who owned private capital; therefore, they emigrated from Taiwan with their fortunes. This middle-class population lost their old business networks when they migrated, but real estate was still a business in which they prospered. Second, in the 1980s, a global immigration market where nation-states competed with each other to attract potential business immigration emerged. Immigrant visas became ever more available to people with financial resources who were willing to invest in the host country. (4)

Chinese immigrants increasingly moved to Flushing for business and for residence. In 2006, the Chinese population made up 57 percent (63,811) of the entire Asian population in Flushing. In 2006, we find that in Community District 7 of Flushing, residents were composed of 57 percent Chinese, 26 percent Korean, 8 percent Indian, 4 percent Filipino and 5 percent other Asian immigrants.

The making of a religious promised land

In Reconstructing Chinatown, Jan Lin argued that the emergence of satellite Chinatowns in the outer boroughs of New York City is mainly an outcome of congestion in the core Chinatown of Manhattan. As Lin pointed out, the emergence of gateway town conforms with an emerging area of primary settlement for new immigrants to the metropolis. Examples of this are Crown Heights for West Indians and "little Odessa" in Brighton Beach for Russian Jews. These trends contrast with classic urban suppositions that inner-ring suburbs (such as New York's outer boroughs) would be areas of secondary settlement for upwardly mobile immigrants (Lin 1998).

Although Flushing today has become a gateway for new flows of labor and capital that are leapfrogging the core, I disagree with Lin's claim that Flushing, called a satellite Chinatown, was initially formed as an area of secondary settlement. The investment in Flushing was based on a developer's careful calculation that Taiwanese immigrants were seeking a politically, socially, and ethnically different settlement area than that of "traditional Chinatown," where most of the old settlers were from Taishan, Canton, and Hong Kong.

Lin correctly observed the emergence of a satellite, such as the new Chinatown on Eighth Avenue in Brooklyn (or some called Sunset Park Chinatown). The satellite is an extension of both the lower and upper circuit of the enclave economy; restaurants and garment sweatshops can be found in satellite Chinatowns, as well as transnational banks and foreign investors. Lin also stressed that residential and economic decentralization on a fundamental level is determined by ecological variables of population density, scarcity of housing, and high land values in the urban core. Residential out-movers are additionally motivated by preferences for privacy and space; their outward geographic mobility, enabled by household savings, also reflects upward social mobility. Economic out-movers follow somewhat in the path of residential decentralization; small enterprises find that labor is available in the outer boroughs, and banks similarly find that residents there have monetary saving to deposit and invest (Lin 1998).

Yet I will argue that Flushing was not just a satellite of old Chinatown in the 1980s or 1990s. It was a political, economic and social center for Taiwanese immigrants. In late 1990s. Flushing has received more and more new Chinese immigrants not only from southern China but also northern China. The shifting center of Chinese Christian Herald Crusades and Ci Hang Jing She reflects the story of transitions. A revitalized Taiwanese Buddhist group, Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, has also established its Flushing office as the regional center in early 1990s.

Bowne Street Community Church

This essay will use the Bowne Street Community Church as a case study to understand the development and recent changes of Flushing. The history of Bowne Street Community Church (BSCC) reflects the gentrification in Flushing (see Figure 1). According to my interview with Rev Wei-dao Chang, a pastor at the church, BSCC has a long history reflecting the process of cultural succession and retention. The Protestant Dutch Reformed Church of Flushing was first organized on May 20, 1842. There were seven members, three men and four women. All seven came by transfer of letter from other churches, three being Presbyterian and four Dutch Reformed. In 1851, a number of persons withdrew their membership and joined with others in forming the first Congregational Church of Flushing.


In 1974, the two congregations merged back together and formed The Bowne Street Community Church associated with both the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America. The reason the two churches merged was the changing character of Flushing. During the 1960s and 1970s, Flushing began to become home to what is now one of the largest Asian populations in the United States. The resulting decline in membership of both congregations was the incentive for the merger. The history of the church itself reflects the change of its neighborhood in the late 1970s and 1980s.

In 1978, a group of Taiwanese immigrants formed the Zion Christian Church with services in Taiwanese. Zion Christian church began using BSCC's facilities for worship services about 1983. At the same time another Korean congregation used the facilities of BSCC. In 1988, Zion Christian church officially merged with BSCC to form a unified, bilingual, congregation. Later, the Korean group left BSCC.

Today BSCC is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, bi-lingual congregation with a membership from Asian, Caucasian, Black and other ethnic backgrounds. According to Pastor Chang, the major group within the congregation is Taiwanese American.

Reverend Chang has since left BSCC. According to my interview with him, there were about 200 people in the congregation in 2001 (before September 11). Sixty-five to 75 percent are ethnic Chinese, while 35 to 25 percent are various ethnicities. Among ethnic Chinese, 85 to 90 percent are Taiwanese American. In the English section, more than 50 percent are second generation Taiwanese American. Some of them come back to church after returning from college out of town. The membership has declined since Flushing has gone through another demographic transition: the increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants completely outnumbering the Taiwanese immigrants. Although Taiwanese still remain the major developers in real estate and business owners in Flushing, the continued growth of Chinese immigrants from People Replica of China has changed the ethnic face of Flushing. Faith groups face the challenge of having to change their languages in services or see a decline of their memberships.

Bowne Street Community Church now has two pastors. One Taiwanese pastor serves Taiwanese members, and another English pastor serves the English group. BSCC has one full-time and one part-time secretary, and a board with twelve members who are elected to make decisions for the congregation. Since the change of population in the neighborhood, the decline of English speaking members has changed the character of the church. "We try to have six people from English service and six from Taiwanese. That is, sometimes second generation Taiwanese Americans have to represent themselves as other ethnic groups (non-Taiwanese American). They are all very fair-mined," said Reverend Chang.

Bowne Street Community Church has various programs to serve its neighborhood. It provides weekly Chinese classes and a Vacation Bible School. BSCC also holds occasional events. Reverend Chang said, "We hold shelter service with other churches, like Queens Borough church. We hold lectures regarding job hunting or running businesses. We lend the place to any group in this community. Last time, AA used our facility to run a panel about precautions against taking drugs." With a spacious facility and excellent location, BSCC has a great potential for growth.

In 2007, BSCC started looking for another Taiwanese-speaking pastor, which means that cultural retention, as a Taiwanese church with diversified ethnic groups, is the main intention of the congregation.

Chinese Christian Herald Crusades

Chinese Christian Herald Crusades (CCHC) was founded by Reverend Pak Cheung John Lo in 1982 in Chinatown, Manhattan, without any funding. With thirty-one full-time employees in 2001, CCHC (see Figure 2) is one of the most highly organized institutions among ethnic Chinese Christian groups. With a seven-story headquarters on Allen Street, this non-denominational organization serves as a networking and coordinating body for over one hundred ethnic Chinese churches in greater New York and has expanded its work on an international scale. CCHC has expanded branches beyond New York as well, now operating in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Texas, New England, Toronto, Vancouver, Europe and Panama.


CCHC's organizational structure

Chinese Christian Herald Crusades (see Figure 3) started its services in Flushing before September 11th. It rented offices on Price Street in downtown Flushing to extend its mission in Queens. Pastor Lou noticed the rapid growth of Chinese immigrants in Flushing. CCHC has held many community events, such as a weekly public forum with various secular community organizations, a mission to restaurants workers, cancer survivor missions, Flushing Herald Crusades Girl Scouts, English classes, computer-training and legal counseling. In 2006, the newly established community center, the Mission Center, reflected years of efforts by the CCHC to move into Flushing, aiming to serve all incoming non-believers.


Ci Hang Jing She (China Buddhist Association)

Master Mew Fung was the first Chinese Buddhist minister sponsored by the Taiwanese government to come to the United States. He founded the Buddhist Association of America and established three monasteries: Fa Wang Monastery in Chinatown in 1963, Ci Hang Jing She (CHJS) in Flushing in 1993, and Pin Woods Monastery in Hyde Park, New York. Ci Hang Jing She (see Figure 4) is located in a self-owned building near a very busy commercial area in downtown Flushing. Due to the location advantage, Ci Hang Jing She attracts many Taiwanese-speaking, Hong-kongese-speaking and Mandarin-speaking people to attend their activities. Besides their religious services, held daily, weekly, and monthly, they also provide some secular services, such as a Chinese school for children, and English classes for new immigrants.


In conversation the Shi Ming Tong, a senior monk at CHJS, he mentioned that there has been a dramatic attendances decrease in Fa Wang Monastery in Chinatown after the September 11 attack. CHJS has become a new center for newcomers to the China Buddhist Association. "We lost about two-thirds of [our] membership in Chinatown after September 11," said Shi Ming Tong. Although the registered membership is about 500 people in CHJS, participation in the Kwan Yin dharma ceremony is usually about 100. Around fifty to sixty people regularly attend their Sunday activities.

Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation

The Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, New York Region office, located in a four-story building in Flushing, operates under denominational hierarchies, known as the Tzu Chi Zhong (Tzu Chi School). The Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation (registered as Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, U.S.A., in the United States) is an international Buddhist relief organization founded in 1966 and based in Hualian, Taiwan, with millions of members in Taiwan and overseas (see Figure 5). Tzu Chi is the largest social group in Taiwan today with the control of $40 billion dollars (NT$120 billion) in funds with more than 300 Tzu Chi offices in forty countries and with over four missions and 300,000 certified volunteers worldwide. (5) In the United States, its assets are over $52 million. Because of the successful voluntarism, which was started in Taiwan and reinforced in the New York Branch, Tzu Chi-New York has extended its social services to disaster relief, poverty relief, medicine, humanity school, cultural, youth, and children.


Although Tzu Chi-New York operates under denominational hierarchies, one of important missions is be the "lead" of northeastern regional expansion. The Executive director of Tzu Chi-NY, Ji-Duo Chang, stresses that "Tzu Chi Flushing is acting like regional commend center to consolidate the resources, to serve other branches or offices, and to facilitate the regional development." In last few years, Tzu Chi-New York has ambitiously extended self-owned Tzu Chi Centers (Tzu Chi Hui Sou) in New Jersey, Flushing, Long Island, Boston, and Philadelphia, where Taiwanese immigrants are located. High-profile Tzu Chi New York commissioners have been seeking a location in Chinatown, Manhattan, for months. "The price is not an issue. We are still looking for a larger space in a right location," said one Tzu Chi New York commissioner.

With over 20,000 members in Tzu Chi New York, Tzu Chi has been trying to recruit more and more new Chinese immigrants. "Over 95 percent of our current members are Taiwanese Americans," said Director Chang. Although the majority of Flushing residents are Chinese immigrants, there are some practical challenges for Chinese immigrants to be involved in a social-service-oriented Buddhist organization. The Sichuan earthquakes might have changed this. Further investigation on volunteerism and charitable behavior among Chinese is required to understand how the recent tragedy may be changing the values of new Chinese immigrants.


The practice and spread of various religions in the ethnic Chinese community in New York certainly reflect the needs of ethnic Chinese immigrants. The hardship during settlement after immigration leads many immigrants, as a few studies have shown, to be more religious in some ways. As many immigrants found themselves uprooted from the old networks or frustrated in adopting a new life, new religious movements and groups emerged to meet these needs.

There is a multidimensional diversity that we have to recognize when a researcher studies the ethnic Chinese community in New York, which includes denominational, linguistic, social-cultural, social-economic, and social-political diversity. Unless religious groups can work with these diversities, they will limit themselves within certain ethnic Chinese groups. In responding to the increasing racial/ethnic and economic diversity in Flushing, the development of social services is important in terms of attracting members. CCHC is just one of example of churches that are shifting from the mission center in Chinatown, Manhattan, to Flushing, Queens. CCHC has created Cantonese opera for older senior immigrants in Chinatown. As for newcomers in Flushing, like Fuzhouese and Wenzhouese, who have less capital and usually do blue-collar work, CCHC and FBC created special small groups for Fuzhouese restaurant workers and Wenzhouese manufactory workers, which both successfully cross cultural and economic boundaries in ethnic Chinese immigrant society.

As for the sociopolitical diversity, ethnic Chinese immigrants are from everywhere in Asia; hence, they have various political identities and can hardly build any solidarity in political action. CCHC promotes a pan-ethnic-Chinese (Huanren) identity among their membership. The obstacle to overcoming sociopolitical diversity is due to the historical production of geopolitical differences. CCHC promotes a religious (Christian) and cultural Chinese identity among immigrant society which intends to expand across national and ethnic boundaries without stepping into historical disputes about political identities.

According to many previous studies on immigrant religions, the functions of religions can be understood in the following possible terms. First, religion, as its invocation is concerned with human destiny and welfare, provides support, consolation, and reconciliation. Second, religion offers a transcendental relationship through ceremonies of worship and thereby provides the emotional ground for a new security and firmer identity. Third, religion sacralizes the norms and values of established society, maintaining the dominance of group goals over individual wishes, and of discipline over individual impulses. Fourth, religion performs important identity functions. (6)

In responding to the increasing racial/ethnic and economic diversity in Flushing, the development of social services is important in terms of member attraction. The Christian churches provide a lot of congregational opportunities and social services, such as language training and computer training. CCHC and Tzu Chi Foundation have created organizations that provide many social service programs. Some churchgoers told me that they had chosen certain churches based on their social services. Some parents show up in churches in order to get their children signed up for summer camp or after-school programs. Some stayed after the programs to become members, while others didn't.

The Bowne Street Community Church/Zion Church presents a church that is the successor to the old Bowne Street Community Church yet intends to preserve its identity based on country of origin; therefore, cultural preservation suppresses the concept of "expansion" or "growth" in this diverse neighborhood. Ci Hang Jing She is struggling with the shift of its operation center to Flushing since September 11.

Centuries ago, Flushing was a battleground for religious liberty. For almost three decades, Flushing continues to be a promised land, an ethnic enclave, for new immigrant developers to invest and establish their businesses and homes. It is also a religious promised land for faith groups to serve their people, and a religious promised land for individuals who immigrated from hundreds of thousands of miles to build their worship homes and find salvation on fresh soil.

Works cited

Chen. H.-S., 1992, Chinatown No More: Taiwan Immigrants in Contemporary, New York: Cornell University Press.

Foner, N., 2000, From Ellis Island to JFK: New York's Two Great Waves of Immigration, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Lin, J., 1998, Reconstructing Chinatown: Ethnic Enclave, Global Change, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Livezey, L. W., ed., 2000, Public Religion and Urban Transformation, New York: New York University Press.


(1.) U.S. Census Bureau.|04000US36|50000US3605&_street=&_county=&_cd=50000US3605&_cityTown=&_state=04000US36&_zip=&_lang=en&_sse=on&ActiveGeoDiv=&_useEV=&pctxt=fph&pgsl=500&_content=&_keyword=&_industry=/.

(2.) Resource is based on U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1900 & March 1998.


(4.) Yen-Fen Tseng, "Commodification of Residency: An Analysis of Taiwan's business Immigration Market," Taiwanese: A Radical Quarterly in Social Studies (September 27, 1997).

(5.) Himalaya Foundation, Accessed on October 20, 2007.

(6.) Thomas F. Odea, The Sociology of Religion (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1966), p. 15.
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Author:Huang, Weishan
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2008
Previous Article:The construction of sacred space in the urban ecology.
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