Little Manila: My Home Away From Home
As I stepped off the 7 train from the 69th Street station for the first time, I was instantly greeted by familiar sights and sounds. There were honking cars, rain clouds looming over the city, shouts in Tagalog and people bustling about. Brightly colored signs boasting familiar Tagalog words called out to me, promoting food, travel, law services and makeovers. The atmosphere enveloped me, as if reaching its arms out and pulling me into a hug. I stopped at the base of the staircase to take it all in. As a new arrival in New York City, I had never been to Queens. I’m a California native, and my move to Pratt has been my first taste of the East Coast. I’ve been navigating completely new experiences: being three hours ahead of my friends and family; figuring out the subway system that is similar, but not exactly like the public transportation back home; the sheer diversity of people I’ve met or seen from a passing glance.
However, I felt a wave of nostalgia that day in Queens as I walked underneath the train overpass. Something in the way the humidity clung to my skin, in the parols that adorned the inside of the Filipino grocery store, in the “Come in as strangers, leave as friends” sign in the restaurant I visited, brought me home. This home I speak of is not a specific location; it is a feeling, an environment, a way of life. This is Little Manila. This is where a part of me yearns to be, surrounded by people who speak a familiar language and come from a similar background. Little Manila is a small area within Woodside, Queens with a condensed Filipino population. It starts on 63rd Street, with the Filipino fast food stable Jollibee, and stretches all the way to Freddie G Lucero Unisex Beauty Salon on 71st Street. The Asian Immigration Act of 1965 saw an increase in New York’s Filipino population, as an influx of people left the Philippines to start a new life. Filipinos flocked to New York, specifically Queens, because the area was convenient for their new jobs. Woodside is not far from Elmhurst Hospital, the place where many immigrants found jobs in healthcare. Many Filipinos also moved to America to send money back home to their families. Employment was easier to find in America and paid more than many jobs in the Philippines.
Today, Queens has the largest population of Filipinos in all of New York, with roughly 50,000-70,000 people. Roosevelt Avenue, in particular, is chock-full of Filipino establishments. There are eateries with the familiar smell of garlic and vinegar permeating in the air, and bakeries with fresh pan de sal sitting on bakery shelves. There are beauty salons with skilled workers that shower their clients with compliments (“maganda ka!”) and postal companies where people can send balikbayan boxes full of medicine, food, clothing and toys, many of which are hard to obtain in the Philippines, back home. Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike also flock to Little Manila’s restaurants, each of them filled to the brim with delicious food, lively conversation and immense hospitality. You can go to Renee’s Grill and Kitchenette to pick up some tapsilog for breakfast, stop by Kabayan for some beef kaldereta for lunch and finally settle down at Ihawan for a traditional kamayan-style meal for dinner.
On the corner of 70th and Roosevelt, Phil-Am Food Mart carries all the essential Filipino groceries, like white vinegar, frozen lumpia, mang tomas sauce and Mama Sita spice packets. Shoppers are greeted with an array of baked goods and sweets as soon as they enter the store, from the fluffy ensaymada to the rich and flaky hopia. Instant champorado mixes, spice packets and bottled calamansi extract line the shelves, along with comically large jugs of vinegar. Pre-prepared arroz caldo and ginataang sit in refrigerated shelves, waiting to be picked up and devoured. The back of the store holds frozen lumpia and adobo sio pao, finding home next to the pancit and sotanghon noodles.
It’s everything a homesick Filipina, like me, could ever want.
I come from Daly City, California, the city in the United States with the largest Filipino population outside of the Philippines. I grew up surrounded by familiar food, language and culture. Moving to New York marked the first time in my life that I was separated from that. Walking through Little Manila gave me the odd sensation of being home. I walked down Roosevelt Avenue, rain falling hard as if I was truly in the Philippines, a sense of déjà vu overtaking me. Middle-aged people lounged on the sidewalk, sitting on a chair next to a large blue cooler, selling popular Filipino street foods like taho, balut and garlic peanuts. The people in Little Manila spoke a language that sounded like home, sold food that my nanay makes and exuded a sense of togetherness. It was a place where Filipino culture was preserved and given the space to thrive.
Unfortunately, Little Manila is in danger of disappearing. Rising rent costs and real estate developments have caused the eight-block stretch to shrink. Many Filipinos and other Woodside residents have proposed an idea: establish Little Manila signs around the neighborhood to encourage visitors to come and explore Philippine culture and cuisine. Little Manila is the unofficial name of the area given by the residents that live there; there is no Little Manila on the map like there is a Chinatown or a Little Italy. Without a true name and boundaries, the area simply does not exist on maps, and, by proxy, in the minds of most people.
If the rising rent and usurpation of properties continues, Little Manila, a historically and culturally important part of New York, may disappear forever. Filipino identity and culture as established in Queens may be lost to corporate greed. By giving Little Manila an official name and location on a map, and not solely relying on word of mouth, more people will be interested and check out what the area has to offer. Bringing Little Manila into the public eye is paramount for its preservation and growth, and may help people like me to return home.
If you’re ever around the Woodside area, take a trip to Little Manila. Experience the sights, sounds and tastes of the Philippines, and immerse yourself in the rich history of this wonderful country. From its humble beginnings more than fifty years ago, Little Manila has blossomed into a thriving community keeping the atmosphere and culture of the Philippines alive in New York. Magkita-kita tayo sa Little Manila!
Art by Dizzy Starfie