Sunday, December 17, 2006

Queens, for a Day

By BOB BRODY, Op-Ed Contributor, New York Times

Published: December 17, 2006

EVERY holiday season without fail, tourists from all over the world pour into New York City. Visitors catch Broadway shows, admire the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and window-shop along Fifth Avenue. Hotels are booked and museums and restaurants are jammed. So it goes year-round too.

That’s all well and good, at least for Midtown Manhattan, but Queens is missing from this equation. As someone who lives in Queens, I can tell you that almost no tourist ever comes here to visit. Indeed, most out-of-towners regard New York City as synonymous with Manhattan. All they’re ever likely to see of Queens, both coming and going, are our airports. Once they hit Manhattan, they tend to stay put until it’s time to cross a bridge and head home.

That’s a shame, because Queens loses out to Manhattan on tourism dollars. More serious, by skipping Queens, tourists blow a chance to see the real New York City.

After all, Midtown Manhattan is more fantasy than reality. With its fabulous museums and fancy retailers, not to mention a white-collar work force that’s largely Caucasian, it’s practically a theme park.

Queens, on the other hand, though long stigmatized as an “outer borough,” is infinitely more representative of the city as a whole and increasingly of other major American cities as well. About 46 percent of Queens residents are foreign-born. More than half of immigrants arriving in Queens within the last five years speak a language other than English at home. Indeed, Elmhurst has a high school where students come from 96 countries and speak 59 languages.

Yet for most tourists, Queens remains an unexplored frontier. That’s in part because the city still regards promoting tourism to Queens as something of an afterthought. This year, the tourism budget for Queens, which is allocated by the city, is $33,000. (No, that’s not a typo.) Nobody in charge even has statistics on how many tourists annually visit Queens, much less how much they spend, because nobody seems to break out those numbers by borough. Not even New York City and Company, the city’s official tourism marketing agency, has any idea.

No wonder; the agency’s Web site lists 105 board and executive committee members, but only four live in or run businesses headquartered in Queens. Without a seat at the table where decisions are made, it’s hard to see how Queens can have a true voice in the city’s tourist trade.

New York City has to do a better job of getting Queens its due as a tourist destination. It could mean more jobs, and, frankly, the attention would improve our morale. So, with that in mind, here are some modest proposals to help put Queens on the map:

Settle for second billing. Let’s tout Queens not as an alternative competing directly with Manhattan — we’d never win, nor should we try to — but as an addition to it. It’s the perfect place to spend the second day in town, the second week or the second visit to the city.

Counter the perception that from Manhattan, Queens is out there. It’s not. Queens is easy to reach. It’s right across the East River. Play our underdog status as a trump card, even adding tongue-in-cheek signs on, say, the 59th Street Bridge that call Manhattan the gateway to Queens.

Trumpet our novelties. Let’s brag about how old Queens is (established in 1683), yet how new it all is, too (most of its buildings sprang up in the last 50 years); how populous it is (2.2 million people, larger than 16 states); and how, thanks to all its cemeteries, dead people here outnumber the living. And we’re home to the Unisphere, which is the largest globe in the world; the New York Hall of Science and the American Museum of the Moving Image.

Pitch the chance to witness life where New Yorkers actually live. After all, when you’re in Midtown, you’re more likely to rub shoulders with commuters and tourists than with real New Yorkers.

Promote the international angle to lend a sense of solidarity to visitors. When it comes to ethnic diversity, Queens is hands down best in show. You can buy saris on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, blini in Rego Park and empanadas in Corona. Any tourist interested in Asian cuisine should check out Flushing, home to more Chinese than you’ll find in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

All Americans, including city residents themselves, should consider a visit to Queens nothing less than a patriotic duty. More than reflecting America’s past, Queens is a civics lesson in multiculturalism, a one-of-a-kind preview of our country’s future.

Bob Brody is a public-relations executive.

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