By JOSEPH BERGER Published: January 7, 2011 in The New York Times
New York is a place of constant change, an ever-shifting mosaic of immigrants, ethnic groups, strivers who make their mark and move on.
Except in East Elmhurst, Queens.
This neighborhood of Cape Cods and small stucco homes was among the first where African-Americans could buy homes. So they bought here in the 1970s. And never left.
Residents of an East Elmhurst census tract stay in their homes the longest of residents of any of the more than 2,000 census tracts in New York City, according to an examination of recently released data from Census Bureau surveys from 2005 to 2009. The median move-in date for homeowners there is 1974 — more than 36 years ago.
The neighborhood, an enclave of unfussy two-story houses that lies just below La Guardia Airport, is populated by the same families who planted the seedlings that are today’s lush hedges and towering trees.
George and Gloria Dixon moved into their modest Cape on 100th Street in 1977, the year Gerald R. Ford turned over the presidency to Jimmy Carter, “Star Wars” was the must-see film and the cold war was more than a chapter in a history book. To people like Jimmy Smith, 81, a former city bus driver who has lived in the neighborhood since the late 1940s, “we’re the new kids on the block,” Mr. Dixon, 61, said, chuckling.
This is a city of departures and arrivals, so that tiny slice of East Elmhurst — which should not be confused with the more Asian and Latino Elmhurst to the southwest — is an aberration.
The average New York City homeowner has lived in the same house since 1995, almost 20 years after the average family moved in to the Dixons’ tract in East Elmhurst. (After the East Elmhurst tract, the census tracts that rank next for stability of residency are in Cambria Heights in Queens on the Nassau County border, where the median resident moved in 1976, and Schuylerville in the Bronx near the Throgs Neck Bridge, where the median move-in year was 1979, said Andrew A. Beveridge, a Queens College demographer.)
More typically, people stay in New York just long enough to leave their stamp — or have their fill. Others hopscotch from apartment to apartment, and borough to borough, depending upon finances, needs and aspirations. And for those born and raised in the city, the old neighborhood is very often a place to visit, not a place to settle down.
East Elmhurst owes its stability to its history and its population.
It is predominately black; of the 1,537 people living in the Dixons’ census tract, 46.8 percent are black, the latest analysis of census data shows.
Some former residents are celebrated. Malcolm X once lived in a peppermint-green stucco on 97th Street. Eric H. Holder Jr., the United States attorney general, grew up on 101st Street. At various times, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Belafonte and Willie Mays all lived in East Elmhurst or adjacent Corona.
But many of the long-timers still living in East Elmhurst were subway train drivers and parks attendants who worked to stitch together down payments for their first houses — an opportunity that drew them to the neighborhood in the first place.
“This is one of the few areas where blacks could come in and not be ostracized,” said Mrs. Dixon, who remembers seeing signs on houses she looked at on Long Island that said “No Blacks Allowed.”
The fact that so many of the neighbors were toughened by the same experience forged tight bonds and a sense of community, residents said.
“It took their last dollars to buy their house and they want to protect that house and they want their neighbors to do the same,” said Helen M. Marshall, the borough president of Queens, who lives a couple of blocks from the Dixons in a house on Gillmore Street that she and her husband bought 50 years ago.
That may also explain why so many residents are active in political clubs, block associations and community groups. The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, a leader in the redevelopment of Harlem, grew up in East Elmhurst. Mr. Dixon, a tall, trim man with a goatee, is a Democratic district leader.
Most residents, though, say they are devoted to the neighborhood for the same reasons that any homeowner might cite. They relish the pleasures of a grassy backyard, the quiet of not having neighbors piled on floors above and the views of the Manhattan skyline.
“A finished basement was a big deal,” said Danielle Gabbin-Burton, 49, an assistant director of a local senior citizens center. Her father, a bus driver, and mother, a nurse, moved to a house on 97th Street in 1964 when she was 3, and today she and her husband, Anthony, who works in the Department of Parks and Recreation, live in the same house.
Others mention the solid schools. And for entertainers whose gigs take them around the nation, La Guardia’s terminals are a five-minute walk over a footbridge.
But mentioned most is a strong sense of neighborhood camaraderie, cultivated by connections to churches, civic groups and veterans’ halls, that defies the alienation and lonesomeness of the New York City stereotype.
Neighbors talk about how it is taken for granted that they will help one another. Mr. Smith, the former bus driver who has lived in three houses in East Elmhurst, said he had an understanding with the family next door that “when it snows, whoever goes out first will clear the snow in the driveway.”
“It’s a neighborly attitude,” he added.
Mr. Dixon, who worked for many years as a communications engineer for Hughes Aircraft and now owns a graphic design business, has held a summertime barbecue for the past 15 years — crabs, lobster, ribs and shrimp. Some years, 125 people go to feast among his apple, cherry and pear trees, so he needs to borrow his neighbor’s backyard. He reciprocates by letting the neighbor borrow his backyard on similar occasions.
Neighbors also look out for one another’s children. “Everybody on the block is your parent,” Mr. Dixon said.
Perhaps it is these virtues that have kept East Elmhurst vibrant, even as its longtime residents age with their homes. Indeed, the population is older than in many other neighborhoods in the city: the median resident is 52.4 years old, compared with 35.6 for the city as a whole, largely because people come and never leave.
“I hate to say it, but people die here,” Mr. Dixon said.
In recent years, however, some older residents have been retiring to warmer climates or scaling back to apartments. Muriel C. Pinnock, 79, a widow and onetime preschool teacher who had been living on 100th Street since 1959, moved several years ago to an apartment in nearby Jackson Heights, to a building that had an elevator and a superintendent — though she still shows up every day at the Elmcor Senior Citizens Center to join friends from the old neighborhood.
And as in other neighborhoods, many of the children of the old-timers, after going away to college and graduate school, have chosen to live elsewhere. Jimmy Smith’s daughter, Gisele, is a psychiatrist in the Philadelphia area. Helen Marshall’s son, Donald, designs satellites in California. Their parents’ houses are now being bought up by Dominicans and other newer strivers.
But residents like Mr. Dixon and Mr. Smith say the newcomers have adopted the veterans’ sensibility, making it easy for them to linger.
“There must be something in the air, because we won’t leave it,” Mr. Dixon said. “We’ve traveled all over the world and all over the United States, and guess where we’re going to be? Here.”