The 7 train hovers over Jackson Heights like the commuter rail line in an Ozu film, the kind that ferries salarymen in and out of the Tokyo suburbs. The 150-year-old Queens neighborhood is structured in clearly inscribed contours radiating from the subway, like layers of an onion. Each of its five avenues is alive around the clock with its own unique hustle and bustle. Disembark from the train and you’re bombarded by dizzying display advertising for tattoo parlors, dive bars, and liquor stores, while men call “Compra oro” (“We buy gold”) seemingly from every other street corner.
Walk five minutes from the train trestles to reach the central business district, with its more desirable grocery stores, restaurants, and smaller markets. Still another avenue into the heart of Jackson Heights and you find yourself surrounded by churches, schools, and pre-war apartment buildings reaching no higher than six stories, cloaked in a relative mellow that’s almost deafening, in contrast to the rumbling and screeching of the subway trains.
Appropriate to the deceptively haphazard cross-cutting methods Frederick Wiseman has become known for, In Jackson Heights wanders from avenue to avenue, collapsing for the viewer whatever boundaries had been imposed by city planners during the middle of the 19th century. A typical scene transition will exit a dazzling, frenetic gay club on Roosevelt Avenue to zero in on toddlers milling about Travers Park on 78th Street. Holocaust remembrances at the Jewish Center give way to a classroom lecture at the taxi school, in which a lively, charismatic instructor teaches handy abbreviations to a roomful of prospective cabbies, themselves mostly South Asian and African.
I moved to Jackson Heights in 2008. Most of what I’ve come to learn about the neighborhood is superficial, a familiarity with storefronts and landmarks, the kind of accumulation of navigational details best learned by someone who wasn’t born in the place they live, and plans to move away in a few years, anyway. Wiseman’s film accomplishes in three hours what I’ve failed to do in more than seven years, which is to grasp the powerful distinction between a neighborhood and a community. You can look up the civic and historical facts about Jackson Heights on Wikipedia, but the empathy and understanding exhibited in Wiseman’s film is a monumental achievement.
In Jackson Heights’s surprising intimacy will enthrall viewers who’ve never even set foot in New York City. As often as Wiseman observes the passing foot traffic, his camera goes behind closed doors to observe everything from LGBT support groups to Catholic mass. While the documentary is free of plot, there are traces of narrative continuity. A trans woman appears a few times, speaking out against discrimination, violence, and police harassment, a timely reminder that, while Jackson Heights is often cited as the nexus of much of the city’s (and the world’s) aspirational progress, many people, especially trans people, remain the target of violence and intolerance.
The film’s insistent return to the woman’s fearless advocacy is shrewdly balanced against depictions of city officials—including Daniel Dromm, one of the city’s first openly gay councilmen, and Bill De Blasio, the first New York City Mayor to march in the Queens Pride Parade—celebrating the community’s spirit of inclusion and progress. It’s this moral irreducibility that’s often Wiseman’s greatest coup: Even at a leisurely three hours, the viewer can’t settle into one set of feelings before being confronted by a contradictory one.
The other subplot is also political, but measured by different dimensions. An ongoing, almost invisible siege by the Queens Business Improvement District—a concern formed by wealth and property without roots in the community—threatens dozens of local businesses with extinction. In their own words, many small-business owners sketch out the precise machinery of gentrification as it’s become clear that Jackson Heights is among the last Manhattan-convenient neighborhoods inside the city limits that hasn’t yet chased away the largest part of its original residents with vanishing grassroots businesses and out-of-control real estate prices. Stray shots of Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are free of enmity, but frequent chats and bull sessions between business owners is acutely worrisome, as it becomes apparent that their organizational prowess is outmatched by the concerted efforts of landlords, investors, and developers, all hungry for the increasingly shiny prize Jackson Heights has come to represent.
Against the backdrop of history, and under the cloud of a troubling, uncertain future, there’s one subject In Jackson Heights returns to consistently, and that’s the real, tangible quality of diversity, unmatched perhaps by any other neighborhood in the world. Wiseman isn’t one to make an entire film free of weirdness (the sexy singing telegram is a brilliant burst of surrealism), and his preferred subject is any scene in which two or more people attempt to forge a connection, even if it’s just for a moment.
The lightning in the film’s bottle isn’t some generic feel-good humanism, but a complicated one, fighting for its own existence, sometimes angry, sometimes despondent. Within a small, precisely defined set of city blocks—a postage stamp compared to the vast New York metro area—is an incalculable human animation, defiant of geography. Through brilliant planning and a variety of miracles of timing, this small film suggests the infinite.