Elmhurst occupies the northwest corner of Queens and is elevated 26 feet above sea level. The town is bordered by Roosevelt Avenue to the north in Jackson Heights, the Long Island Expressway to the south in Rego Park, Junction Boulevard to the east in Corona, and the Long Island Rail Road to the west in Maspeth and Woodside. Queens Boulevard splices through 1.2 miles of Elmhurst.
Elmhurst was founded in 1652 as Middleburgh by the English or Dutch and was largely rural farmland until the in the early 20th century when the town assumed the name Elmhurst. During the early 1900s, Germans, Jews, Irish, Scots, and Italians settled in Elmhurst. In 1937, the subway was routed through Elmhurst and brought more residents to the community.
At the close of World War II, veterans began to purchase property outside the city with low-interest federal loans. By the time of the World's Fair in 1964-65, the suburbs were luring Elmhurst's residents with tax incentives and subsidies. At the same time, the United States Immigration and Nationalization Act abolished national origin quotas, and the face of America, Queens and Elmhurst changed to that of a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society.
Today, Elmhurst’s 11373 ZIP code is the most ethnically diverse in the country, and potentially in the world. Approximately 73% of its 106,000 residents were born in a foreign country, according to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau. Elmhurst is 45% Hispanic, 40% Asian, 10% white and 5% other. An estimated 140 languages or dialects are spoken within the community. Major religions include Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, a waning Catholicism, and to a lesser extent, Judaism and Islam.
The 2000 U.S. Census Bureau reports: a median age of 33.4; a median household income of $38,099; an unemployment rate at 8.9%; the gross median rent at $790 per month; and, the median housing value at $228,837. The top 311 issues include quality of life complaints, such as noise, illegal parking and graffiti. A rise in burglaries and grand larceny also pose a concern.
Elmhurst continues to attract new residents with its swift access to Manhattan, affordable housing, employment opportunities, and a generally immigrant-friendly neighborhood. Elmhurst is also home to the U.S.'s highest grossing mall per square foot, the Queens Center Mall, and two hospitals.
However, a booming population, unbridled development of multi-story buildings in place of one- or two-family homes, and illegal housing drain the existing infrastructure and services.
While Elmhurst has grown, its pipes, sewer system and electrical board date back to the early 1900s. As a result of two summer storms and Elmhurst’s already high water table, the sewer system could not pump water out fast enough. FEMA declared Elmhurst—and Queen's County—a disaster area on August 31, 2007.
There is a sense of two (or more) Elmhursts: the “old guard” and the “new immigrants.” Long-time residents complain about improper zoning, the persistent smell of sewage, the mounds of garbage in public receptacles (due to illegal housing), and dangerously overwhelmed hospitals and schools. They feel their quality of life is grossly compromised and Elmhurst’s golden age has eclipsed them.
New immigrants breathe a renewed vitality into an area previously known for gangs, drugs and the Boulevard of Death. They are generally working class people who want to carve out better lives.
The question remains whether Elmhurst can one day resemble that nostalgic community it once was, where neighbors live together and look out for each other. Or, is Elmhurst a collection of several communities where residents—divided by cultural and linguistic barriers—live among each other and simply tolerate differences?