The Mediapolis Q&A: Joseph Heathcott’s Global Queens: An Urban Mosaic

Twin Studies, Arverne
Joseph Heathcott discusses his book Global Queens: An Urban Mosaic with Joshua McWhirter.

Joshua McWhirter: I’d like to start with a consideration of photography as a method for exploring urban conditions, which you describe as “ultimately unknowable” in their greater sum (I certainly agree with that!). In the introduction to Global Queens: An Urban Mosaic (Fordham University Press, 2023), you speak to how your approach is distinct from the traditions of both architectural and documentary photography—and the images themselves are saturated not so much with “readable” meanings, but rather almost “raw” information that captures ordinariness and complexity in urban everyday life. Could you elaborate on this?

 Joseph Heathcott: Yes, this is something that I think about a lot, and it’s great to be able to think through issues of methodology with you. So in my view, even if no one person can know a given city in its totality, any city is still greater than the sum of its parts. It is just that the sum itself is a spatial-temporal imaginary, at once idiosyncratic (my New York is not your New York) and at the same time shared through collective ascription (we all believe we live in a place called New York, however distinct our experiences). In other words, there are many cities within any city, many urbanities crossing through any urban space. So we have to look for the wholes through their parts, through their traces in landscape, built forms, and social relations. Neither architectural nor documentary photography gives us the tools to do this.  Architectural photography tends to focus on iconic buildings, often telling the very stories of design heroism that the buildings themselves insist on. Documentary photography remains largely beholden to narrative, with images forming the evidentiary chain that indexes meaning. We need a photographic approach that takes us out of narrative space and that goes beyond the singular building or typology or location. In part, that is what I am trying to do with the book.

Miss Latinos, Pridefest, Jackson Heights
Construction site, Long Island City
Apartment block and shops in Elmhurst

 JM: From that methodological standpoint, then, how has Queens (compared to other places you’ve studied, for instance) worked as a “subject” of inquiry, photographic and otherwise? And conversely: How has Queens, as a place, perhaps influenced your approach to photography as a method?

 JH: A great question! I’ve really tried to approach Queens much like any other place that I’ve spent time as a photographer. I’m always drawn to the more mundane and ordinary spaces of a city, whether that’s in Marrakech or Oaxaca or Istanbul or Paris.  But your question anticipates that there is something different about photographing the place I consider home, and I think you are right. Since I live in Queens, I am more familiar with it. I have a better sense of its neighborhoods and communities. And of course I’m able to spend a lot more time and care with image-making here. So I think Queens has made me a more careful photographer, more deliberative. But it has also made me trust in letting go of photography as documentation, and to value the meanings that can emerge from having so many photographs to work with.

JM: That accretive approach (if one could call it that) seems especially well-suited to a visual analysis of Queens. The borough, as you say, is a “layered landscape”—perhaps represented most vividly by the thick palimpsest of cultural adaptation etched into its built environment. Clearly, much of that change has taken on a special intensity since the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act—and we will return to that later—but I’d love to hear a little more about how these photographs capture, in a more general sense, both the interaction of global cultures and entanglement of local historical moments.

Yardscape, Corona

JH:  If you think about it, the ordinary houses and streets and neighborhoods of Queens have reflected these entanglements for a long time–if not always at a global scale, than certainly in the transnational networks that took hold in the borough. Take Corona, for example.  It was already predominantly Italian by the 1940s, with migrants from Puerto Rico just starting to trickle in. Both the Italians and Puerto Ricans brought traditions of building grape arbors – usually over the small driveway. Italian and Puerto Rican men also brought cockfighting traditions, so you would wake up to the sounds of roosters crowing in Corona. And of course the ubiquitous statues of the Virgin Mary in the front yards. Now most of the Italians and Puerto Ricans have moved on, but those traditions continue with the Mexican and Central American families who moved in. You can still hear roosters crowing — just the other day I saw a group of young men chasing a rooster down 108th Street! Everyone on the street stopped to watch and laugh.

 JM: We can also think through this at different scales of time. On one hand, there’s the immediate specter of large-scale new real estate development in Long Island City, or the recent, stinging loss of a vibrant commercial street in Elmhurst to a Target and Chipotle (so upsetting). On the other hand, there’s also the more subtle interplay of past and present embedded in architectural styles or everyday objects on any number of seemingly prosaic residential blocks or industrial roads throughout the borough. I know that you are deeply invested in studying the temporality of cities—what are some important ways urban time is amplified in this project?

 JH:  I love this question, because time is so ever-present in these images, and yet we tend to think of the photograph as the “frozen moment.” But you are so right, there are a great many temporalities at work here, from the most basic like diurnal and seasonal time to the more complicated like the industrial clock time that disciplines work life, the school bell, and the coming and going of trains.  Then there is the ‘time’ of the photograph itself, which is a register of the particular date when it was taken and also the temporalities that cross into and through the image plane.  So what do we see in this plane?  We see a puzzling jumble of things. Queens is a place where new architecture spills out across the borough with little regard to such quaint nostrums as “neighborhood character” or “proper scale.”  It is all fast and cheap–not unlike the older vernacular architecture that came before, only now there is even less pretence to periodicity in style. When you get into neighborhoods where there have been multiple tear-downs, this temporal jumble becomes blazingly apparent. 

Luxury tower, Flushing
Vintage 1920s gas station house, Kew Gardens

 Then, as you intimate, there is the hyper-accelerationist time of global capitalism, so notable in the glass and steel luxury towers and proliferating chain stores. But even these talismans of globalization tend to land in Queens in unpredictable ways. I remember being appalled when the Starbucks opened in Jackson Heights, to me it seemed like such an immense drag. But what happened was really quite amazing – it quickly became the most socially diverse youth hangout in the neighborhood!  You know? It isn’t a Colombian space, it isn’t an Indian space or a Mexican space or a Thai space. It functions as a kind of neutral ground where youth can meet each other across lines of difference, hang out, help each other with homework, posture, flirt, fall in love.

JM: At least for New Yorkers, the sheer cultural diversity of Queens has become something of a trope in recent times—albeit a generally positive one. One of the things I greatly appreciate about Global Queens is how the photographs reflect the fact of diversity without playing into platitudes about it. That is, radical coexistence is not without conflict and struggle, even as genuine pluralism is to be found across the borough—including in a Starbucks!

 JH:  You put this much more eloquently than I did in the book. I fully agree that we have to avoid the clichéd view of diversity as a universal, given good. What some may celebrate uncritically as “diversity” is incidental for so many people who have had to pick up and move great distances, fleeing wars or poverty or climate change. They don’t come to places like Queens to add to the diversity, they come here out of necessity — for safety, to make a living, to find a better life. And as you point out, the result is not some smooth and uncomplicated arena of social transaction; it is rough, agonistic, fragmentary, and always unfinished. It is all of those millions of everyday practices and interactions where people try to figure each other out, learn how to get along or at least live together in convergent spaces.   

Of course, most of this goes on below the visual register, so it doesn’t always show up in photographs. My own approach to the representation of social diversity has been to work against any kind of grand narrative or all-encompassing view. You could call it a “flat” approach, in that what we see of social diversity is attenuated across multiple objects, spaces, and sites — library bookshelves, streetscapes, shop fronts, languages of signs and banners, statuary and other artifacts. You get the idea. So again, it is through the ensemble of photographs that I hope the idea comes through. I want the photographs to reveal diversity as one more ordinary aspect of Queens — neither to be celebrated uncritically nor reduced to stories of hardship and trauma, but part of the fabric of life in this borough.  

Office building in Flushing
Immigrants and refugees welcome, Jackson Heights

JM: And yet, these conditions are inextricable from the fraught politics of immigration, both locally and nationally. How do you see that politics playing out in Global Queens, and to what degree is it being shaped by the borough’s contemporary hyper-diversity, especially in comparison to historically more “predictable” (i.e. heavily controlled) immigration patterns?    

JH:  Absolutely! And I certainly hope that Global Queens provides some counterweight to an immigration politics rooted in xenophobia and moral panic. After all, however agonistic, part of the promise of social diversity is that it makes togetherness in difference possible. With so many people from so many backgrounds interacting, it creates space for new forms and practices of solidarity to spark into existence. This is what we typically find hopeful about diversity, that it offers a horizon of political possibility, a sketch of a different kind of future, one based on common cause and rights to the city, rather than the grim homogeneity defended in the ever-expanding gated subdivisions. But of course this kind of political project isn’t an inevitable outcome of diversity, it has to be made, built, argued for, and practiced, both in the realm of everyday life and in organized protests. And it has to be led by immigrants themselves.

JM: I couldn’t agree more with that political project, and the idea that it must be practiced across multiple registers, including (and especially) everyday life. You mentioned this “flat” approach to documenting social diversity which, to my eye, really lets Queens speak for itself . . . and perhaps the communication metaphor may be useful here? As much as actually-existing diversity is attenuated to a degree, by necessity, we are still seeing a very important public dimension of it. That is, in both pragmatic and more personal ways—from store signage to statuary—what we do visually register is how people from so many parts of the world use visual cues to interact with and take part in public life. What are your thoughts on how this semiotic aspect of publicity comes through in the photographs?

JH: Right, there is definitely a public semiotics at work, especially if we think about the urban landscape as an ever-shifting assemblage of signifiers.

In Global Queens I am really interested in how signals in an urban field come to be amplified against the noise of the city. 

A lot of this comes through in the various tactics of marking and signaling — the fonts on a storefront marquee or a mural on a wall or the ornamentation of a cornice. Some of it is unintended, like the patterns of rust and decay on the 7 train stanchions. But then people cover the stanchions with flyers looking for roommates or selling household items, so the stanchions become a substrate for more deliberate signals. All of this charges the architecture and infrastructure of the city to carry additional meaning, to provide signal-boosting power. 

 And of course there is another layer to this communication assemblage, and that is the photograph that captures it all and what it might convey. I very much agree with Arielle Azoulay that photography is a kind of “civil contract” between the photographer, the viewer, and the subject. And certainly part of what I hoped to do in Global Queens is to draw that contract out across multiple images, in other words to emphasize the ensemble over the singular. If there are aesthetic qualities and dimensions to the work, they are ‘relational,’ as Nicholas Bourriaud puts it–that is, they emerge from the ensemble of relations in which they are embedded.

JM: Let’s talk a little bit more about how the photos work as an ensemble, which we keep coming back to. I love the detail in the introduction where you admit that a random sort on Flickr helped break an impasse on how to arrange and sequence the images.

 JH: That was a moment of revelation for me!  It was like, suddenly, all of the effort I had put into trying to build categories for sorting all of the images just seemed so pointless.  I mean, I’m not trying to say that Queens is somehow random at its core, but there really is a way in which moving through the borough can be jarring with so many juxtapositions in urban form and architecture and social life. I really wanted to convey that somehow, and the random sort gave me the right approach.

Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Corner of 92nd St and 51st Ave, Elmhurst
Elevated tracks, Jackson Heights

 JM: Right. But at the same time, the book is organized to some degree, or one could say there’s perhaps a tension between organization and disorganization that is meant to evoke the experience of Queens itself. On one hand there’s no clear “logic” to the book—indeed, the project makes a really convincing argument that it would be impossible, and totally undesirable, to reduce the urban mosaic of Queens to a few throughlines! But we do see, if not typologies per se, certain patterns and resonances come through the two-page spreads that punctuate the book throughout (like commas rather than periods). How did these themes emerge, and what role do you see these spreads playing in relation to the more “random” sequence of the rest of the book?

 JH: I think the way you put it really makes the most sense — that the book reflects a tension between order and disorder in the landscape.  As you know so well, those of us trained to read cultural landscapes are always looking for meaningful patterns, whether in relation to where and how people live, the correspondence of urban form to topography, the architectural typologies and styles that accrue here or there. Sometimes we are even guilty of ‘apophenia,’ seeing patterns that might not be there at all.

So for Global Queens, I tried to imagine some of the most salient “repeat experiences” someone would have moving into and around Queens.

Like the bridges and highways, or the immense expanse of cemeteries, or the many industrial zones that collect in the borough’s bottom lands.  Or what are the principal sites of contact between people and the civic, commercial, and spiritual worlds — the local library, the bodega, the neighborhood mosque. In other words, where do patterned experiences emerge, and where do they fragment or distend? My hope is that the two-page spreads distributed evenly through the book convey a kind of affect of order and disorder, as you suggest.  

JM: To backtrack slightly to this idea of a “civil contract,” in the book you acknowledge your own positionality as a white, male photographer, and how that self-reflexivity deeply informs your approach to the work, particularly in regards to power dynamics in the field (though that consideration is clearly extended to every aspect of the project). Keeping this in mind—but also as a more open-ended question, too—tell me a little more about the physical and social experience of photographing Queens, as fieldwork.

 JH: Well, fieldwork is always challenging. But I would say as a practice, it changes when you bring a camera or any piece of kit into the setting; you are instantly immersed in a different web of relations — actor networks, as Latour would say. Suddenly it isn’t just you, it is also the charged coupling device, the lens, the power source, the camera body, all of the material processes that flow into them, and the way they incorporate the human into a cyborg assemblage, and how that assemblage interacts with the people and things nearby. When you layer race, power, and privilege on top of that, it becomes even more challenging. So my approach to fieldwork is to be as conspicuous as I can be, never hiding what I am doing, and making myself open to people who might want to question or challenge what I am doing, which is entirely their prerogative.  That’s part of the civil contract — beyond the meaning of an image, it is about the meaning of the making of an image in time and space, where real people live and move and interact.

 

Graffiti mural, Maspeth

Sidewalk along Roosevelt Avenue
Jamaica Bay along the Rockaway Peninsula, Arverne

JM: One more question to wrap it up. I’m curious, on a personal level, how this project has shaped your own “mental map,” or provisional understanding, of such a complex landscape—one which you also happen to call home!

 JH: Oh, there is no question that my mental map of Queens has been profoundly shaped by this work. I mean, that is always the case whenever I spend a lot of time photographing a city or neighborhood. But of course I’m closer to this place to begin with, and can spend more time here. I don’t think this proximity made it easier, though, just a different kind of challenge — like, how do you step back from a place that you think you know and see it with fresh eyes? 

 The biggest lesson I’ve learned, which probably won’t surprise you, is that I now feel like I know less about Queens than I did when I started this journey. That’s pretty much congruent with my work in general: the more I study something, the less I seem to know about it. Because when you study something like Queens in such detail, you begin to have a sense of just how immense and complex it really is. So the details pile up, like now I have a decent understanding of how the borough grew and developed. I can more or less read the temporal sequences layered into the built environment. I feel like I even have some nascent insight into how diverse communities make a place for themselves in the landscape. But if I take a step back from any one point, I remember that I’m standing in an immense, dilating urban macroform that sprawls in all directions, and it is so jumbled and varied and unpredictable and unfinished, it just seems impossible to really know it. I suppose, if anything, that’s the main takeaway from Global Queens.

McWhirter, Joshua, and Joseph Heathcott. "The Mediapolis Q&A: Joseph Heathcott's Global Queens: An Urban Mosaic." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 9, no. 1 (April 2024)
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