As I entered the courtyard with a tall white fence and large yard, I noticed a bundle of small Hindu religious flags on the corner of the two-story family home on 87th Road located between Parsons Boulevard and 150th Street with its back to Hillside Avenue. I was in the heart of New York’s second largest Indo-Guyanese community located in Jamaica, Queens. (The largest Indo-Guyanese community is located in Richmond Hill, Queens).
Southern queens are one of the epicenter of the housing bubble crisis that led to the Great Recession that shattered or reversed the American dream for many in the Caribbean community. I came to this house during tax season to explore how the various socio-economic classes (working class and middle class) were affected by Housing Bubble Aftermath and the US public policy that stained the American dream for this community.
The homeowner – a widowed Indochanese immigrant bought it in 2000. Before buying the house in cash, she and her daughter lived with her father for 14 years when she saved the money for the purchase. She and her daughter immigrated to the United States in 1986 after she lost her husband in a car accident.
The house serves several purposes. The homeowner maintains a home business for tax preparation and immigration services on the first floor while operating a mandir (i.e. Hindu temple) in the basement.
However, Mandir is managed by two pandits – one older and one younger – in a very large, low-ceilinged basement. You entered the basement from the side of the house by a concrete driveway. A number of shoe schools greet you at the door. As you walk down a steep staircase, paying attention to your head rubbing against the ceiling, if you are well over 6 feet tall, you are greeted by other greetings – incense, the sound of musical instruments and singing, muted lighting and the soft blankets under your feet. The incense is very pleasing to the nostrils amidst the harmonious sounds of singing, clapping, guitars, cymbals, tambourines and drums, and out of the dim lighting you could see an arrangement of vivid images. The first image that greets you embedded in an opposite wall – is a large moderate image of Ganesha – the elephant-led Hindu success god. The big fiery image is very brilliant because of the flickering light from the adjoining candles that are clashed among fruit offerings and burning incense in front of a pantheon of Hindu gods statuettes. Kali – the multi-armed Hindu god of death – stands in the front row. In the back row stands a large statuette of Krishna – a blue skinned Hindu god – the author of the Hindu holy book, Bhagavad Gita. A group of female teenagers participating in the food offerings are sitting in front of the Hindu gods. To the right is the pandits, while a couple of older females sit to the left. The congregation is composed of Indo-Guyanese Hindu worshipers who are professionals, leaders, small business owners, students from a middle-class socio-economic spectrum to working-class backgrounds. When families dressed in traditional clothing queue down the stairs, they clasp their hands and bow as they enter the basement to join a tightly knit large community. The majority of the community resides in Queens and Long Island, which meets every Sunday morning for festive singing, playing instruments, praying and praising in the underground mandir.
As I left the basement, the landlord’s grandson escorted me to the backyard. It is a large backyard where two small residential units are built. One of the housing units is a remodeled fitness center where I met the homeowner’s son-in-law who is a physical therapist. I shook his hand as he took a break from the workout to talk to me.
Next, the landlord’s grandson escorted me to the upstairs residence. The homeowner’s daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren live on the second floor. The homeowner’s daughter gave me a tour of a very large loft above the second floor. She told me that she owns a house in Florida, but that she and her family live upstairs in New York City (NYC). However, the homeowner, the helper’s (ie living maid) and guest rooms are located on the first floor.
Presentation of the topics (from the tracks on both sides)
As I entered the immaculately preserved and elegant main floor, I was greeted at the door where I took off my shoes in the foyer, and I was led into the living room where clients (filing income and corporate taxes) were waiting to see the landlord (warrior caste – second-ranking caste in the Hindu religion; immigrated to the United States in 1986), specializing in tax and immigration preparation services.
On this particular day, I did not examine any smaller business owners – who are usually middle class with a household (i.e. family of four) income of or above $ 150,000 (Perry and Perry, 2010) – in the pending clientele. In fact, the waiting clientele consisted mainly of the working class – a domestic helper, an auto mechanic (part-time student) and other college workers with household incomes ranging from $ 30,000 to $ 80,000. Not everyone was from Guyana – one was from Antigua, while the other was from Suriname. Most were women and the elderly.
During the interviews, they told me that the bursting of the housing bubble caused their property properties to fall tremendously, leaving shuttered houses in the community. They stated that the US is returning to a third country and that there is no difference between Guyana (recently discovered oil) and America. In fact, a registered nurse (single mother and divorce; first immigrated to the United States in 1987; living in Cambria Heights, Queens) told me that one of her sisters and a nephew decided to return to Suriname (neighboring Guyana) after she filed their papers (permanent residence permit) for them. They believe that Surinam offers a better quality of life and socio-economic conditions.
To interview the middle class class, I went back to the house on the corporate tax deadline – March 15th. The homeowner booked the day to mainly small business owners. An interviewer (warrior caste; first immigrated to the United States in 1978), who lives in Floral Park, Queens, stated that in addition to the property value of his home. He was not really much affected by the crisis. Nonetheless, he knows of people who are hurting, he works for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (union representative) and his wife is a small business owner. Like the working class taxpayers, he blamed George W. Bush and the Republicans’ domestic and foreign policy and politics leading to war on the middle class and wars abroad. In fact, I’ve been told that I recently led a union protest in Albany, New York. I have argued that the union contributed a lot to his middle class status.
I thought maybe I should spread my net a little wider to see if I could find a middle-class class that might reflect a different perspective than the previous interviewees. That’s why I traveled to see Eddie, who owns Eddie’s Furniture on Hillside Avenue in Jamaica, Queens, as he is middle class and a business owner. Maybe he’s maybe more conservative. Eddie (warrior caste; immigrated to the United States in 1987) has been a client of the homeowner for nearly 25 years. Eddie shared the mood of the other interviewees. I have said his business has declining revenue because some of his clients lost their jobs or are underemployed. In addition, most people in the community own two family homes that depend on their tenant’s rent to pay off their mortgage. When tenants lose their jobs and cannot afford the rent, homeowners lose their homes because they cannot afford mortgages, as the majority of household income is from rent – a non-work income. Surprisingly, I have pointed out to him that he knows family members living in Guyana who send money transfers to family members in New York to make ends meet instead of the other way around. The exchange rate is $ 200 Guyanese dollars to $ 1 US dollars and the Guyanese median income is $ 3,900. Like the others, he blamed the public policies / fiscal policies orchestrated by George W. Bush and the Republicans.
Mix in my research environment
This is an ethnographic study centered on a house that is a dwelling, a home business and a place of Hindu worship (mandir). In particular, I chose this house as my field site because of the tax preparation and immigration services provided on the ground floor. I knew that most of the home business owner’s clientele was from the Caribbean. They are mostly Indo-Guyanese clients. In particular, they are Hindus.
My goal is to investigate the impact of the recent housing bubble burst on the American dream of this immigrant community. The clientele, which I used as a proxy or example of the immigrant group, is mainly divided by working class and middle class. In this study, the working class is defined as mainly blue collar workers with household incomes ranging from $ 30,000 to $ 80,000, while the middle class is defined as mainly white collar workers with household incomes of or above $ 150,000.
Even more interesting, I am drawn to the rigid caste system of the traditional Hindu religion and how it correlates with the socio-economic stratification of the observed immigrant community. By attending a mandatory service in the house and interviewing pandits and other worshipers, I learned that the caste system in Guyana is not as rigid as in India. Andy, a CPA with KPMG, noted that most of the original emigrants (including his ancestors) to Guyana in the mid-1800s were socio-economically disadvantaged in India. The British – a colonizer of the Indian subcontinent – promised them socio-economic progress in the Caribbean (including Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and other islands – following the abolition of slavery in 1834). Most of the Indian migrants settled in British Guiana.
I promised most of my interviewees that I will not use their names in my paper except for a few interviewees like Andy (senior associate at KPMG) and Eddie (Eddie’s Furniture). I promised them privacy so they can freely and honestly interact with me.
During an interview session, the homeowner passed me when I interviewed one of her middle-class students – Krishna – an MTA representative.
Homeowner: “Hi Krishna! I have known Karl for almost twenty years. He is an honor Indian among us. In fact, his grandmother’s grandmother is East Indian. Observe his eyes, nose and lips … he could pass for an Indian young man.” , Karl, I recommend talking to one of my clients who owns a real estate agent in the community.
Krishna went on to share (presumably a bonding process) some of his Indian vegetarian cuisine with me, talking about the traditional conservative values instilled in the Indo-Guyanese family as it relates to house and savings. Nevertheless, to his surprise, the erosion of the American dream caused by the Housing Bubble – the Great Recession is very real in his community. I told him about my intention to interview former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan.
Thus, I, a product of diversity – whose father’s father was born and raised as a Jamaican maroon and whose mother’s mother was born and raised as a Portuguese Sephardic Orthodox Jew – was allowed to see how US fiscal and monetary policy affected an immigrant community negatively across socio-economic classes.
Variation of perspectives and definition of the situation
As I continued to visit my field site, one of my students – Nazir Ishak – asked me about my PhD program and especially about my CUNY Graduate Center course. I told him I was rushing to my field site and on the topic of my ethnographic research. In response, I said that he, as an Indo-Guyanese (Muslim), believes that I will find that the housing bubble crisis had little or no impact on the Indo-Guyanese community in Queens. How then? He went on to say that “usually Indo-Guyanese couples are often known as the paper bag family – take lunch in a paper bag, live in a basement, buy a house and usually never lose the house.” In fact, I argued that he doubts that there was a foreclosed Indo-Guyanese home in Jamaica or Richmond Hill, Queens.
On the block of my field website, I came across a former acquaintance who is an Afro-Guyanese and his wife who is an Indo-Guyanese. I conveyed to them what Nazir said to me. They joined. They argued that Indo-Guyanese society has generally arranged marriages, is community-oriented and rarely suffers from financial tensions in marriage. They compared the Indo-Guyanese community with the Sino-American community and even with the Jewish-American community. For example, these communities are perceived as future-oriented rather than current-oriented societies. However, they argued that unlike Jewish American society, which benefits from hereditary wealth passed down from generation to generation, Indo-Guyanese and Chinese-American communities migrated to the United States with only “two dollars” in pockets. They are mostly from very poor backgrounds in their respective motherland. The Guyanese couple talked about the mass migration (including Guyanese and Chinese) in 1986 around the time President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to unauthorized immigrants living in the country for a period. To be fair and balanced, it is well documented that Jewish emigrants had limited resources during their transit through Ellis Island during previous mass migrations.
As I entered the gates of my field website, I was greeted by many clients who worked mostly with immigration issues since the tax season is over. I went to greet the landlord who in turn introduced me to one of her clients. The client is an Indo-Guyanese Hindu (a Pace University graduate with a degree in finance) whose husband is an Indo-Jamaican Christian. She works with financing for a Wall Street investment bank, told the homeowner her client about the project I am working on. I went on to tell them what Nazir and others have told me about how the Indo-Guyanese community was able to weather the Housing Bubble Crisis because of their inherent “values.” The homeowner and her client stated that the facts do not support the claims of my students and acquaintances. They complained about how poor Indo-Guyanese families and new immigrants were “hooded” for subprime loans by their own Indo-Guyanese compatriots (a minority). They only hoped they could be prosecuted for their predatory behavior. Unfortunately, because of pride and shame, few people will publicly admit that they lost their home or stuck with balloon payments on their mortgage loans.
As support and proof, the homeowner contacted three Indo-Guyanese realtors (two Hindus and one Muslim) who are her clients and are based in Richmond Hill, Queens. I contacted the three realtors. Each told me about the devastation caused by the housing bubble crisis in Indo-Guyanese communities. For example, Surujdai (Shanta) Gopaul, CBR, who owns Remax Homes Realty on Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens, said she is working on three short sales as she speaks to me. In addition, her office has worked with many foreclosures and mortgage modifications. In addition, some of her clients had to abandon another home or investment house that was underwater. Yes, she points out that the Indo-Guyanese community collectively fared better than other communities, perhaps because of their intrinsic values. Nevertheless, they are also badly burned by the Housing Bubble Crisis, especially the working poor and the new immigrants in her community. “After all, the poor but never the rich are always exploited!” Exclaimed Shanta.
Root of the Disise of the American Dream
As noted throughout the paper, many critics (including some of those interviewed) point to the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy in part to the downfall of the American dream in this immigrant community and others.
To get to the root of the matter, I attended a Princeton club that hosted a conference called Rethinking Finance: New Perspectives on the Crisis – A Conference on Lessons from the Financial Crisis. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke was the keynote speaker. In the August Hall of the Princeton Club, I shook the President’s hand and told him that I look forward to asking him a question in the Q&A. He smiled as Princeton University professor Alan Blinder (who I interviewed for another project in 2010) led him into the conference room.
During the Q&A sessions, I couldn’t ask my question because my raised hand drowned in a sea of raised hands. I was hoping that I would stand out when I was one of two black attendees (the other was Queens College Economics Professor Raymond Myrthyl, whom I invited). However, a Princeton University Economics professor (on behalf of one of her students doing a major dissertation on the housing crisis) asked the chairman about her predecessor’s role in the Housing Bubble Crisis. He did not directly answer the question, but to state that many people make so many subsequent bad decisions – these poor decisions are the causes of the foreclosure crisis.
Either way, based on the presentations, I argued that the Fed and Congress shared in the death of the American Dream through their inability or unwillingness to regulate subprime lending primarily by state chartered lenders (according to Dr. Robert E. Litan’s presentation ).
Interestingly, an immigrant community, known for its future-oriented behavior towards finance and housing, fell victim to the housing bubble crisis similarly to other communities. I argued that the American dream that turned into an American nightmare on Main Street could have been avoided if Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve Bank had taken on a judicial role in monetary policy. For example, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok (2010) argued that former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan (1987 to 2006; appointed by President George H. W. Bush) could have managed the housing bubble by raising interest rates and / or warning the market. In addition, he could have smoothed the fluctuations in the market by “blowing the bubble” with a tight monetary policy to prevent housing prices from rising too high. Thus, the boom and fall would have been more moderate, resulting in moderate consequences in the economy.
However, Alan Greenspan was one of the leading cheerleaders during the housing bubble, whose burst negatively affected the American dream (which begins with home ownership) for both the working class and the middle class in an immigrant community.