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September 17, 1999


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Aboard No 7

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Alan Kravitz in New York

The No. 7 Train Much more than a simple train, it could easily be described as a rolling United Nations, a multilingual melange, featuring sights, sounds and smells of Ireland, Greece and Romania, the Indian subcontinent, the far east, Latin America...

The New York city subway system's No 7 train passes through more than 120 cultures in about an hour on its seven-mile trek from Times Square (42 Street) in Manhattan to Main Street, Flushing, in northwest Queens.

For this reason the train has earned the nickname the 'International Express', and was recently recognized by the US government as a national millennium trail for aiding immigration to New York city.

But while the train evokes little emotion in some passengers who view it as little more than transportation from point A to point B, it holds special significance for thousands of immigrants from south America, Europe and Asia. For the train connects their neighborhoods to the rest of the city.

More than 20,000 immigrants from the Indian subcontinent who live in Queens use the train on a daily basis.

And on the weekends, hundreds of Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis from other parts of the city or the neighboring states take the No 7 from Manhattan to shop and dine in Jackson Heights, and perhaps to catch the latest Hindi movie on the big screen at Eagle Theater which, till the other day, showed X-rated movies.

Many immigrants from South Asia live below the No 7's tracks in Flushing, Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights.

Jackson Heights, in particular, has a number of Indian sari shops, fine restaurants and jewelry shops. New businesses continue to thrive, in part due to the large numbers of immigrants that continue to settle in northwest Queens.

In fact, parts of Jackson Heights and Corona are so thoroughly steeped in Indian culture that they have been dubbed 'Little Indias'. The New York city department of planning estimates that more than 70 per cent of Queens's South Asian population is concentrated along the No 7 subway line.

One man who has witnessed the area's progress is Ismail Mohammed, a devout Muslim who prays several times each day at the Masjid Alfalah mosque and runs an Islamic book and a halal meat store in Corona. Ismail, who migrated from Bombay in 1952, believes the No 7 line keeps people both linked and connected.

"Many Indians use the train [No 7] as a way of staying connected to friends and relatives who live in Elmhurst and Flushing," says Mohammed.

Having lived in Jackson Heights for 20 years, Mohammed is also thankful for the linkage of nearby Shea Stadium, home to the New York Mets baseball team.

"Shea Stadium is a great source of customers for me and many other Indian businesses," beams Mohammed. "The crowds at the stadium are very large and many people get on the No 7 train [which stops at the stadium] after a game and shop at Indian businesses and eat at our restaurants."

But, no subway train in New York city is without problems, as Mohammed readily admits. "Sometimes, the train costs immigrants money. When it breaks down, the people who don't know English wind up stuck for a while because they don't understand the guy's [the train conductor's] instructions on what to do," he says.

Despite its shortcomings, a majority of Indian immigrants view the "rumbling, red carriage", as a woman from Delhi described the No 7 train, as a symbol of harmony and freedom. "Where else can you find a Pakistani, an Indian and a Bangladeshi seated one next to the other," asked Rajesh, a waiter at the Kabab King Palace at 74th Street and Broadway, directly below the elevated train's tracks.

An Indian women enters the station for No. 7 train Rajesh, who uses the train daily for his commute from Flushing, said the train brings Indians together. "It runs through the heart of our community and usually, everyone gets along," he says. "Sometimes, we feel like this is our train."

He also agrees that his restaurant's business would suffer without the No 7 line. "We probably would lose half our business without the train," conceded Rajesh. "I think the train is the best. Just like our community."

Rajesh found only one drawback to having the 'International Express' rumbling over his workplace. "Sometimes, it's hard to hear the customer's order over the rumble of the train," he says, timidly. "I try to time it just right, when the train has just passed. That way I don't always have to say, "What was that you wanted?"

To many riding the No 7, it is a simple matter of good, fast transportation that translates into freedom for those hearty pioneers who make their way around Queens without a car.

Saba, 31 and Shihabuddin, 33, who migrated from Bangladesh nearly a decade ago, say they are regular passengers on the No 7 line. "We use it to go to work, to school, everything. No 7 train is very good and very fast."

On this day, the two Bangladeshis, along with two young women, also Bangladeshi, are standing on line in front of the Eagle Theater in Jackson Heights. They had taken the train from Greek Astoria and were waiting to see a first-run Indian movie, Taal.

The women say they frequently ride the No 7 from Flushing's Main Street station to the theater at 74th Street and Broadway.

Asked whether the movie had received critical acclaim, the group replied, "We don't know. Hopefully we'll find out very soon, if you stop asking us questions and let us go in."

Not all others were not quite as fond of the 'International Express'. Bela, 21, who has been in the US for six months, says she uses the train primarily for shopping. "It makes it easy to get around, but sometimes it's real hot, dirty and people argue because they have no space," she says.

The No. 7 Train According to the Queens Council on the Arts, which produced a brochure on the 'International Express," documenting the various ethnic communities that dot the No 7 train line. "The mix of people and cultures along the No 7 train is growing and changing almost continuously," it reads.

For example, where once billboards hawked real estate services and fast food at 74th Street and Broadway in Jackson Heights, Indian film star Shah Rukh Khan, sporting a gold Omega watch, now smiles glamorously at onlookers from a large, white billboard.

However, the most striking aspect of the No 7 train's ostensible international journey is not the numbers of different cultures, peoples and traditions it traverses, but that somehow everyone seems to get along.

Mohammad Ejaz, a native of Pakistan who owns Anarkali Clothing on 72nd Street in Jackson Heights, notes the irony of nationals from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh riding the train and living together in relative tranquillity.

"It's really quite a feat," said Ejaz. "Back in our respective countries, we might be bitter enemies. But here, everything is different. Like Utopia or something. The rest of the world should follow our lead."

And. while brotherly love is not always the order-of-the-day on the No 7 line, it remains a concept worthy of aspiration.

Alan Krawitz is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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