The House at the Epicenter

The Setting

As I entered the yard with a high white fence and a big front yard, I noticed a bundle of small Hindu religious flags at the corner of the two story family house on 87th Road nestled 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 is one of the epicenters of the housing bubble crisis which led to the Great Recession that shattered or setback the American dream for many in the Caribbean community. I came to this house during the tax season to survey how the different socioeconomic classes (working class and middle class) were affected by the Housing Bubble Aftermath and the American public policy that tarnished the American dream for this community.

The homeowner – a widowed Indo-Guyanese immigrant purchased it in 2000. Before purchasing the home with cash, she and her daughter lived with her father for 14 years as 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 multiple purposes. The homeowner maintains a tax preparing and immigration service home business on the first floor while she operates a mandir (i.e., Hindu temple) in the basement.

However, the mandir is administered by two pandits – one elder and a younger – in a very large basement with a low ceiling. You entered the basement from the side of the house off a concrete driveway. A series of shoe racks greet you at the door. As you descend a steep stairwell being mindful of your head rubbing against the ceiling if you’re way over 6 feet tall, you are greeted by other greeters – incense, the sounds of musical instruments and singing, dimmed lighting, and the soft rugs under your feet. The incense is very appealing to the nostrils amidst the harmonious sounds of singing, clapping, guitars, cymbals, tambourines and drums, and out of the dimmed lighting you could see an arrangement of vivid images. The first image to greet you -embedded in an opposing wall – is a large brazen image of Ganesha – the elephant-headed Hindu god of success. The large brazen image is very brilliant due to the flickering light of the adjacent candles snuggled among fruit offerings and burning incenses in front of a pantheon of Hindu gods’ statuettes. Kali – the multi-armed Hindu god of death – stands in the front row. Standing in the back row is a large statuette of Krishna – a blue skinned Hindu god – the author of the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita. A group of female teenagers attending to the food offerings sit in front of the pantheon of the Hindu gods. To the right, the pandits are seated while a couple of elderly females are seated to the left. The congregation is composed of Indo-Guyanese Hindu worshippers who are professionals, executives, small business owners, students from a socioeconomic spectrum of middle class to working class background. As families dressed in traditional clothing queued down the stairway, they clasp their hands and bow as they enter the basement to join a closely knit large community. The majority of the community resides in Queens and Long Island who meet every Sunday morning to festively sing, play instruments, pray and praise in the underground mandir.

As I exited the basement, the homeowner’s grandson escorted me to the backyard. It is a large backyard where two small housing units are built. One of the housing units is a converted gym where I met the homeowner’s son-in-law who is a physical therapist. I shook his hand as he took a break from his workout to speak to me.

Next, the homeowner’s granddaughter escorted me to the upstairs residence. The homeowner’s daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren reside on the second floor. The homeowner’s daughter gave me a tour of a very large attic above the second floor. She told me that she owns a house in Florida but she and her family reside upstairs in New York City (NYC). However, the homeowner’s, the helper’s (i.e., live-in maid) and the guest bedrooms are located on the first floor.

Introducing the Subjects (from Both Sides of the Tracks)
As I entered the immaculately kept and elegant main floor, I was greeted at the door where I took my shoes off in the foyer and I was led into the living room where clients (filing income and small business corporate taxes) waited to see the homeowner (warrior caste – second ranking caste in the Hindu religion; immigrated to the US in 1986) who specialized in tax and immigration preparation services.

On this particular day, I didn’t survey any small business owners – who are usually in the middle class with a household (i.e., family of four) income on or above 150,000 USD (Perry and Perry, 2010) – in the waiting clientele. As a matter of fact, the waiting clientele mainly consisted of the working class – a domestic helper, an auto-mechanic (part-time student) and other blue-collar workers with household incomes from 30,000 USD to 80,000 USD. Not all were from Guyana – one was from Antigua while another was from Surinam. Most were women and the elderly.

During the interviews, they told me that the bursting of the housing bubble caused their real estate properties to tremendously decline and left shuttered houses in the community. They stated that the United States is reverting to a third world country and that there is no difference between Guyana (recently discovered oil) and America. As a matter of fact, a registered nurse (a single mother and divorcee; first immigrated to the US in 1987; lives in Cambria Heights, Queens) told me that one of her sisters and a nephew decided to return to Surinam (neighboring Guyana) after she filed their papers (permanent residency) for them. They believe that Surinam offers a better quality of life and socioeconomic conditions.

In order to interview the middle class clientele, I went back to the house on the corporate tax deadline – March 15th. The homeowner reserved the day for mainly small business owners. One interviewee (warrior caste; first immigrated to the US in 1978) who lives in Floral Park, Queens stated that besides the property value of his home. He was not really affected much 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 policies and politics that leads to war on the middle class and wars abroad. As a matter of fact, he told me that he recently led a union protest in Albany, New York. He argued that the union contributed greatly to his middle class status.

I thought perhaps I should spread my net a little bit wider to see if I could find a middle class client who might reflect a different perspective from the other interviewees thus far. Therefore, I traveled to see Eddie who owns Eddie’s Furniture on Hillside Avenue in Jamaica, Queens since he is middle class and a business owner. Perhaps, he might be more conservative. Eddie (warrior caste; immigrated to the US in 1987) has been a client of the homeowner for almost 25 years. Eddie shared the sentiments of the other interviewees. He stated that his business has declining revenues because some of his customers lost their jobs or are underemployed. Additionally, most in the community own two family houses that depend on the rent of their tenants to pay their mortgages. When the tenants lose their jobs and cannot afford the rent, the homeowners lose their homes because they cannot afford the mortgage since most of the household income is from rent – a non-labor income. Surprisingly, he pointed out to me that he knows of family members living in Guyana who are sending remittances to family members in New York to make ends meet instead of the other way around. The currency exchange rate is 200 Guyanese dollars to 1 American dollar and the Guyanese median income is 3,900 USD. Like the others, he blamed public policies/fiscal policies orchestrated by George W. Bush and the Republicans.

Blending into my Research Environment
This is an ethnographic study centered on a house which is a residence, a home business and a place of Hindu worship (mandir). Particularly, I chose this house as my field site because of the tax preparation and immigration services provided on the main floor. I knew that most of the home business owner’s clientele were 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 a sample of the immigrant community is mainly divided along the line of the working class and the middle class. For this study, the working class is defined as mainly blue-collar workers with household incomes from 30,000 USD to 80,000 USD while the middle class is defined as mainly white-collar workers with household incomes on or above 150,000 USD.

Even more interesting, I’m drawn to the traditional Hindu religion’s rigid caste system and how it correlates to the socioeconomic stratification of the observed immigrant community. By attending a mandir service at the house, and interviewing the pandits and other worshippers, 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 émigrés (including his ancestors) to Guyana in the mid-1800s were socioeconomically disadvantaged in India. The British – a colonizer of the Indian subcontinent – promised them socioeconomic advancement in the Caribbean (including Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica and other islands – after the abolition of slavery in 1834). Most of the Indian migrants settled in British Guyana.
I promised most of my interviewees that I will not use their names in my paper except for a few interviewees such as Andy (senior associate at KPMG) and Eddie (Eddie’s Furniture). I promised them privacy so that they may freely and honestly interact with me.

During one interview session, the homeowner passed me as I interviewed one of her middle class clients – Krishna – an MTA union representative.

Homeowner: “Hi Krishna! I know Karl for almost twenty years. He is an honorary Indian among us. As a matter of fact, his paternal grandmother’s maternal grandmother is East Indian. Observe his eyes, his nose and his lips… he could pass for an Indian young man.” By the way, Karl, I recommend you that speak to one my clients who owns a real estate agency in the community.

Krishna proceeded to share (presumably, a bonding process) some of his Indian vegetarian cuisine with me and spoke of the traditional conservative values instilled in the Indo-Guyanese family as it pertains to housings and savings. Nonetheless, to his surprise, the erosion of the American dream caused by Housing Bubble – the Great Recession is very real in his community. I told him of my intention to interview the former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan.

Thus, I, a product of diversity – whose father’s father’s father was born and raised as a Jamaican Maroon and whose mother’s mother’s mother was born and raised as a Portuguese Sephardic Orthodox Jew – was accepted and allowed to see how the American fiscal policy and monetary policy negatively impacted an immigrant community across socioeconomic classes.

Variation of Perspectives & Definition of the Situation
As I proceeded to visit my field site, one of my students – Nazir Ishak – asked me about my PhD program and, in particular, about my CUNY Graduate Center course. I told him that I was rushing to my field site and about the topic of my ethnographic research. In response, he stated that as an Indo-Guyanese (Muslim), he believes I will find that the Housing Bubble Crisis had little or no impact on the Indo-Guyanese community in Queens. How so? He continued that “customarily 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 normally never lose the house.” In a matter of fact way, he argued he doubts that there was a foreclosed Indo-Guyanese home in Jamaica or Richmond Hill, Queens.

On the block of my field site, I ran into a past acquaintance who is an Afro-Guyanese and his wife who is an Indo-Guyanese. I relayed to them what Nazir said to me. They concurred. They argued that the Indo-Guyanese community generally have arranged marriages, are community oriented and rarely suffer financial tensions in the marriage. They likened the Indo-Guyanese community to the Chinese-American Community and even to the Jewish American community. For instance, these communities are perceived to be future oriented instead of present oriented communities. However, they argued that unlike the Jewish American community that benefits from inherited wealth passed down from generation to generation, the Indo-Guyanese community and the Chinese-American community migrated to the United States with only “two dollars” in their pockets. They are mostly from a very poor background in their respective mother country. The Guyanese couple was speaking of the mass migration (including Guyanese and Chinese) in 1986 around the time when President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to unauthorized immigrants who were living in the country for a period of time. To be fair and balanced, it is well documented that Jewish émigrés had limited resources upon their transit through Ellis Island during earlier mass migrations, also.

Upon entering the gates of my field site, I was greeted by many clients who were working mostly on immigration matters since the tax season is over. I went over to greet the homeowner 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 in finance for a Wall Street investment bank, the homeowner told her client about the project I’m working on. I proceeded to tell them what Nazir and others have told me about how the Indo-Guyanese community was able to weather the Housing Bubble Crisis due to their inherent “values.” The homeowner and her client stated that the facts don’t support my student and acquaintances’ assertions. They lamented how poor Indo-Guyanese families and new immigrants were “hoodwinked” into subprime loans by their own Indo-Guyanese compatriots (a minority). They only hoped that they could be prosecuted for their predatory behavior. Unfortunately, due to pride and shame, few people will publicly admit that they lost their homes or that they were stuck with balloon payments on their mortgage.

For support and evidence, the homeowner directed me to three Indo-Guyanese realtors (two Hindus and one Muslim) who are her clients and who are based in Richmond Hill, Queens. I contacted the three realtors. Each told me of the devastation the Housing Bubble Crisis caused in the Indo-Guyanese communities. For example, Surujdai (Shanta) Gopaul, CBR, who owns Remax Homes Realty on Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens, stated that she is working on three short sales as she is speaking to me. Additionally, her office has worked on many foreclosures and mortgage modifications. Moreover, some of her clients had to give up second homes or investment homes that were underwater. Yes, she points out that the Indo-Guyanese community collectively fared better than other communities, perhaps, due to their inherent values. Nonetheless, they are also severely scorched by the Housing Bubble Crisis, especially, the working poor and the new immigrants in her community. “After all, the poor but never the rich is always exploited!” exclaimed Shanta.

The Root of the Demise of the American Dream
As mentioned throughout the paper, many critics (including some of the interviewees) point to the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy for the demise, in part, of the American dream in this immigrant community and others.

To get to the root of the matter, I attended a Princeton Club hosted conference entitled Rethinking Finance: New Perspectives on the Crisis – A conference on the lessons from the financial crisis. The Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke was the keynote speaker. At the august halls of the Princeton Club, I shook the Chairman’s hand and told him that I look forward to asking him a question during the Q & A. He smiled as Princeton University Professor Alan Blinder (whom I interviewed for another project in 2010) ushered him into the conference room.

During the Q & A sessions, I was unable to ask my question because my raised hand was drowned in a sea of raised hands. I was hoping that I would stand out since 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 the behalf of one of her students doing a senior thesis on the Housing crisis) asked the Chairman about his predecessor’s role in the Housing Bubble Crisis. He didn’t directly answer the question but to state that many people make so many ex post bad decisions – these bad decisions are the causes of the foreclosure crisis.

Regardless, based on the presentations, I argued that the Fed and Congress shared in the American Dream’s demise via their inability or unwillingness to regulate subprime lending primarily by state-chartered lenders (as per Dr. Robert E. Litan’s presentation).

Interestingly, an immigrant community known for its future oriented behavior toward finance and housing fell victim to the Housing Bubble Crisis similarly to other communities. I argued that the American Dream turning into an American Nightmare on Main Street could have been avoided if Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve Bank had assumed the role of a referee as it pertains to monetary policy. For example, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok (2010) argued that former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan (1987 to 2006; appointed by President George H. W. Bush) could have managed the housing bubble by raising interest rates and/or warn the market. Additionally, he could have smoothed out the fluctuations in the market by “popping the bubble” with a tight monetary policy to prevent housing prices from rising too high. In so doing, the boom and the downturn would have been more moderate thus causing 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 homeownership) of both the working class and middle class of an immigrant community.