Photo by Mike Hicks

Best Feet Forward

Best Feet Forward

On a Sunday in 2006, two Bangladeshi soccer teams faced off on a field in Astoria, Queens. It was the finals, the last game in the Bangladesh Sports Council of America's summer league, which runs every year from May through September (with a monthlong break for Ramadan if it falls during the season). The winner of the game would clinch glory in the form of a three-foot trophy. The loser would disappoint the community members who had raised the $10,000 to $20,000 needed to fund the team’s season.

One team, Sandwip Sporting Club USA, scored a goal — but the referee blew his whistle late. The other team, Bongo Sporting, believed that made him miss an offsides call that cost them the goal, leading them to storm off the field in protest. Despite a 3,000-strong crowd, so large the league’s administration had secured help from the local police department, the Bangladesh Sports Council couldn’t get the obstinate Bongo Sporting back on the field for the last ten minutes of play.

It’s difficult to overstate soccer’s importance to New York’s Bangladeshi population. By the standards of a 400-year-old city, the Bangladeshi community is very young. Up until 1990, it numbered only 8,695, according to a 2013 New York City government report. The population exploded after the U.S. Immigration Act of 1990 introduced the Diversity Immigration Visa, a new visa class that chose applicants from qualified countries based on a lottery, and expanded America’s annual immigration intake from 500,00 to 700,000 people. Its youth brings challenges: half of the population is not proficient in English, which leads to trouble interpreting New York City’s housing and social services channels. Until the small community navigates these channels and makes its voice heard, it will need to fend for itself. Soccer is one of the cultural touchstones that helps keep the community close-knit.

To win the summer league means prominently displaying the large championship trophy in shop windows for community bragging rights. Bismillah Kabab and Curry, a restaurant in East New York, has four of them on top of a Pepsi drink case. Bismillah, located just past the Grant Avenue stop on the A train, sits at the heart of a Bangladeshi community that, according to its leaders, is newer and more tightly knit than the others in New York. This small but growing community is centered on Liberty Avenue, in a neighborhood known as City Line. Straddling the line between East New York in Brooklyn and Ozone Park in Queens, the Bangladeshis of City Line face both the challenges that any new immigrant population faces, and the unique complications that come from living at the border of two boroughs — from police protection to public schools. For these new immigrants, self-sufficiency and community cohesion aren’t just aspirational platitudes about the American Dream. They are tools essential to everyday survival.

As relative newcomers to New York City, the City Line, Bangladeshis have followed the pattern of many immigrant communities before them: grow in numbers, preserve a tight-knit internal culture, and slowly accumulate the neighborhood-level influence that they need to stand up for themselves. City Line is one of the smallest and newest Bangladeshi communities in the city, joining already-existing enclaves in Jackson Heights and Jamaica in Queens, Parkchester in the Bronx, and the Church Avenue corridor in Brooklyn. According to a 2013 estimate, there are 2,178 Bangladeshis in City Line, or just under 5 percent of the total neighborhood population. But City Line has quickly sprouted a number of local businesses that cater to Bangladeshis, Bangladeshi mosques, and a civic organization that is essentially the project of one man.

The Bangladeshi American Community Development and Youth Services center sits in a converted duplex just off Liberty Avenue. Its founder, Misba Abdin, often works inside the building, but he’s just as likely to be out among the community. Abdin is an anomaly. While Shams Uddin, Abdin’s cousin and the president of the local mosque, estimated that 80 percent of the local Bangladeshis reliably attend mosque, Abdin doesn’t, and he prefers to keep BACDYS secular. He could have focused on his family’s very profitable businesses, which include construction, real estate, and shopping-center companies, along with a small grocery store empire in New York City. Instead, he chose to open BACDYS in 2011 and funds much of it with family money.

Unlike the majority of New York’s Bangladeshi population, Abdin came to America in the 1980s. His father was among the first wave of Bangladeshi immigrants to New York and arrived in 1948, settling in Manhattan at Second Avenue and Sixth Street. When crime in Manhattan started getting worse, Abdin says, his father moved to City Line with a handful of other families. But the community didn’t start booming until after the Immigration Act of 1990 passed and Bangladeshi immigrants became qualified for the Diversity Visa lottery. Since then, bodegas featuring South Asian goods and halal restaurants with Bengali signage have sprouted up on Liberty Avenue. The decade-old mosque just down the street from BACDYS, Masjid Al-Aman, is the largest in the area and attracts hundreds of locals for daily prayer. And BACDYS is just one of several local civic nonprofits that address the collective needs of the area’s population.

Soccer practice in Elmhurst, Queens. Photo by Mike Hicks

New York City’s Bangladeshi population grew from 42,865 in 2000 to 74,692 in 2011, according to a 2013 report by the New York City government. Almost all of New York City’s overall Bangladeshi population growth comes from immigration, the report states, leading to one of the community’s largest challenges: fluency in English. Just over half of New York’s Bangladeshi population has limited proficiency in English, which compounds other obstacles, like navigating the legal intricacies of obtaining housing and applying for public assistance.

In conversation, many members of the Bangladeshi community casually interchange the terms “Bengali” and “Bangladeshi,” but the two are not synonymous. The former is an ethnic identity that refers to residents of the Bengal region, which is divided between India (including the city of Kolkata) and Bangladesh. The latter refers to residents of the country of Bangladesh, which won independence in 1973 after a bloody conflict with Pakistan that included the Bangladesh Liberation War and the 1971 Bangladesh Genocide. The Bengal region remains divided along religious lines: Most Indian Bengalis are Hindu, while Bangladeshis are overwhelmingly Muslim.

BACDYS’s community education pamphlet, which Abdin gives to all members of the City Line community, contains a list of important Bangladeshis, from the architect of the twin World Trade Center towers to the founder of YouTube. It has pages on Bangladeshi cultural traditions and culinary specialties. In other words, Abdin is doing what he can to help his community make its presence known. But while New York City’s roughly 70,000 Bangladeshis give the South Asian country ample representation in the five boroughs — the eleventh-biggest foreign-born group in the city, according to a 2013 study — it’s the community’s young age, not its size, that keeps it underrepresented.

According to Howard Shih, census programs director at the Asian American Federation of New York, the community has yet to learn the ropes when it comes to gaining influence to receive city funding. “They’re not at that level yet where they’re well-established. They don’t have a track record with the city to be competitive for city grants,” Shih said. “The Chinese community, for example, can get a city or a state grant but the Bangladeshi community can’t yet — they have to rely on community contributions or foundation grants.” Moreover, city funding for minority communities has dropped off since the Great Recession, says Shih. City grants are typically the largest sources of funding for ethnic enclaves and minority organizations, but with reductions for all existing grantees, Shih anticipates far fewer opportunities for the Bangladeshi communities to receive city money.

Shih put together the AAF’s 2013 report on the New York Bangladeshi community that depicts a number of broad struggles. In addition to the community’s relatively low rate of English proficiency, Bangladeshi households have a lower median income, $36,714, than the citywide median of $50,711, as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau. The reason behind this, Shih says, is not lack of skills or education. The percentage of Bangladeshi immigrants in New York who have college degrees is actually slightly higher than that of the city as a whole. Rather, he says, they have trouble transferring these credentials into qualifications for higher-paying jobs. “They end up being what’s called ‘underemployed’ and work in industries where Bangladeshis have established themselves,” says Shih. “They run a bodega, or run a newspaper stand, or become a taxi driver — that sort of thing.”

There are ESL classes available, but the wait is long — and for every person who completes the course, there are many more behind them who have just arrived from Bangladesh. The demand has increased sharply, which is why Abdin has cleared out and refurbished BACDYS’s duplex basement with the requisite blue carpet, orange walls, and dry-erase board of any small public classroom. He’s promised to bring his community in to learn English, even if he has to do it 20 locals at a time. And indeed, with less than half of New York City’s Bangladeshi population speaking English proficiently according to the AAF’s 2013 report, it’s no exaggeration to say that the community relies on Abdin and BACDYS for many of its basic needs. Sometimes this means calling around to find a funeral service that can prepare a ceremony in keeping with Muslim tradition. More often, it means Abdin has to find living quarters for new Bangladeshi immigrants, even if that means putting them up in apartments his family owns.

Aside from issues of language, visibility, and funding, all of which are fairly common among new immigrant populations, living in City Line poses challenges unique to Abdin and his community. The neighborhood is located in what could be called a policing and educational no-man’s land. It is on the edge of two massive precincts — the 75th Precinct on the Brooklyn side, and the 106th Precinct in Queens. The 75th Precinct, one of the largest in the city, has experienced twice as many shootings this year as it did last year. The 106th Precinct’s territory includes the Resorts World Casino, the first casino permitted to open in the city, which has drawn police attention away from the community thanks to crime from casino robberies to the misadventures of enraged gamblers. Sitting between them has been frustrating for Abdin, even if violent crime is, on the whole, much less common in New York than it used to be. “It used to be bad but it's better. I wouldn't say that it's because of the precincts, or our councilman or assembly — it’s because we stood up. We fought back,” Abdin says. “Before, after a burglary, we used to take it.”

Abdin has tried to find ways to get the NYPD to pay more attention to the district, but he says that even joining the 75th Precinct’s council committee didn’t help. The 75th is just too big — and unless the NYPD splits it up, the precinct will keep falling short in its ability to provide service to City Line. Shams Uddin echoed his cousin’s concerns about a lack of attention from the NYPD. When asked what his biggest aspirations for the neighborhood were, he named two: to turn a nearby parking lot into a playground and park, and to increase the presence of NYPD safety cameras around City Line. Uddin complained that even the immediate vicinity of his mosque wasn’t safe. He said that a month earlier, right after services let out a community member’s car was stolen at gunpoint just around the corner from Masjid Al-Aman. No one knows who did it, or why.

Compounding the problem of being on the edge of two precincts, Abdin says, is City Line’s vulnerability to criminals who know how to exploit the neighborhood’s weaknesses. The same group of people, he says, are smash-and-grabbing businesses in his community and selling drugs. They avoid arrest by hopping precinct borders and moving to the borough where they believe they are less likely to get caught. “They’re playing a rat-and-cat game,” Abdin says. “Any time they get busted in Brooklyn they move to Queens border on Queens side; when something happens on Queens side they move to Brooklyn. All my life here — from 1982 to now — I haven’t seen one town hall meeting here in this area for safety or anything. Over my lifetime at least ten people have been shot and killed in this district.”

The flashpoint for Abdin’s dissatisfaction with NYPD inefficiency is the nearby Crystal Blue in Queens, a local party hall that turns into an illegal nightclub on weekends. “It’s not zoned for it and it’s not a club,” Abdin says. “They didn’t get permission to open a club so they opened a party hall and their promoter brings in the clientele. Minors come in and drink alcohol, there’s a lot of prostitution, they smoke weed outside, and there's a shooting at least once a month. If it’s a party hall, why is there a bouncer outside checking IDs?”

The Bangladeshi summer soccer league. Photo by Mike Hicks

The party hall opened almost four years ago, Abdin says. Several online videos from YouTube user Jahfari Jarret show pre-performance snippets from “Crystal Blue Nite Club Queens, NY” and there are different entries for Crystal Blue Reception Hall on Yelp and a Crystal Blue Lounge on Facebook and other nightlife event sites. Abdin complained to the council member representing Ozone Park and arranged a meeting with the commissioner of the borough. Still, he says, the trouble has continued. “It makes people in the community afraid to come out, especially in the mosques.”

Being on the border between Queens and Brooklyn also has benefits, Abdin says. He’s no fan of Brooklyn’s public schools and when members of his community request, he lets them use the addresses of his family’s Queens residences to get their students into better schools. “My family owns a lot of buildings on the other side in Queens and all these parents want to use our addresses so they can send their kid to school in Queens. They don't want to send their kid to Brooklyn because the school education is not as good as in Queens,” he says.

The arrival of so many Bangladeshi immigrants so quickly to City Line has not been without its tensions, especially at first. In 1997, when Frank Salinas moved the barbershop he part-owns to Forbell Street off Liberty Avenue, the neighborhood was mostly Hispanic. In 2000, a number of Bangladeshis bought several housing plots down the street from Salinas’s barbershop. They razed them and built Masjid-Al Aman. And since the mosque’s construction, the Bangladeshi community has grown to the point where its members make up most of Salinas’s customers.

This caused tension at first, but over time, Salinas’s feelings have grown more positive. “I think it’s better. You see more kids playing in the street,” he says. “It’s peaceful now, at least in the day. Salinas says that part of this has to do with the Bangladeshi community becoming more settled and established. “I feel like I grew up with these people. I see them every day — more than my family,” he says of the Bangladeshi. “I guess they’ve kind of become my family.” This “family” includes Abdin, who has gotten his hair cut by Salinas for years and opened BACDYS right next door to the barbershop.

Salinas says he is not bothered by the fact that the growing Bangladeshi community may have pushed out some of the neighborhood’s older Latino residents. Eventually, he believes, folks from different cultures will fall in love and have children. Abdin himself expressed a similar hope. He pointed out proudly that his son has friends from all walks of life — Jewish, Latino, Hindu, African-American — and said that one of his goals as a community leader is to encourage this kind of mixing among adults on a neighborhood level. In the meantime, Salinas continues to enjoy cutting Bangladeshi hair — especially after Friday prayers, when a rush of people come into his barbershop.

Masjid-Al Aman, down the street from Salinas’s barbershop, has indeed been a godsend for his business. While it is not the only mosque in the area, it is the largest, enjoying a central place among the local Bangladeshi population because of its large size and ability to hold the five daily prayer sessions that Islam prescribes. On days that are not Friday, Uddin estimated that 60 percent of the community comes to mosque — mostly senior citizens, he says — and he offers classes to teach children the Qu’ran on weekends. Regular additions to the community keep attendance at the mosque high, which makes sense — 90 percent of Bangladesh is Muslim, according to a 2010 Pew Research study.

Masjid Al-Aman on Forbell Street, City Line’s largest mosque. Photo by David Lumb

But far from being an isolated group of Muslims in East New York, Bangladeshis have co-religionists nearby in the area’s large Guyanese population. City Line Bangladeshis regularly attend local Guyanese mosques, which conduct services in English, and vice versa. Guyana has a far lower Muslim population than Bangladesh, at 7 percent, and New York City’s Guyanese immigrants reflect their country’s greater diversity of religion. The Guyanese Muslims who have come to New York, however, have both founded their own mosques and established plenty of common ground with the newer Bangladeshi immigrants.

Though Masjid-Al Aman is large enough to hold over a thousand people at a time, the Islamic calendar contains holy days that call for communal prayer on a grand scale. Once again, Abdin comes to help out in these situations. In 2012, BACDYS began renting out the nearby Grant Avenue Municipal Parking Field for the two Eid holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, both of which attracted over 6,000 local Muslims, Bangladeshi and Guyanese alike.

When it’s not Eid, Abdin has another use for the parking field: his proudest project, the Carnival of Cultures. The five-night festival, which occurs every August, has all the highlights of an outer-borough community fair, from mechanical rides to raffle draws, all culminating in a night of Bangladeshi music and cultural presentations. But the other nights are spotlights for the communities Abdin has made inroads with — one night each for West Indians, for Latinos, and for non-Bangladeshi Asians. Out in East New York, this is how Abdin is getting support for his community. It’s a lot like high school: get people in the same place to spend time together. If folks from different communities recognize each other on the street later, Abdin says, that’s one less New York-style cold shoulder to separate them.

Bangladeshi families attend one of the many cultural celebrations Abdin sponsors every year. Photo by David Lumb

For now, though, Abdin’s efforts to promote cultural mixing and assimilation remain largely aspirational. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Bangladeshis’ beloved soccer league, which was started in 1989 as a way to unite the far-flung Bangladeshi enclaves across the five boroughs. Today, it remains a Bangladeshi-only institution, a cultural touchstone for established Bangladeshi-Americans and new immigrants alike. “We’ve kept it among us to promote our people first,” says Monzur Chowdhury, the founding president of the Bangladesh Sports Council of America, which puts on the summer leagues. “Our main goal is to promote our voice.”

In New York, a city where one can travel miles without seeing a sizable green space, and in a Bangladeshi community whose households bring in 30 percent less than the city average annually, neighborhoods spend tens of thousands of dollars on a season-long soccer season. That money goes to renting a crisp field (about $50,000 this year), paying insurance on the field, buying advertisements in newspapers, and paying professional referees — the only non-Bangladeshis on the field, who adhere to strict FIFA rules. After the $1,600 team registration fee, the rest of each team’s yearly expenses go to buying plane tickets ($1,500 apiece) for stringers from London, Canada, and even from the Bangladesh national soccer team, a set number of whom are allowed to play each season.

The league has grown to ten teams, most of which come from the city’s Bangladeshi nexuses in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. The league has also included teams from out of state; this year, both a New Jersey team (Jersey United) and a team out of Stamford, Connecticut have made the long trek to the league’s field in Elmhurst, Queens for Sunday games. Previous years have seen teams from as far away as Pennsylvania and Michigan. But no matter where the players come from, they must be Bangladeshi. Abdin says that the community is so firm about this rule because Bangladeshi culture has deeply ingrained protocol and traditions for how to deal with conflict. Letting others into the league, he says, would lead to the potential for interethnic misunderstandings.

At a recent meeting of area business owners, located in the South Asian-themed Liberty Palace Banquet Hall in Ozone Park, Vishnu Mahadeo of the Richmond Hill Economic Development Council spoke boldly on the possibility of uniting for neighborhood improvements. He called for group agency in the face of an uncaring city. But, he said, South Asians’ voices will only be heard if they unite. The small-business owners in front of Mahadeo nodded. One small-business owner voiced his frustration that the city planted trees in front of his door despite his explicit request to the contrary on a survey handed out a year ago.

Mahadeo quickly jumped in, explaining to the group that city apathy like this is why their community must organize. Slowly the conversation returned to the results of a survey that Mahadeo’s organization conducted on the neighborhood. The conclusions were grim: the streets and sidewalks are dirty, the neighborhood is unsafe at night, and the streets and sidewalks are in need of repair.

When Mahadeo speaks to local business owners, he’s speaking to a diverse group of constituents — a Bangladeshi couple, Latinos, African-Americans, Guyanese and other Indo-Caribbeans. In other words, a mix far more diverse than the stretch of Liberty Ave where BACDYS is located. Mahadeo believes that the Bangladeshi, unlike many other immigrant groups in the area, are still in their first “generation.” The assimilation of the next generation, he says, will season the Bangladeshi community and help put it in a better position to fight for its interests. “This is a first-generation issue where you have to understand the system. You’re running a business — it’s like a new culture, a new exposure,” he says.

Naela Khan, a program coordinator at South Asian Youth Action, a Queens-based nonprofit that serves young South Asians in New York City, made similar observations. Khan explained that almost all of New York City’s South Asian youth are the children of first-generation immigrants or first-generation themselves and face many of the same issues: low English proficiency, higher rates of poverty, and a lower family income that can pressure South Asian youth to get jobs in high school rather than focus on their studies. Within these communities, Bangladeshis are some of the newest arrivals; those in New York City have somewhat lower rates of English proficiency than their South Asian peers, but also have a noticeably tighter-knit community, she said. Despite similar cultural backgrounds, Khan said, in her experience the South Asian youth typically segregate themselves along national lines.

Even something as small as check on Census forms provides a glimpse into how the Bangladeshis see themselves. In 2010, the Census provided a blank box for respondents to write in country of origin — a step up from broad regional categories that include hundreds of millions of diverse people. “A lot of people in 1990 would just be checking the Asian Indian box. They kind of assumed that that was an Indian Subcontinent classification rather than country-based,” says the Asian American Federation’s Howard Shih. “That’s the confusion of the whole Asian categories is that they’re country-based, rather than pure ethnicity or pure cultural identity.” Shih expects that like many of the ethnic groups that came to the U.S. before them, the Bangladeshis will eventually coalesce around a single identity.

In some ways, City Line remains staunchly traditional — compared not only to the city’s other South Asian communities, but to the city’s other Bangladeshi enclaves as well. Abdin said that he found young people in New York’s other Bangladeshi communities to be “not as respectful,” with more smoking, drinking, and women out and about in the streets. He attributed the good behavior of City Line’s youth to the community’s willingness to discipline its children in accordance with Bangladeshi customs. According to Mohammad Anwar Hossain, a neighborhood resident, the younger generation does sometimes break with a number of Bangladeshi traditions. In particular, he said, they have started to approach elders on the street and chat amiably, bucking the cultural norm of displaying deference to elders and getting out of the way.

There is broad agreement on the role of women in the community. According to 2010 government Census data, just over 33 percent of the female Bangladeshi population over 16 was employed. A quick look at the soccer field on any given Sunday highlights the fact that despite soccer’s reputation as a sport with more opportunities for women than most, there are no women on the field. “It’s a cultural thing, a religious thing,” Hossain says. “With the shorts and tight tops, nobody wants their daughter or sister playing in public.”

For the men in the community, though, soccer is an obsession. Bismillah Curry and Kebab on Liberty Avenue won a league trophy in 2009, the first year the restaurant raised a team. Its owners, a pair of brothers, have spent more than $20,000 each year — some years almost $30,000, according to Hossain, who was the captain of the 2009 victorious team. If this is a bought advantage that might tip the odds in Bismillah’s favor, he isn’t too worried about it. The game is worth it. It was worth it to play in the summer league the year after Hossain immigrated to Brooklyn at age 16 in 1996. It was worth it to come up and play every Sunday from Maryland, where the 34-year-old Hossain now lives with his wife and young son. It was worth it to play every single season in between.

The Bangladeshi Sunday soccer league. Photo by Mike Hicks

The only season he wasn’t able to make it was 2007, Hossain laments, when he was deployed to Iraq during his five-year tenure in the U.S. Army, working in supply logistics. Despite relocating to Afghanistan for the last six years as a civilian employed by the Army, Hossain has managed to come home for the summer season. He might come off the field huffing and puffing from trying to keep up with players half his age, but in fact, it’s not unusual for local Bangladeshis over 40 to take the field. By and large, the generation that started the league in 1989 is still involved, even if most of them have left the field and taken positions on the Bangladesh Sports Council. While the league has grown from seven teams when Hossain started to ten teams of eighteen players now, members of the community say that the league is more about cultural preservation than the raw number of players.

New York has become cleaner and safer since the league began in the last days of the eighties, but community elders in City Line still see the soccer leagues as a way to keep youth from getting involved in gangs and drugs. Because children don’t join the league until age 15, Hossain has been training his 5-year-old son to play soccer — as much a cultural act as a sporting one. Abdin, when asked about the league, said proudly that over 25,000 kids had played in it in his lifetime, about half of whom went on to graduate from college. At the end of every year, he said, there’s a pan-Asian soccer tournament held on Long Island, in which teams representing the different Asian countries play each other. He said, “We always win the cup!”

Which is another reason for all incoming Bangladeshi immigrants to rally behind the summer soccer leagues, says former sports council president Chowdhury: “Regardless of your ethnic background or state background, regardless of your different ideology, we can all come together on the soccer field.” That unification increases the Bangladeshi voice — something that’s sorely needed, as Bangladeshis represent just under 1 percent of the city’s 8 million people. The result, Shih explains, is a double bind in which the city is unaware of their needs and the Bangladeshis don’t know what they can get. “The Bangladeshis are not going to know what services they’re eligible for and won’t show up, so when the city doesn’t see them show up for those services, they assume the Bangladeshis don’t need the services,” he says.

According to Abdin, there’s a certain melancholy inherent in the work he does, trying to fuse the disparate Bangladeshi cultural and regional identities into a single Bangladeshi-American identity. Bangladeshis are still regularly immigrating to New York, but the Bangladeshi-Americans born in New York obviously don’t have the same connection to their home country. Abdin doubts they will even want to visit.

“One thing I've found is, people — where they’re born — the weather, country, nation is in their blood. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve traveled around. You find the smell of it and you’re born here and you came from here,” he says. “But our children, they’re born here in America, they’re American. I spent almost all of my life in America but when I go back home and I smell it, I look where I was born … I still have an urge to go back and see.”

David Lumb is a freelance journalist who writes for Fast Company and Popular Mechanics. He makes comics on the side at Old College Comics. He lives in Brooklyn.

Mike Hicks is a freelance photographer and multimedia producer. He lives in Park Slope.

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Q&A: Julie Golia of the Brooklyn Historical Society

A borough historian on the industrial past of Gowanus and the pull of the Kentile sign. Interview by Madeline Joyce