The image of Queens shared by many Americans, especially those old enough to remember, begins with the character of Archie Bunker, who debuted in All in the Family in January 1971. Through the eyes of those (about half of all people watching TV on Saturday) viewing this seminal TV program, Queens consisted of tightly knit, prejudiced, argumentative families living their lives in relatively well defined neighborhoods.
Such people frowned on marrying outside of ones own group. Archie never got over the fact that his daughter Gloria married a "polack." Other insular attitudes abounded: "Girls were girls and men were men," as the theme song said. Edith, Archie's wife, stayed at home to serve Archie; later she did take a part-time job at a nursing home. Through Archie's bigoted eyes, Jews, who he called "hebes," blacks, Puerto Ricans and others should not be part of his America. Archie and his family continue in reruns to the present day. The show and its successor Archie's Place stayed on the air into the early 1980s, and were reprised for a while in the early 1990s on CBS. Now it lives on in reruns -- one cable channel runs two episodes a day, everyday. All my students are very aware of Archie Bunker.
One year before the launch of All in the Family, the borough of Queens did largely resemble the place Archie and his family lived. The borough was 86 percent white, 13 percent black and about 1 percent Asian. The likelihood that a black family like the Jeffersons would move near Archie's house was near zero. Like Archie, about 80 percent of Queens residents were born in the United States, and only 3.5 percent were not citizens. Only about 3 percent (or less) were Hispanic and only about 1 percent were Asians. Aside from the United States itself, just five countries -- Italy, Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union and Cuba -- supplied more than 1 percent of the population. Almost 90 percent of men and about one half of women 18 to 64 were in the labor force. Only 24 percent of those 15 or older had never married. In short, Archie, a Protestant though he was played by a Catholic (Carroll O'Connor), was living in a Queens populated mostly by native born people who lived in married couple households.
Today, of course, Queens is radically different. It is only 44 percent white. The borough is 20 percent black and 18 percent Asian. Still it remains highly segregated with blacks rarely living in neighborhoods with many whites or Asians. Only 54 percent of the residents were born in the United States, and those from Asia and various Central and South American counties make up about 40 percent of the population. Now only three quarters of the men aged 25 to 64 are in the labor force, while two thirds of similarly aged women work.
Today, the vast majority of Queens residents 15 or older have been or are married. In 2000 less than one-third never had been married. Throughout the United States, of course, the percent of people never marrying has been rising steadily.
Given the radical changes, would Archie still live in Queens? If one does not consider ethnic, racial or foreign-born origin the answer is yes. In 1971, Archie may have been a bigoted and insular native-born white Protestant suspicious of foreigners, blacks and Puerto Ricans. Today, one could find Archies among many of the diverse groups living in the borough and elsewhere. (The fact that Archie struck such a responsive chord throughout the United States may mean that his attitudes expressed those of many in the 1970s and early 1980s.) Though they may come from different parts of the globe, speak different languages and be members of different racial and origin groups, Queens residents mostly live in family households in family neighborhoods. They are intently focused on their own family, their own neighborhood and their own group. They probably are as much against intermarriage as was Archie. Many immigrants are very conservative politically. Many have hostile attitudes toward African Americans, according to recent exit polls and other surveys.
Indeed, the immigrants have become Americanized. Many have a foot in two societies, the United States and the one from which they immigrated. Queens was a borough of married families in 1970, and it is still a borough of married families today. Of course, more of the Ediths of today work. But today's Archies, though they come from many different origins, remain family centered and ethnocentric.
The Queens Library recently mounted an exhibit, much of which is now on-line, entitled From Burgh to Borough: Queens Enters the 20th Century, which focuses on the development of Queens' neighborhoods. Archie Bunker lived in one of these neighborhoods (there is dispute as to which one); his successors live in these same neighborhoods. Indeed, such neighborhoods look very much the same today, as they did when Archie lived here. It is just the people's background that has changed.
Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981. Since 1993 he has done demographic analyses and consulted for the New York Times. He has provided expert testimony in districting and redistricting, housing discrimination, and numerous other civil rights cases in the metropolitan area and elsewhere. The opinions expressed in Topics are his alone.
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Last Updated (Mar 19, 2013)