Mela Helps Build Sense of Community Ownership in Jackson Heights

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More than 1,500 people came to get a taste of South Asia at the 3rd Chatpati Mela Aug. 16 in Jackson Heights, Queens, N.Y. Organized by Chhaya Community Development Corporation, the mela offered a little bit of everything from dance and song, art and fashion, to the rich cuisine of the region – all in one of the rare open spaces – Play Street – at the corner of 78th and Travers Park, and spilling into the playground of an adjacent public school.

“This event falls into our community building goal. Also, we want the local community to feel a sense of ownership of their public spaces, and this is one such public space,” Seema Agnani, executive director of Chhaya CDC told Desi Talk. The long-term goal is to turn the 78th Street Play Street into a larger park, Agnani said, “And we want the community to be closely involved in that effort.”

The culture of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and the Indo-Caribbean were featured in performances by ethnic organizations including the Bangladesh Institute of Performing Arts, Udichi, Dance Theater of Nepal, Shantoneel Dhar, Virsa-Our Tradition, Dikyi, Chhaya’s dance troupe, and many more local community artists.

A Bhangra lesson from Minila Shah of Ajna Dance Company; street snacks and a paani puri eating contest; a fashion show by Nakksha, featuring up and coming South Asian fashions; and a children’s activities table manned by the Queens Museum of Arts, henna tattoo stations, and a photo booth. New York City’s Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs Nisha Agarwal brought greetings from Mayor Bill de Blasio, and spoke of the plans to introduce municipal identity cards. “This is an ID card that will be available to all regardless of immigration status and you’ll be able to get these cards starting in January,” Agarwal is quoted saying in a press release.

Several South Asian organizations joined Chhaya in holding the event including the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, ASHA Group, and the Indo-Caribbean Alliance. Other partners assisting included the Queens Museum of Arts, Legal Aid Society, India Home, Rubin Museum, Seva, Sikh Coalition, South Asian Youth Action (SAYA), and Habibi Express. Awards were presented by City Councilman Daniel Dromm.

Founded in 2000 at the height of the housing crisis, Chhaya has grown from its original mandate of helping immigrants keep their homes from foreclosing, into a much wider social work organization. Agnani said the organization today has 15 full-time staff and offers help also with career coaching, building savings, as well as with buying homes, as well as social assistance to South Asian immigrants.

While the demographics of Jackson Heights may be changing, Agnani said, and some people were being pushed out due to gentrification, “Jackson Heights will always be a historic hub for South Asians, much like Chinatown.” Chatpati Mela is just one effort to keep that historic character.

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