Jamaica is a collection of neighborhoods in southeastern Queens, centered on a downtown area around Jamaica Avenue. It is one of Queens’s oldest settlements, dating back to the mid-17th century. The area has seen dramatic demographic changes over the years. In the 1950s, its primarily Irish residents left for the suburbs and African-American families moved in. When housing prices tumbled in the 1970s and 80s, West Indian and Hispanic immigrants bought up the affordable property. Over the last two decades, Jamaica has become even more popular among immigrants, including South Asians, Guyanese and other South Americans and Caribbean Islanders.
New Yorkers know Jamaica best as a transportation hub. It’s the primary transfer point for trains to Long Island and one of two places that travelers can catch the Air Train to John F. Kennedy Airport. The train station is located on Sutphin Boulevard, one of the major streets in downtown Jamaica, which intersects with Jamaica Avenue and Hillside Avenue. On Jamaica Avenue, just east of the station, passengers waiting for a train will find discount department stores and a number of chains; a small pedestrian mall in the middle of the strip includes several food options, including Jamaican Flavors, which sells Jamaican patties, pastries with flaky crusts and stuffed with a slightly spicy beef filling. Another popular nearby grub choice is El Rey, a Dominican lunch spot on Hillside Avenue.
Jamaica is the seat of Queens County, home to the local court system and the central branch of the massive Queens Library. Prospect Cemetery, a graveyard that dates to Colonial times, located just south of Jamaica Avenue, was listed on the National Register of Historical Places in 2002. King Manor on Jamaica Avenue was the home to U.S. Constitution signer Rufus King.
North of Hillside Avenue there are some slightly more upscale areas, including Jamaica Estates, with maple- and oak-lined streets that seem a world away from the rest of the neighborhood. Jamaica Hills, to the west of the Estates, is a less glamorous but diverse working-class area. In Richmond Hill, just west of central Jamaica, Liberty Avenue is lined with Caribbean restaurants, including Sybil’s, a destination for beef patties and stewed tomato and okra.
College basketball fans know Jamaica as the home of the St. John’s Red Storm, New York City’s premiere college basketball program. While the Johnnies have fallen on hard times of late, catching a game at Carnesecca Arena on campus is a fun outing. St John’s fields competitive teams in soccer and baseball as well.
The Sutphin Boulevard-Archer Avenue-JFK Airport station, a stop on the E, J, and Z subway trains, is a good option for exploring downtown Jamaica. The best place to catch a cab is outside the Long Island Rail Road/Air Train station. Jamaica is still making its way up from economic hard times and is best explored during the day. The borders of downtown Jamaica are Hillside Avenue to the north, above which is Jamaica Hills and Liberty Avenue to the South, below which is South Jamaica. West of the Van Wyck Expressway is Richmond Hill and Hollis is east of 188th Street.