"Forest Hills is where Long Island meets Park Slope meets Archie Bunker."
Photo by Victor Chu
If you ever run into Nora Lum—better known as the rapper and comedian Awkwafina—don't assume she's from Flushing. She gets that a lot. Instead, ask if she has time to hit up the Buffalo Wild Wings or one of the other chains in Forest Hills, where she grew up and where her folks still live. Or have her recommend a walk and a good place to pee from her new book Awkwafina's NYC while chowing down at Bareburger, which she calls "the pride of Forest Hills."
VICE: How would you describe Forest Hills to a first-time visitor?
Awkwafina: Forest Hills is where Long Island meets Park Slope meets Archie Bunker.
Forest Hills Gardens is I think one of the most upscale, gated communities. It's primarily Victorian. There used to be a tennis stadium there. They had a limited Adidas shoe that said "Forest Hills." This is a beautiful gated area with all these beautiful residential houses. When you go to the other side of Forest Hills, away from the gated community, across Queens Boulevard, it becomes more ethnic.
What's your earliest memory of the neighborhood?
I lived across the street from a park. I have various childhood memories. There was this lady that lived in my building and she was a kind of shriveled, older lady. And my dad always called her the Bird Lady. I always wondered why she was called a Bird Lady. It's because she looked like a bird.
Do you have a favorite neighborhood character?
Forest Hills is primarily Jewish. It's a lot of Bukharan Jews, which are people that come from Uzbekistan. In my building there were a lot of older people that were just dope and ate matzo ball soup every day. Bird Lady was one of them.
What's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to you in Forest Hills?
Oh my god. Well, Jack was pretty weird. It's pretty intense. I don't want to incriminate anyone. I don't even know his last name. We would go to his house and that was weird and he would cook us food and it was really gross and we wouldn't want to eat it. A couple people ended up living at his house, I guess?
When I was 17, I was smoking weed at my neighborhood park with my dear friend Kim and a detective was watching us across the street. He brought Chinese-speaking officers to arrest us, which was kind of ironic because we were just speaking English and they really didn't know much English. The detectives were like, "We're not going to book you. We're going to bring you to this room because we need to ask you questions about Jack." So they brought me into an interrogation room like Law & Order . And me, personally, I'm no snitch. I don't like snitching. But I was like, "I'll tell you everything." So I basically told them this tale about Jack. Apparently there were rumors that a boy ran away and was living with Jack and there were maybe some shady things going on there. But then Jack kind of just disappeared. I never saw him again. I always wonder where he's at... like is he dead?
Do you think your interrogation led to his disappearance?
They were trying to fake dirt on him. And the truth is that he definitely was giving us cigarettes and stuff, and like, offered us weed, but his weed was always brown. It looked like it was just shoved up his own asshole. Since 1976. It just didn't look normal. It was a shady situation. That's a good documentary right there. Unless he's a pedophile. In which case it would be a great documentary I guess.
What are some of your favorite places to eat?
There's this place called Eddie's Sweet Shop. Ray Romano is from [around] there. It's a really old ice cream shop. I'll still go there with my friends.
There's Buffalo Wild Wings, which is great. I've learned to cherish Buffalo Wild Wings because I think living in Brooklyn, you just don't get a lot of chains. Everything is kind of like, a vegan bodega. Forest Hills makes me love the chains. Forest Hills is ritzy in a different way. It's the town of a suburban area. They'll have a Buffalo Wild Wings and a place where you can take your shoes off and eat Japanese food. There's a place called Narita.
Where do you go for some peace and quiet in Forest Hills?
There's a secret pedestrian walkway to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park which kind of leads to this abandoned area of the park with a smaller lake.
For peace and quiet I can really just walk around the neighborhood. It's completely like a departure from the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn and Manhattan. It's definitely not like other parts of Queens, like Jackson Heights.
What's one true stereotype of the neighborhood?
One is that it's a starter home for young parents and young families right before they move to like, Roslyn, Long Island. That's where they start.
It's also where older people go die. I hate to say it. It's a lot of elderly and parents. And then people like me, whose parents never bought a house. They just stayed in Forest Hills and raised their kids there. There are definitely a lot of old people in Forest Hills. Everyone has a reclusive aunt they never talk to that lives in Forest Hills.
How would you describe how the neighborhood has changed?
The most refreshing thing about Forest Hills is that it has not changed. Aside from storefronts opening and disappearing, the character of the neighborhood has stayed the same since I was a baby. It's one of those neighborhoods that was never a completely gentrified area. It was always just in the middle. I think a very specific person wants to move to Forest Hills, or feels the allure of doing that. I love Forest Hills. It just hasn't changed at all.
Most underrated neighborhood destination?
Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. I described it in my book as the La Toya Jackson of the Parks Department in that it's not really cherished. Prospect Park is bangin'. Central Park is lit. Even Bryant Park—it's not even a park, it's a little thing. Flushing Meadows Park is huge. It has two lakes. It has museums. It has a [theater] for opera. It's crazy. But I remember going there as a kid and it was completely desolate. It's crazy because you know the Men in Black spaceships? That's been closed for years. The UN building used to be in the park. No one goes there. And it's kind of sad. It's not bangin'. There aren't people going around having a barbecue, picnic. There's none of that going on. I really love the park a lot.
What's a Sunday like?
Austin Street is poppin' on Sunday. I used to go to this diner every Sunday with my dad that was up the block. It's closed. I'd get a bowl of matzo ball soup because that's what they always had there. On Austin Street everyone just kind of lines up at Bareburger. I'm not kidding. The line wraps around the block. It's insane how much they love Bareburger. It's lit.
This interview has been edited and condensed.