That’s when he found Staten Island. A colleague stepped in, organizing a house-hunting trip through the borough, assuring Gunaratne that it was far more congenial than Manhattan--and cheaper.
Gunaratne was charmed by Staten Island’s slower rhythms and small-town feel. The streets were quiet, and there was lots of open space for his children to play in. “I simply fell in love with Staten Island,” he recalls.
For the Gunaratne family, Staten Island was a convenient respite, a lucky accident. But for the thousands of Sri Lankans that were to follow them, this small neighborhood was to be an outpost of home.
Leslie Gunaratne says that his family was the first from Sri Lanka to settle on Staten Island when they moved into their three-bedroom apartment on Targee Street on May 1, 1967. Then, a few years later, Gunaratne got a phone call from the Sri Lankan mission to the United Nations. A young doctor due to start a job in the city was stuck at the airport with no place to go. Gunaratne instructed the officials to send the young man and his wife to Staten Island, and he promised to pay the taxi fare. (A foreign exchange shortage in Sri Lanka allowed travelers to change only $3.50 before coming to the U.S.) The kind gesture took root. “Leslie was nice enough to allow us to stay with him for almost a week,” recalls Dr. Fauzy Saleem, who still lives in the borough almost 30 years later.
After that, the pace picked up. Many of the early Sri Lankan settlers on the island were members of Gunaratne’s extended family, who began to come over in 1973 after he became a United States citizen. In just a few months, he helped his five brothers, four sisters and their families move to the U.S. By then, he’d bought a four-bedroom house in the New Brighton section of the island. Each sibling “would come and stay with me for a month, till they found a job,” he explains. “Then they’d rent places around the neighborhood.” Soon, many of his married nephews and nieces were bringing over their in-laws as well. By the time Gunaratne moved to Houston in 1979, he estimates that 80 percent of the roughly 500 Sri Lankans on Staten Island “were connected to me by blood or marriage.”
Gunaratne’s relatives became the kernel of a community that has since expanded to nearly 3,000 people, serviced by a restaurant, a Buddhist temple and a cluster of grocery stores. The island is the New York hub for the approximately 5,000 Sri Lankans in the tri-state area. “Staten Island is a name that’s known in big Sri Lankan cities,” says Bante Kondanna, the chief priest at the temple. “People know that if they run into trouble while visiting New York, they can come to Staten Island and find a Sri Lankan who will help them.”
The newcomers are most visible in the knot of businesses at the crossroads of Victory Boulevard and Cebra Avenue in northern Tomkinsville. Parkland Grocery is piled high with cans of fried jakseed and soya curry, as well as newspapers and videotapes from home. At Good Spicy Taste Restaurant and Bake Shop, Sri Lankans stop by for meals of such staples as kottu and rotti, topped off with creamy vatilappam, a flan-like dessert garnished with coconut and raisins. Often, the lilt of “baila” pop music--which fuses Portuguese colonial influences with rhythms from South India--floats out from a boom box on the counter. Images of the Buddha, Mary, the Hindu god Shiva and an Islamic inscription decorate the eatery, testimony to the religious diversity of these immigrants.
Like every immigrant group in the city, these Sri Lankans have devised their own distinct ways of becoming New Yorkers. Yet their path to becoming part of the fabric of the city tells a universal story of how immigrant settlements coalesce, grow and thrive.
Often, edging in has meant trying to exploit an occupational niche that other groups have ignored--or rejected. For many Sri Lankans, that path has led to working in the sex shops of Times Square, a marginal job that became even less desirable when the city passed anti-pornography laws three years ago. In another familiar phenomenon, groups that are warring in their homeland--in this case, the Tamils and the Sinhalas--here live side by side.
In fact, the biggest tensions in New York City’s Sri Lankan enclave don’t stem from old ethnic animosity. Instead, the conflicts are about how best to get by--and get ahead--in the new world. Some professional Sri Lankans worry their community’s reputation will be sullied by the sex-store workers. Ultimately, the particular patterns of this Sri Lankan enclave are a reminder that the city’s ethnic neighborhoods aren’t endpoints. Instead, they are way-stations, defined largely by accidents of personal preference and history, where immigrants are transformed into Americans.
Few people with work papers would willingly choose jobs in the porn industry, where dreary tasks include selling tokens and mopping effluvia off the floors of the peep show parlors. The hours are long, often for less than the minimum wage. And the shops are now a precarious way to make a living, ever since the Giuliani administration pushed through zoning regulations in 1997 that imperiled the future of this industry.
But that may also be what opened the door to this business for the new Sri Lankans: Simply put, dirty jobs are easier to get. As their island-nation’s economy crumbled under the strain of a long civil war, a new wave of Sri Lankans wound up in New York in the early 1990s. Many were here illegally, tourists who overstayed their visas or sailors who skipped ship. When they arrived, the city was recovering from a recession and still suffering from double-digit unemployment. Porn shops, unlike more dignified industries, were hiring.
The city doesn’t track the ethnicity of the store owners, but Sri Lankans estimate that their countrymen own between 10 and 15 stores--almost 10 percent of the 140 to 150 stores still operating. They are a visible presence in Times Square, if you know where to look. Among the owners is a man known to some as Lucky N because he has decided that the letter “n” is auspicious for him. He has given his establishments names like Neptune, Nimble and Nectar.