Photo: Matthew Sedacca

The Internet Café Is Alive in Queens

Old-fashioned pay-by-the hour cyber cafes are thriving in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods.

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Dec 10 2015, 1:00pm

Photo: Matthew Sedacca

Just up a long flight of stairs on Roosevelt Avenue, a dim room echoed with computer keyboard clicks. Inside, several customers gazed at the live stream of a Colombian football match on computer screens—images of the game reflecting on their eyeglasses. Others, sipping hot beverages, scrolled through their daily Facebook news.

This might sound like a typical day at your local coffee shop, but it's not. Instead, the scene is a part of a regular weekday afternoon at Cyber 88, a local internet cafe chain in Jackson Heights.

Today, the idea of an internet cafe in New York City may seem as anachronistic as traveling by horse and buggy. Public spaces like restaurants and coffee shops cram the city with storefronts prominently proclaiming "free Wi-Fi." Yet, against this backdrop of unrestricted internet access, old-fashioned pay-by-the hour cyber cafes—typically around $1 for an hour, $2 for three hours—persist, predominantly in immigrant neighborhoods of Queens.

"I just came here from Mexico, and I don't have a cell phone," said Alvaro Velasquez, who was leaving Cyber 88's branch on 88th Street. He had just arrived in the United States the day before with no means of accessing the internet. "I'm shipping everything from Mexico."

As soon as Velasquez receives his phone from Mexico, he will join the subpopulation of Latin American immigrants in Jackson Heights who rely on internet cafes to access the internet through a computer. In a 2015 study on US smartphone use conducted by the Pew Research Center, researchers found "15 percent of Americans own a smartphone but say that they have a limited number of ways to get online other than their cell phone."

Photo: Matthew Sedacca

Giselle Diyah, a Venezuelan immigrant and the owner of the local internet cafe chain La Casa de Internet, claims only a select few immigrants enjoy Wi-Fi access in their homes. A number of the locals at La Casa de Internet and Cyber 88 say that they cannot afford the $30 monthly cost of internet service along with the accompanying hardware. Others, Diyah explained, claim their lack of documentation impedes their attempts to sign up for service.

To get internet access, these technologically disadvantaged individuals flock to any of the neighborhood's half a dozen internet cafes situated on the Roosevelt and 37th Avenue drags. There, they spend hours surfing the web and talking to fellow immigrants.

Ruen Rojas, a 30-year-old immigrant from Mexico, frequents the cafe twice a week, largely because his aged computer consistently shutdowns. "Paying for the computer to be fixed is expensive," he said.Admittedly, residents without laptops can go online for free at nearby establishments like the Jackson Heights Library. However, experts like Ricardo Gomez, an associate Professor at the University of Washington Information School, claim the preference for using internet cafes over libraries stems from inertia.

"If you look at Latin America—and many parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and other places, cyber cafes are super common," said Gomez.

Latin America is the opposite of the United States, he said, because libraries came after cyber cafes as a public venue where people could access the internet. This has instilled an association with cyber cafes and public internet access that followed immigrants stateside, he said. "That makes a huge difference in the role of cyber cafes," he said.

Internet cafes like Telepronto and the various branches of hyperlocal franchise La Casa de Internet also function as social meeting points, an import of Latin American culture.

"In my house, I'm closed off," said Fernando Cardona, a local resident, while watching Back to the Future II inside Telepronto. Despite being financially secure, Cardona streams movies and talks to his sister in England via Skype at internet cafes. "Here, I can hang out," Cardona continued. "I can chat with friends."

In addition to chatting up neighbors or using glass-walled phone booths to call home long-distance, cafe patrons—varying from children doing schoolwork to the elderly playing Solitaire—constantly occupy the computers nested in cubicles. According to Diyah, the owner of La Casa de Internet, this is what one would see at cyber cafes in her patrons' home countries.

Photo: Matthew Sedacca

For the newly arrived immigrants, these familiar venues dotting Jackson Heights also serve as way stations for acclimating to a new country.

"Many large cities have large shares of individuals at the margins—for example tourists, recent immigrants, etc.—who may have no other means of accessing data given the difficulties and relative expense of getting cellular devices in the US," said William Riggs, a professor of City & Planning at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, via email.

Newcomers often arrive without computers, smartphones, and internet access. Cafes offer immigrants space to begin situating themselves in their new community by initiating apartment hunts and meeting local residents who know their way around.

"At home, I don't have an internet or a computer. It's difficult to pay for the internet."

Anecdotally, the cafes also attract undocumented locals who struggle to obtain in-house internet access.

"Several people of this international community have no papers," said Nancy Ramirez, who frequents the Broadway Internet Café to prep for her GRE Exam.

She explained, like Diyah, that this is problematic because in her building and several others, undocumented immigrants pay rent to their landlords under the table. To avoid opening themselves even further to charges of fraud and incrimination, the owners impede illegal tenants from signing internet contracts. As a result, several cafe patrons like Cardona and Rojas said they frequent the cafes two to three times a week and spend an average of around $20 to $25 per month for their internet access.

Internet cafes have survived an explosion in cheap computers, smartphones, and free internet access across the city, and many cafe operators in Jackson Heights say business has been good. Still, a few concede the existence of an imminent threat: rapidly rising rent.

Photo: Matthew Sedacca

As noted in the recent 2010 Census, Jackson Heights continues to attract non-Latin-immigrant newcomers. Many are fleeing the skyrocketing rents in gentrified neighborhoods like Bushwick or Long Island City, finding refuge in cheaper yet popular neighborhoods like Jackson Heights. But by setting up shop in these new communities, these newcomers are causing local commercial real estate costs to soar. And that is bad news for those like Jose Ramos, a Mexican immigrant living in Queens.

"At home, I don't have an internet or a computer," said Ramos, 35. "It's difficult to pay for the internet."

As internet access becomes increasingly crucial to daily life, the existence of these cafes helps level the playing field for poor and undocumented immigrants while also serving as a source of entertainment and fun. Against all odds, in 2015, the seemingly-outdated internet cafe has become a cornerstone of the community.