Historic

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Brooklynites know Metropolitan Avenue as an east-west thoroughfare dividing the north and south sections of Williamsburg (though others consider Grand Street the true divider). It’s a street that holds some sentiment for me, as in 2010 lamppost maven Bob Mulero and I curated a NYC lamppost exhibition at the City Reliquary at 370 Metropolitan Avenue at Havemeyer Street.

I took advantage of a sunny weekend day to march the entire 13 miles (or so my iPhone indicated) of Metropolitan Avenue from the East River waterfront all the way to Jamaica, where Metropolitan peters out at the Van Wyck Expressway and Jamaica Avenue. It’s a relatively easy walk, which took me about six hours since I was constantly stopping for photographs. If you want a real workout and you’re younger than I am, you could probably power-walk the whole length in less than five hours, especially if you have good luck catching green lights.

Metropolitan Avenue was laid out in the early 19th century as the Williamsburg and Jamaica Plank Road, and was tolled in various locations. It was a farm-to-market road plied by farmers bringing wares to East River barges and then back east through fields and meadows to the town of Jamaica.

The land was sparsely settled in the early days, and the plank road was intersected only by Fresh Pond Road, 80th Street and Woodhaven Boulevard, which were all differently named then. It ran through the lost communities of Winantville and Columbusville, as well as a locale whose name is still used today, Middle Village, so named for its central location between Williamsburg and Jamaica.

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One of College Point’s many features that really should be considered by the Landmarks Preservation Commission is Beech Court or Beech Court Circle, located on a cul-de-sac at 121st Street just off 14th Avenue. While such an arrangement — a group of private homes surrounding a central green — is quite popular in the suburbs, this may be the only such occurrence in New York City as a whole.

First a little background on the area: College Point was originally settled by the Native American Matinecocks. The Indians sold much of it to New Netherland Governor William Kieft in 1645. William Lawrence was the first British settler. (College Point Boulevard’s name until 1969, Lawrence Street, honored the Lawrence family.)

Communities known as Strattonport and Flammersberg united to form College Point in 1867. College Point gets its name from St. Paul’s College, founded by 1838 as a seminary by the Rev. Augustus Muhlenberg, the rector of St. George’s Church on Main Street in Flushing. But there is no college in College Point now. St. Paul’s College foundered within a decade, and by about 1850, was converted into an elementary school and then a summer resort. 

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A few years ago, local controversy in LIC and Astoria was centered around a pair of Dutch era artifacts known colloquially as “The Queens Plaza Mill Stones.” The mill stones date back to the 1640s and were originally part of Burger Jorrisen’s homestead. For most of the 20th century, the artifacts were embedded in a sidewalk in Queens Plaza. When the “Queens Plaza Improvement Project” began, the mill stones were uprooted and stored in a decidedly dangerous manner. The Greater Astoria Historical Society led the charge on protesting this, and there was quite a hullaballoo about the matter, one which ended up being fairly divisive.

In the end, Jimmy Van Bramer stepped in, calmed the warring parties, and arranged for the stones to be moved from the construction zone and stored at the Queens Library until the construction was done. The ultimate home for the things was always meant to be the new Dutch Kills Greens Park, the creation of which was the whole point of the “Queens Plaza Improvement Project.” I was wandering around Queens Plaza last week and decided to check in on the Mill Stones, which ended up being a disturbing visit.

More after the jump…

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A few things to get out of the way at the start of this post are that a) the intersection of 23rd Street and 45th Avenue in the Hunters Point section used to be part of the Van Alst family’s farming empire, b) the Van Alst land was purchased by Eliaphas Nott on behalf of Union College in 1861, and that c) it was purchased and developed by two fellows named Root and Rust in 1870. The predominance of buildings in the historic district are actually from the 1890s, and even in the 19th century this area was considered special – it was “White Collar Row” and home to LIC’s bankers and elected officialdom.

More after the jump…

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Time hasn’t been kind to the tiny building once known as Shaw’s Hotel on 64th Street north of Woodside Avenue, hard by the Long Island Rail Road main branch. A couple of years ago, a huge condominium was constructed just inches away from it on the corner of the two cross streets. In recent months, though, the owner has made several upgrades, the most notable being a large picture window on the 3rd floor that looks out onto the LIRR/Roosevelt Avenue El transit complex.

The building has seen much, including a Forgotten New York tour in Woodside in June of 2010.

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Even though there was a restrictive covenant in place preventing African Americans from moving into the upscale part of St. Albans known as Addisleigh Park, by 1940, several prominent black celebrities had purchased homes there. The all-white community suburban community had expanded on the restrictive covenants written by the original developer of the neighborhood, Edwin Brown, ensuring that there would be no black homeowners in the enclave. When a couple of errant homeowners, both of whom had signed the pacts, then tried to sell to African American buyers, the larger community had risen up and sued them. They won the suits, too, preventing the sales. Housing discrimination was a fact of life in mid-20th century New York City.

All of this and the history of Addisleigh Park were told in Part One and Part Two of our story. But while the homeowners were guarding the front gates of the Park, people were getting in via the back. The white homeowners who feared that black neighbors would lower their property values woke up to find black homeowners moving in next door, in spite of the covenant. Some had purchased through white proxy buyers, and others had just quietly bought their property. These weren’t just ordinary black folks either. In the years during World War II and into the 1950s, Addisleigh Park became famous as the neighborhood where some of the wealthiest and most well-known black entertainers, athletes and celebrities lived in upper middle class splendor.

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On a frigid afternoon last week, I found myself at Machpela Cemetery, visiting the grave of perhaps the greatest celebrity of the early 20th century – Harry Houdini. Houdini was a stage magician, an escape artist, a genius promoter, a star of the stage and screen, claimed to be one of the toughest men alive, and he died on Halloween in 1926.

There’s a tremendous amount of drama that revolves around Houdini’s grave, which the New York Times has reported on in this 2008 piece, and in this 2011 one. There’s little point in repeating the oft told tale, or the conflicts surrounding the upkeep of the monument as I’d just be dancing around other people’s reporting. Instead, I’d ask you to click through to the links above for the whole story (the links will open in new windows), and I’ll be waiting here for you when you’re done.

More after the jump…

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Saturday last, I headed over to the newly renovated Queens Museum at the former World’s Fair Grounds in Flushing Meadow Corona Park. The trip was a true bit of joy, given that I don’t own a car and the 7 train was undergoing one of its periodic spasms of maintenance work, so I had to get there from Astoria via a train ride to Forest Hills whereupon I was meant to catch a bus. The bus was leaving when I got out of the station, so I hailed a cab. Neither the cab driver nor his GPS seemed to have ever heard of the Queens Museum or Flushing Meadow Corona Park, but somehow I got there in time for a NYC H2O event celebrating the massive Watershed Relief Map which has been given a place of pride and honor at the institution.

The map was prepared in the 1930s by the Work Projects Administration for the institutional ancestors of our modern Department of Environmental Protection – the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity and the Board of Water Supply. All city agencies were tasked with producing displays that depicted their functions for the World’s Fair of 1939, and the water people decided to go big.

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There’s a little parcel of a neighborhood east of Astoria and north of Jackson Heights, east of the bail bonds offices of Hazen Street, north of the whizzing Grand Central Parkway and west of LaGuardia Airport’s expanse, containing a couple of surprising artifacts. Stop for lunch at the chrome-plated Airline Diner, built in 1952, at Astoria Boulevard and 70th Street where a scene from Goodfellas was filmed, make your way up Hazen, where buses enroute to Rikers Island roll past, detour a little down 77th Street; east on 19th Road brings you to one of Queens’ oldest homes.

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Remember when I told you about the time that I found a missing piece of the Queensboro Bridge? The post ended with a promise that the Roosevelt Island Historic Society had made to bring the item back to their location and preserve it.

Last weekend, I decided to stroll over to Roosevelt Island and see how my little discovery was faring under their stewardship. I’m happy to announce that it’s been given a place of prominence, and is sitting alongside the former Queensboro Trolley Station entrance which serves as the group’s HQ.

More after the jump…