Plazas

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Dutch Kills Green

Williamsburgers and Greenpointers curious about the vast territory above Newtown Creek need do no more than take the B62 bus to the end of the line — or walk or bike across the Pulaski Bridge and take Jackson Avenue to Queens Plaza — to take a look at one of Queens’ most interesting revivals in recent times.

Until a couple of years ago the east end of Queens Plaza, where Northern Boulevard begins a nearly 90-mile run (as Route 25A) to the end of Long Island, was home to a run of the mill parking lot called the John F. Kennedy Commuter Plaza. Its southern end, running along the elevated Queensboro Plaza station, was home to fast food restaurants and strip joints.

But a recent multimillion dollar, five-year restoration has  converted the once moribund spot into a green oasis replete with separated bike and pedestrian paths.

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Maspeth, in a western corner of Queens, seems stuck between the grit of Williamsburg, Brooklyn to the west and the airy, almost suburban feel of its eastern and southern neighbors, Middle Village and Glendale. Maspeth was first settled by Native Americans and, after the middle 1600s, by the Dutch and English. It was absorbed by a newer settlement to the east (named, appropriately, Newtown–the present-day Elmhurst), became a part of the borough of Queens, and then became a part of New York City in 1898. “Maspeth” is derived from Delaware Indian terms that have, by different accounts, meant “great brook” or “bad water place”; the latter seems rather appropriate, since Newtown Creek, noxious and noisome through most of its latter-day history, is nearby. The name dates back to Dutch records in the 1630s.

Beginning in the 1790s DeWitt Clinton, mayor of New York City from 1803 to 1815 and New York State Governor from 1817 to 1822 and again from 1825 to 1828, resided in a mansion at present-day 56th Terrace and 58th Street. Plans for the Erie Canal were made in the two-story mansion, which over the decades became a boardinghouse and farmhouse, finally burning down in 1933. The area is nondescript industrial these days; the mansion is remembered by the Clinton Diner, which stands near where Clinton’s homestead would be. The diner was renamed “Goodfellas” diner a couple of years ago, after the classic Scorsese flick about mob life that was filmed there.

More after the jump

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In this ridiculously icy and slushy week let’s return to thoughts of the summertime, when there is no better time to wander the streets of Astoria and ponder the remnants of an earlier Astoria, when the streets carried names instead of numbers… and encounter other relics dredged up from the depths of western Queens history and hidden in plain sight for necromancers such as myself to notice them…

This massive Tudor-ish pile — a magnificent building — stands at 30th Drive and 28th Street, and no doubt 99-100% of the tenants have no idea why the place is called Elm Towers. But I know.

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If you’ve never been to the Broadway-Flushing section of Queens, it’s worth a visit — it’s home to some of Queens’ finest architecture, having been part of the Rickert-Finley real estate development around the turn of the 20th century featuring large plots, wide lawns, and beautiful, eclectic buildings. I’ve been familiar with the neighborhood since 1993 when I moved to the area from Bay Ridge to be closer to a job. Broadway, which runs from Northern Boulevard/Crocheron Avenue north to 29th Avenue between 158th Street and Utopia Parkway, is named for a former name of Northern Boulevard (the local LIRR station never dropped the name).

Though Broadway-Flushing was designated a Historic District by the United States Department of the Interior and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 12, 2006, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has decided against making the neighborhood a historic district. Because of that, developers eyeing the area’s large plots are likely making plans to demolish many of the homes and fill the lawns with concrete.

Today, though, my attention is restricted to a small triangle formed by Northern Boulevard, 162nd Street and Crocheron Avenue, for many years consisting of just concrete, but now gussied up with bushes and trees, and a sign reading “Studley Triangle.”

The triangle honors the formidably named upstate New Yorker Elmer Ebenezer Studley (1869-1942), a lieutenant in the Spanish-American War, attorney, and Congressman from 1933-1935. He was a Flushing resident in his later years and is buried in Flushing Cemetery.

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Photo by Christina Wilkinson

In 1928, much of Queens was still largely unpopulated and unbuilt-upon. Ridgewood, however, was an exception to the rule, due to its proximity to Brooklyn, and real estate developers hoped to capitalize on the cachet of the neighborhood. By then, Ridgewood was dominated by attached brick and brownstone houses, as well as blocks of handsome, yellow-bricked apartments constructed by developer Gustave X. Mathews. He built from materials created in the Staten Island kilns of Balthazar Kreischer.

In that year, the developers Realty Associates purchased 70 acres in a neighborhood then labeled as “North Ridgewood” but now a part of northern Maspeth roughly defined by Maurice Avenue, 64th Street, Grand Avenue and 74th Street. Builder John Aylmer set to work constructing two and six-family homes in the newly-named Ridgewood Plateau, so named for its location atop one of Queens’ higher hills.

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A walk through the neighborhoods of the northern part of Queens, College Point, Whitestone, even Bayside, will reward the urban enthusiast with glimpses of the small Long Island North Shore towns they used to be. There are town centers at 14th Avenue and 150th Street in Whitestone, along College Point Boulevard between 14th and 18th Avenue, and Bell Boulevard between Northern Boulevard and 35th Avenue. The spaces between these town centers, once meadows or farmland, have been filled with block after block of one and two-family homes and seem to have been thoroughly “folded” into a uniform Queens fabric: definitely not the dense, urban feel of a Soho or a Park Slope, but not the thoroughly suburban atmosphere of a Levittown or Hicksville. The two “northeasternmost” of Queens’ neighborhoods, Douglaston and Little Neck, however, have a different tone: they somehow seem carved out of the rather exclusive, monied precincts of the Nassau County townships immediately to the east, Great Neck and Manhasset. Both neighborhoods are served by a short shopping strip along Northern Boulevard, and the area’s hilly topography doesn’t lend itself to block upon block of similar-looking ranch houses.

For centuries before the mid-1600s the Matinecock Indians, a branch of the Algonquin, had lived on the peninsula where Douglaston Manor is today as well as lands to the south and east, including today’s Little Neck (a “neck” here meaning a plot of land. The term is also seen in adjoining Great Neck as well as Gravesend Neck in Brooklyn.) Little Neck Bay’s wealth of seafood, including the huge oysters that grew here then, sustained the tribe. In the 1600s, European settlers also turned their attention to the area, not only for the clams but for the harbor, which offered easy access to water traffic. The British and Dutch soon had bartered, or some say swindled, the Matinecocks out of much of their ancestral lands, except for a small portion called Madnan’s Neck (possibly named for settler Ann Heatherton, “Mad Nan” although it could also have been shortened from the Indian name for the area, Menhaden-ock, “place of fish.”) In 1656, Thomas Hicks — of the Hicks family that eventually founded Hicksville — forcibly drove out the “last of the Matinecock” in the Battle of Madnan’s Neck at today’s Northern Boulevard and Marathon Parkway.

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Jacob Riis triangle, 85th Avenue at 117th Street

Danish-born crusading journalist and photographer Jacob Riis (1849-1914) made his home in Richmond Hill, Queens, beginning in 1886. In 1887, Riis photographed the squalid, inhumane conditions prevalent in New York City’s tenements, and his 1890 book “How The Other Half Lives” has become an influential text to the present day. His cause was taken up by Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who encouraged legislation that would help ease the burden of NYC’s poorest. Additionally, as one of the most famous proponents of the newly practicable casual photography, he is considered one of the fathers of photography due to his very early adoption of flash in photography.

In his autobiography Riis wrote of finding Richmond Hill: “It was in the winter when all our children had the scarlet fever that one Sunday, when I was taking a long walk out on Long Island where I could do no one any harm, I came upon Richmond Hill, and thought it was the most beautiful spot I had ever seen, I went home and told my wife that I had found the place where we were going to live.…I picked out the lots I wanted. So before the next winter’s snow, we were snug in the house, with a ridge of wooded hills, between New York and us. The very lights of the city were shut out. So was the slum and I could sleep.” Riis’s house was placed on the National Register for Historic Places, but such a designation does not protect a property. The home was torn down in the mid-1970’s and replaced with a row of attached brick houses. Today two remaining beech trees planted by Riis in the backyard remind us of the tranquil neighborhood that put his mind at ease.

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The IRT Flushing Line opened in stages between 1915 and 1928. The stations between Grand Central and Vernon-Jackson opened in 1915. Meanwhile, in Queens, the Hunters Point and Court House Square stations opened in November 1916, and the elevated stations out to 103rd/Corona Plaza in April 1917. There were 3 further extensions: to 111th Street in October 1925; Willets Point Boulevard (modern signage erroneously leaves off the “Boulevard”, as the actual Willets Point is at Fort Totten) in May 1927; and finally, an underground station on Main Street on January 2, 1928. The line was extended west two stops to Times Square by 1927. The Flushing Line is due to expand again, to the West Side Javits Convention Center, in late 2014.

Seen from the el platform is what was once the end of the Flushing Line  between 1917 and 1925, called Corona Plaza/Alburtis Avenue before Queens streets were numbered in the 1920s. A couple of years ago this bit  of Roosevelt Avenue between National and 104th Streets was closed to vehicular traffic and became a true pedestrian plaza.

The “Walgreens” marquee seen used to belong to the Plaza Theatre, which opened in November 1927, surviving all the way to 2005 playing Hollywood fare with Spanish subtitles. It has been a drugstore since then.

Chicken chain Pollo Campero opened in Corona with some fanfare about a dozen years ago (as of 2014). The chain was founded in Guatemala in 1971 and after expanding into several countries in Central and South America, now has 50 branches in the States, as well as in Asia and Europe, over 300 in all.

In 1854, the National Racing Association, a group of Southern horse owners, purchased a farm and erected a track to which they sent their racing horses to compete. On June 26, 1854, the first race was run at the National Racetrack, coinciding with the official opening of the main line of the Flushing Railroad, which created a stop for the track. In 1856, the track opened for the season as the “Fashion Pleasure Ground,” named after the champion horse, Fashion. In 1858, the track hosted the first baseball game for which an admission fee was charged. In 1861, the owners transported their horses back down South to help the Confederacy during the Civil War, so northern horses took their place. In 1867, the racehorse, Dexter, broke the world’s trotting record for the 1-mile course at the Corona track. Ulysses S. Grant attended a race there shortly after becoming President-elect in 1868. In 1869, the track hosted its last race and in 1871, railroad tracks for the Woodside Branch of the Flushing Railroad were laid through it, with a station called Grinnell located right in the center of the racing oval. The track structure and railroad stations are completely gone today; the only remnant of the racetrack is National Street, the route that ran past the park’s entrance.

A short walk down National Street to 43rd Avenue will reveal what was originally the Union Evangelical Church at 102nd Street, built in 1870 the first church in Corona. The land for the church was donated by Charles Leverich, a wealthy area landowner, who also became instrumental in the church’s success.

A short distance away on 42nd Avenue west of National is a house belonged to Maurice Connolly, Queens Borough President from 1911-1928. Connolly was the youngest and longest serving Queens borough president but fell from power due to a major sewer scandal. The house has been given new beige siding since this photo was taken a few years ago.

Beginning in 1890, the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Volunteer Fire Company operated out of the small peaked building on the right side of this photo that dates back to the civil war era, nearly unrecognizable as a former firehouse today. In 1913, the city of New York took over firefighting services in Corona and built a modern firehouse on 43rd Avenue the next year, between 97th Place and 99th Street, that still stands.

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At last week’s public meeting for the two plazas slated for Sunnyside, the Department of Transportation said construction could begin as early as this June. Sunnyside Post says that residents asked for better lighting, wayfinder maps, movable tables and chairs, a colorful concrete surface, planters and artwork in the plaza spaces. They also expressed interest in a space for food vendors to set up directly outside the plazas, which are both located under the elevated 7. The DOT also plans to put down new concrete on the 46th Street plaza to make it completely level.

The DOT will take its proposals to Community Board 2’s Transportation Committee on May 27th. After that, the proposal must be approved by the full board. Then hopefully construction will start up this summer!

Construction on Sunnyside’s Public Plazas Expected to Begin in June [Sunnyside Post]
A Public Plaza Workshop Scheduled in Sunnyside This Week [Q’Stoner]
Two Public Plazas Coming to Sunnyside [Q’Stoner]

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This Sunday, May 4th Queens Council Members and community groups are participating in the annual Jane’s Walk event, which is a weekend of free, locally led walking tours inspired by Jane Jacobs. Council Member Julissa Ferreras, Council Member Daniel Dromm and DOT Community Coordinator Andrew Ronan will help lead walks through three Queens plazas to highlight local history and civic engagement in the DOT plaza program. They will be joined by plaza partners like SUKHI NY, Friends of Diversity Plaza, Jackson Heights Green Alliance, Queens Economic Development Corporation and Queens Museum.

Here’s the schedule for the day. At 11 am, everyone will meet at the south entrance of the 90th Street/Elmhurst Avenue 7 Train station for an introduction to the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership. A tour of Corona Plaza (103rd Street and Roosevelt Avenue) will happen at 11:30 am, and Council Member Julissa Ferreras will speak. 1 pm is the tour of the 78th Street Plaza (34th Avenue and 78th Street), with Andrew Ronan of the DOT. Finally, Council Member Daniel Dromm will lead the 2 pm tour of Diversity Plaza (73rd Street and Broadway). The Diversity Plaza tour will be followed by refreshments. Check out detailed event info here.