Streets

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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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In Major League Baseball, April 15th is Jackie Robinson Day, honoring the player who broke the barrier against African-American players participating in MLB. His first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers was on April 15, 1947.

In many ways Jackie Robinson was the most compelling player in major league baseball history. He was selected by Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey to break the MLB color barrier in 1947 (no African-American had been employed by a major league team since at least 1901, the beginning of the “modern era” of major league ball) after a sterling athletic record at UCLA, where he had lettered in track, football, baseball and basketball. Rickey needed a can’t-miss prospect, as well as a person who would be able to endure the inevitable racial nonsense that would arise in a sport where many players were from the deep South.

Robinson was a five-tool player who hit for average, and power (averaging 16 home runs per year),  possessed above average speed, and excellently threw and fielded his position (second base for his early years). Advancing age and diabetes slowed him down in 1956 and 1957; the Dodgers traded him to the Giants, who like the Dodgers were moving to California, but Robinson chose to retire. Jackie Robinson passed away in 1972, shortly after addressing a World Series crowd in Cincinnati. He is interred in Cypress Hills Cemetery, through which passes the parkway later named for him. In 1997 his uniform number, 42, was retired by every major league team, except for players already wearing it; the last one, legendary Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera, retired in 2013.

No borough-wide memorial had been named for him until 1997, when upon the 50th anniversary of his ascension to the Dodgers, New York State designated the entire route of the Interboro Parkway in his name. The above photo shows the Jackie Robinson Parkway at Jamaica Avenue.

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The city unveiled a multi-faceted economic development “action plan” to prevent foreclosures, improve streetscapes, create affordable housing, and increase job-training opportunities in Jamaica on Wednesday.

The actions include creating a Jamaica-specific marketing and branding program, expanding free WiFi access via the LinkNYC program, and capital improvements to Rufus King Park and Brinkerhoff Mall Park in St. Albans. 

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Back in the infancy of Forgotten NY, April of 2000 to be exact, I was working at one of those jobs that only required me to be present 3 or 4 times a week (which is great for gathering Forgotten material but not so good when trying to pay bills) and, after a few weeks poking around abandoned hospitals and boatyards in Staten Island, I thought it would be nice to take a walk in a nicer part of town…a place that had, I knew, the most beautiful architecture ever conceived. Where might that be? Enter Richmond Hill, Queens.

The Victorian era, roughly 1865-1900, was a period characterized by a booming economy in many of its years, and architecture responded with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attitude. No color or design was written off, and no expense was spared in construction. Yet, nothing was tacky or tasteless and despite every house on the block being completely different from the other, Victorian neighborhoods retained a unity of spirit that can’t be matched in these days of prefabricated junk.

Richmond Hill, located in Queens between Forest Park, Kew Gardens, and Jamaica, didn’t spring up on its own, spontaneously. It’s a planned community. It was conceived in reaction to the increasing population in Manhattan and Brooklyn in the mid-1800s, with row upon row of tenements and attached brownstones. Even the best-appointed brownstones in Manhattan were often cramped and crowded. And, in the 1800s social mores dictated that the only place to raise a happy family was in one’s own house. In Manhattan, this wasn’t much of an option anymore.

For the solution, developers looked to the east and south, and built developments from scratch in New Brighton, Staten Island, Prospect Park South in Brooklyn, and here in Richmond Hill, Queens, among other locales.

Enter a Manhattan (Murray Hill) lawyer named Albon Platt Man. One day in 1869 he was riding along the Brooklyn and Jamaica Turnpike (a toll road that is today’s Jamaica Avenue) on the way to his summer house in Lawrence, Nassau County (then a part of Queens), and noticed the desirable land along the route in an area then known as Clarenceville.

Man consulted with a local landscaper and architect named Edward Richmond, bought the property and developed it until his death in 1891. His three sons carried on after his death, and went on to develop Kew Gardens in all its Tudor glory to the north, and developed the woodland along the terminal moraine (the hills in the center of Brooklyn and Queens that mark the southern progress of glaciers during the last Ice Age) into what is now Forest Park.

It’s likely that the name “Richmond Hill” was not a tribute to Edward Richmond, since he passed away before much of the development could get underway. Rather, Man probably named the nascent community after the London suburb Richmond-On-Thames, a favorite royal stomping ground.

Although there was no such thing as zoning in the late 1800s, Albon Man had several means at his disposal to make sure the community developed according to his specifications. He obtained restrictive covenants to dictate, for example, the absence of front yard fences and uniform setbacks, that would give Richmond Hill a forestlike atmosphere with lots of green lawns, which persists to this day.

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I have always been fascinated by streets that dramatically change character from one end to the other, as well as change their level of traffic. There are a number of streets in NYC that start with just a trickle of traffic and build and build to a heavy volume, such as Staten Island’s Hylan Boulevard, which begins quietly at the Alice Austen House (which belonged to the famed late 19th-early 20th century photographer) on the Narrows, becomes a screaming, honking mess as it roars down the island’s east shore, and ends quietly again at the historic Billopp Conference House, where Ben Franklin unsuccessfully tried to stave off the Revolutionary War.

Each borough except Manhattan has a street, or streets, named Union, and Manhattan has the bustling Union Square, named for the confluence of Broadway (earlier Bloomingdale Road) and the Bowery. Brooklyn’s Union Street is named for the Union Stores, an 1800s East River dockside repository for sugar, molasses and other comestibles. Both Brooklyn and the Bronx’ Union Avenue are likely named for the Union Army following the Civil War.

I worked my way from south to north along Union Street, from its tamest point to its busiest. The street begins at Negundo Avenue, in the section of Flushing whose streets are named for plants in alphabetical order from A to R. Flushing, beginning in the colonial era and for almost 200 years, was home to a number of plant nurseries where people would come from all over the NYC area to buy flowering plants and fruit trees. That era ended in the early 20th Century when Flushing became increasingly urbanized.

Union Street ends here at Negundo Avenue; negundo is a species of maple tree also known as the box elder and maple ash.

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A road runs from the East River to the tip of the North Fork of Long Island, running through Long Island City, Woodside, Jackson Heights, Flushing, Auburndale, Bayside, Douglaston, Little Neck, Great Neck, Munsey Park, Port Washington, Muttontown, East Norwich, Oyster Bay Cove, Cold Spring Harbor, Huntington, Northport, Smithtown, Stony Brook, St. James, Port Jefferson, Rocky Point, East Shoreham, Wading River, Calverton, Riverhead, Aquebogue, Jamesport, Mattituck, Cutchogue, Southold, Greenport, Orient and Orient Point, and would go further were an ocean not in the way. It is a precolonial trace used by Native Americans before Verrazano and the Dutchmen who followed him caught sight of the lengthy island along whose north shore it limns. It’s Jackson Avenue, North Hempstead Turnpike, Lawrence Hill Road, Fort Salonga Road, North Country Road, Main Road, Route 25A, Route 25, and in NYC and Nassau County, it’s Northern Boulevard.

In Queens, Northern Boulevard has been called Jackson Avenue (the stretch west of Queens Plaza still is), Bridge Street, and Broadway; a Flushing enclave and LIRR station still bear the name Broadway after the old road. I’m unsure when the whole kaboodle was renamed Northern Boulevard; perhaps it was in the great 1920s “boulevard”-naming craze the Queens Topological Bureau underwent, when the Philadelphia-style numbering system was instituted and most major roads like Vernon Avenue, New York Avenue, and Rockaway Plank Road were given “boulevard” monikers.

To walk Northern Boulevard, or Routes 25A/25 from shore to shore would require a few days, and at the sluggish pace I generally employ, more than a week.

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As you may have noticed, I have a bit of a “thing” for cool cars. Remember that 1957 Pontiac Star Chief in Astoria I told you about, or the 1949 Plymouth Special Deluxe spotted nearby Mt. Zion Cemetery at the border of Woodside and Maspeth? Most recently, I pointed out a 1947 Dodge which was innocuously parked in industrial Maspeth.

Sometimes, I barely have to leave the house to spot one of these vintage or classic rides, as is the case with this 1980 Pontiac Trans Am, which is a regular visitor to my own block in Astoria.

More after the jump…

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One recent Christmas season, I hiked Queens’ very own Broadway. The route begins in Ravenswood at the East River edge, and plunges southeast into the heart of Elmhurst, indeed the center of the original town of Newtown (Middleburgh) first settled by Dutch colonials in 1652 — after an original settlement 10 years earlier in Maspeth had foundered after Indian attacks. Queens’ Broadway, which attained its present length only in the early 20th century, is an amalgam of a number of roads: Broadway in Ravenswood ran southeast to the now-demapped Ridge Road near Newtown Road; and the southern part between Woodside Avenue and Queens Boulevard is the eastern section of the colonial-era Hellgate Ferry Road, which connected Elmhurst and the East River; twisting Woodside Avenue follows most of its route today.

I must admit that I’m unsure when these two roads were joined to create the present-day Queens Broadway. Maps from the 1910s and 1920s show a completed Broadway, but that may be a figment of mapmakers’ imaginations (they often show maps the way city agencies say the street will eventually appear). Meanwhile, historian Vincent Seyfried (the unsung master chronicler of Queens whose work inspires every borough and city historian) maintains, in Old Queens, NY in Early Photographs, that Broadway was only connected with Long Island City and Elmhurst when the IND subway was opened in 1933. In any event, we can call Queens’ Broadway the youngest of all the boroughs’ Broadways.

During this less than cheerful holiday season, given the recent news (and lack of decorative holiday snow this year: on average, there’s snow in NYC during the Christmas season two years out of every five) I wish everyone the best for the end of 2014 and the greatest 2015.

Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of Forgotten NY and the author of Forgotten New York and, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens.

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Urban planners call it “wayfinding.” Wayfinding is a bit of an art, by which pedestrians or vehicles can be intuitively guided through city streets or transportation hubs. A good example of bad wayfinding would be Manhattan’s Penn Station or Port Authority Bus Terminal, both of which assume that visitors will be familiar with their idiosyncratic floor plans. Pictured in today’s post are the street instructions governing bicycle and motor vehicle lanes at the corner of 39th Street and Skillman Avenue in Sunnyside, found on the southern extent of the truss bridge that overflies the Sunnyside Yards.

As my grandmother might have said – “Oy Gevalt.”

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You can take the Q39 bus here, but why? There’s a somewhat hidden stretch of Laurel Hill Boulveard, which is entirely overflown by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, down here. On either side of the street, high masonry walls define the borders of Third and Fourth Calvary Cemeteries. There are sidewalks, however, and this is one of the loneliest spots to walk through that can be found in all of Western Queens.

The street is only ten blocks long, spanning the area between 58th and 48th Streets, and it’s one of those hazy areas where you might be in the neighborhood of Maspeth, or in Woodside, or perhaps Sunnyside. It’s actually and definitively Woodside, by the way, but there really is no one around whom you’d be able to ask. You’d be surrounded by literally millions walking down this street, but they’re all dead.

More after the jump…