A Walk in Woodhaven

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    The community of Woodhaven lies just east of the undefended border between Brooklyn and Queens. It’s a fairly large neighborhood located between Forest Park on the north, Liberty Avenue on the south, Eldert Lane (the official boundary of Brooklyn and Queens) on the west and Woodhaven Boulevard on the east.

    Visitors to Woodhaven can easily travel on the J train from Williamsburg, Bushwick and East New York to the Forest Parkway station; connections to the J can be made from the A and L trains at Broadway Junction.

    From the 1830s to the 1850s, the area was known as Woodville. But this was an era before the invention of zip codes, and there was some Post Office confusion between New York City’s Woodville and another Woodville upstate. In 1853, residents voted to change Woodville’s name to Woodhaven.

    Famous former residents of Woodhaven include actor Adrien Brody, composer George Gershwin, 1960s pop star Brian Hyland, and showman Danny Kaye.

     

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    Neir’s Tavern, at 78th Street and 88th Avenue, bills itself as New York City’s oldest, having opened in 1829 (take that, Mc Sorley’s). It is still one of Woodhaven’s cherished touchstones; few outside Woodhaven know about it, but mostly everyone from the area does.

    The origins of Neir’s Tavern are entwined with the former presence of the Union Course racetrack — the first dirt racing track in the United States — which occupied several acres in Woodhaven in the early to mid-1800s. In an era with no television or radio, prize fighting and horse racing were popular spectator sports as well as for gambling. Match races at Union Course pitting steeds from Queens against touted horses from the South drew crowds as high as 70,000.

    Thus Cadwallader Colden — whose great-grandfather was acting governor of New York State and mayor of New York City in the colonial era — founded the Blue Pump Room, or Old Blue Pump House, to slake the thirst of Union Course patrons. The tavern survived past the late 19th Century while the race track did not.

    The Neir’s name comes from Louis Neir, who purchased the place in 1898, adding bowling alleys, a ballroom, and rooms for rent upstairs. Though Mae West’s connections with Woodhaven and Greenpoint are mostly undocumented, tradition holds that she gave one of her first public performances — if not the first — here at Neir’s. Patrons say that they have seen Mae’s ghost (though I’ve always said that if you believe ghosts exist, you’ll see them).

    More recently, several scenes of Martin Scorsese’s mob epic Goodfellas, with Robert DeNiro and Ray Liotta, were filmed here.

     

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    Around the corner, a plaque placed by the Woodhaven Historical Society marks a local supermarket parking lot crammed with shopping carts. Why would such a mundane locale be so highlighted? It was the first market constructed by developer Fred Trump, who grew up in Woodhaven.

    He went on to develop what we now call “affordable” housing, in Coney Island and other places; his son, “The Donald,” needs no introduction, though some of his hubris may come from his father’s middle name: Christ.

     

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    The exterior of Woodhaven’s post office, built in 1940 on Forest Parkway just north of Jamaica Avenue, may look somewhat utilitarian and mundane, but it is a prime example of the streamlined Art Moderne style, with its enameled panels. A look inside will reward you with a view of a Works Progress Administration mural by Ben Shahn.

     

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    Forest Parkway was conceived by its developers as Woodhaven’s showcase street. Several surviving examples of Queen Anne and other Victorian-era architectural styles can still be found on its 6-block length between Jamaica Avenue and Forest Park. When built in 1900 it was the first paved street in Woodhaven.

    While her tree grew in Brooklyn, Betty Smith, neé Elisabeth Wehner (1896-1972), largely wrote her famed novel — which takes place in nearby Cypress Hills — in this beautiful house on Forest Parkway near 85th Drive. She spent her early years in Williamsburg and attended Girls’ High School, where her childhood experiences influenced her book.

     

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    At Park Lane South and 85th Street we find a rare well-preserved NYS historic sign from 1936, standing on private property.

    The sign marks the first address in Queens to be renumbered under the “Philadelphia plan” which renumbered most of Queens’ streets, with lower numbers at the East River and proceeding east and south.

    Many years ago, when Queens was a collection of small towns divided by acres of farms and fields, every town and city had its own street naming and numbering system. This was all right when Queens (then also comprising what is now Nassau County) was a separate and self-governing county. Once Queens consolidated with New York City and subsequently became slowly urbanized, this was a situation that could not be allowed to stand, as a plethora of Washington Streets, Main Streets, and 1st and 2nd Streets found themselves in the same street directory in the city ledgers.

    And so, the Queens Topographical Bureau, under the guidance of C. U. Powell, was set the task of unifying Queens’ street system in the 1910s. To do this just about every street in Queens was assigned a number.

    Numbered Avenues, Roads, Drives and Courts run east-west, while Streets, Places, Lanes and Terraces run north-south. Streets run from 1 to 271, and Avenues from 2 to 165: why Queens does not have a 1st Avenue is a mystery. This also necessitated every existing house to be assigned a new address, and gave rise to the unique hyphenated Queens house numbering system in which the numbers before the hyphen refer to the nearest numbered avenue or street, or what a named street’s number will be. (Yes, I realize they traded one confusing system for another.)

     

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    A short walk into Forest Park from Park Lane South will bring you to its carousel. Some time ago, every year, it seemed, saw the closing of more of New York’s classic carousels, but Forest Park’s, just off Woodhaven Boulevard south of Myrtle, is still delighting kids big and small as it has since it was moved here from Dracut, Massachusetts, in 1972.

    This Daniel Muller carousel, built in 1903 and containing 52 wood horses and other animals, is one of just two of Muller’s remaining in the country. It replaced an earlier carousel in Forest Park that burnt down in 1966.  It’s $3 a ride for all ages. It was renovated in 1989.

    In a heartening development, other carousels have been recently restored and placed on the Coney Island boardwalk and in East River Park in DUMBO.

     

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