“Maspeth Is America”

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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

    I’ve always considered Maspeth to be somewhat off the beaten path because it isn’t served by any subway lines; only the M, which threads along the remaining tracks of the Myrtle Avenue El, makes any approach at all, and it leaves you at Metropolitan Avenue at Rentar Plaza, a large shopping mall, and Lutheran-All Faiths Cemetery, part of Queens’ vast cemetery belt, where victims of the 1904 General Slocum steamboat fire disaster are memorialized.

    The main roads in the area have remained surprisingly intact since their inception; pre-Civil War maps show clearly the roads that would become today’s Metropolitan Avenue, Woodhaven Boulevard, Cooper Avenue, 69th Street (formerly Fisk Avenue) and Dry Harbor Road (Dry Harbor was an old name for Glendale, as locals looking down into the valley noted that houses appeared to be “floating” in a waterless harbor).

     

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    Maspeth’s and Middle Village’s relative isolation from mass transit give them the feeling of small towns embedded in the big city, though the Long Island Expressway is nearby to whisk residents into Manhattan or Long Island with alacrity.

    The large plaza at 69th Street and Grand Avenue is on one of Queens’ higher peaks and its relative openness allows an uninterrupted (except by a few lampposts) view of midtown Manhattan. The view has only been in place since the mid-1950s, when the Queens-Midtown Expressway, connecting the eponymous tunnel with the rest of Long Island, necessitated the demolition of several commercial buildings as well as a trolley barn.

    Before buses, there were trolleys; before trolleys, there were horsecars, and before horsecars, there were stage coaches. Beginning in 1849, James Dranan began to run a stage coach/ferry route to get passengers from Manhattan to Calvary Cemetery (in those days, people went for Sunday walks in cemeteries…the notion of public parks sprang from this practice). In the early 1850s horse cars began to replace the stagecoach routes. Cars were attached to rails embedded in the street and pulled by overworked dobbins. Patrick “Battle Ax” Gleason, the former mayor of Long Island City, owned one such horsecar line and even drove a horsecar himself.

    Later, Maspeth became renowned for its numerous picnic parks, and the horsecars brought hundreds of people into Maspeth in the late 19th Century, seeking to escape their cramped, airless tenements. By 1890, the horsecar lines were fully electrified, but the trolleys’ heyday was not to last. Buses, and their belching clouds of exhaust, were the rule by the 1930s. Not that the horses were much cleaner.

     

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    For several years now, the windows of the Maspeth Federal Savings Bank facing 69th Street have been adorned with exhibits produced by the Newtown Historical Society. Past exhibits have shown the history of Flushing Avenue in the 1920s, and Maspeth in the 1940s; presently, the history of La Guardia Airport, which was built in what was once a beer garden and amusement park in the 19th Century, became the small Glenn Curtiss Airport in 1932 and was expanded by 1939 to the transit mecca of today.

     

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    The Newtown Historical Society, established in 2007, was founded to chronicle the history of the various villages, now neighborhoods, located in the former town of Newtown, including Maspeth, Elmhurst, Glendale, Middle Village, Ridgewood, Forest Hills, Rego Park, Woodside, Jackson Heights and Corona. Besides the Maspeth Federal  exhibit, the Society has conducted historical walking tours and indoor slide shows, and has helped fund local monuments such as the Ridgewood Arches at Jay Avenue and 65th Place.

    More to come on Maspeth in the ensuing weeks.

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