Commissioner Cavils At Land Grab In April 1938
Get into a conversation with a long-time Queens resident and you're likely to discover a subscriber of the Long Island Star-Journal, a daily paper that informed the community about local and world news until it folded in 1968. A banner across the Star-Journal masthead reminded readers that the newspaper's name came from the merger of the Long Island Daily Star (1876) and the North Shore Daily Journal--The Flushing Journal (1841).
Welcome to April 1938!
The Star-Journal reported in April 1938 that at the behest of City Commissioner for Borough Works John J. Halleran, Joe Taxpayer- a pathetic sort draped in nothing but a barrel- would be exhibited for all to see as preparations for the 1939 World's Fair were underway. Such a pointed allegory was meant to "pay tribute" or "express condolence" to taxpayers and landowners alike who painfully sacrificed their lands for the purposes of the Fair. Commissioner Halleran requested that city officials set aside a float in an up-coming parade to "furnish representation for the taxpayers whose land was taken", yet what was at hand was no populist message. The Star-Journal duly reported that Halleran himself owned much of the land the Fair sat upon, and that it was his belief the city condemned at figures far below fair market value. What chutzpah!
Also in mid-1938, construction on the 500- family Garden Bay Manor rental housing development began, which would include 400 twostory building units. The project would comprise 110 acres of land located directly north of Holmes Airport and Astoria Boulevard, Jackson Heights, and extend to the Bowery Bay waterfront at North Beach. Anticipating more vehicular traffic as a consequence of the project's "success", highway construction engineer Andrew K. Johnson reported to the Borough President that the über-developer, the N.K. Winston Company, had filed petitions to the Newtown Local Board to allow for extensive street improvements.
This story makes one wonder why public officials can't all be like this. With revised plans sanctioned by then New York City Housing Authority chairman Alfred Reinstein that stressed a different approach to Long Island City's proposed Queensbridge Housing Development, a drop in rental costs was actually in the offing. The Star- Journal revealed that construction costs could be curbed at $1,150 a room, as opposed to the $1,250 permitted under the current housing law. (To put this in a wider context, Brooklyn's Williamsburg Housing Project ran beyond $1,700 a room.) "The reductions are considered of special significance," noted the Star-Journal, "…since they are being achieved without altering plans for the equipment to be installed, the wages to be paid, the quality of materials, the amount of space to be provided or the general character of the accommodations to be made available to families of low income." The proposed building would be shaped in Y formation, offering "unusual possibilities in various combinations for economical construction, privacy, adequate light and air for all rooms."
Prospective tenants at the Queensbridge development could expect to pay from $7 a room, to less than $5! Chalk one up for an enlightened approach to affordable housing, an approach you just don't see nowadays.
He is now long gone. Nor is there anyone around today who could claim to have known him personally, but we would still do well to briefly pause and pay tribute to Frank Frontera and what he represented.
A native of Florence who in his time had become Maspeth's town barber, Frontera could recall a time when customers waiting for a trim or shave in his shop could blithely watch horsedrawn trolleys going about their way along Grand Avenue. His was also a place where farmers from neighboring Middle Village or Newtown naturally gathered to discuss local issues and politics. Now that he (at the time the Star-Journal discovered him) was retired and preferred to tend to his garden and family, particularly his blessed grandchildren, his reflections on this simpler time and its cast of characters in his adopted Queens community pleased Frontera to no end.
But Frontera's meaning of life extended beyond his humble vocation. Here was someone who saw community involvement as a calling. Certainly this outstanding aspect to his life bears mentioning: he served as a volunteer firefighter in local Maspeth Engine Company 4. This was when steam engines were drawn by horses. That is, he recalled, when a horse belonging to one of the volunteers happened to be at hand; when none were available, he and his comrades would rush along Grand to flag any driver whose horses could be used to get the job done. (Lest these drivers feel unduly deprived, the company would compensate them $3 for the use of their steeds.) Frontera retired from these heady firefighting days in 1905. He passed down his love for the job to his son, Joe, who succeeded him.
For the benefit of Star-Journal readers, Frontera reminisced about his role in quelling two large fires, one in the Ridgewood Car Barns and the other at a lumberyard in Maspeth. But at any time when the emergency whistle- located on top of an industrial building behind Mount Olivet Cemetery- blew, Frontera's barbershop door slammed shut "and many times a farmer had to respond to a fire with lather on his face". This might easily be construed as a scene out of a silent movie, funny were it not so serious. One can't overestimate how in these times service to the community was the top order of the day. Frontera certainly didn't. Such grit and noble work of him and his cohorts is the stuff today's residents in Queens take pride in.
Frank Frontera. True, the name is nearly forgotten today. But was the man behind it great and good? Without a doubt he was, and certainly worth remembering.
Something else from 1938 is worth remembering. The 284-year-old Riker Mansion, built in 1654, was to be torn down. "By the time this story is perused," the Star-Journal lamented, "…one of old Newtown's most historic mansions will be nothing but a memory."
With such a sad statement the Star-Journal noted the pending demolition of the Riker Homestead, a local landmark long recognized as the birthplace "of many historic characters" that played a key role in America's War of Independence, as well as a rendezvous for international patriots, to make way for North Beach (now LaGuardia) Airport.
The venerable homestead stood at the extreme west end of North Beach on the shore of Bowery Bay amid an estate that once was considered the finest on Long Island. The founder of the Riker family itself, Abraham Rycken by some accounts or de Rycke in others, arrived to these shores over 350 years ago, "as his name is indiscriminately written in the early records of [Newtown]." Henceforth, with each succeeding generation, the Riker family continued making its indelible mark throughout this area, culminating in the cause of nation's independence.
Yet not only did this house nurture such heroes, it was celebrated as the gathering place of many Irish patriots also, notably Samuel Riker's son-in-law, Dr. William James McNevin. McNevin was a scientist and physician of worldwide fame whose unbridled patriotism for his native land had him sacrifice much in the cause of Ireland's freedom.
That the Star-Journal alluded to the fact that the airport will be the largest of its kind in the world certainly rings hollow today. The destruction of the homestead that has long stood for nearly 300 years was and still is a tragedy. All the more ironic, however, considering that after LaGuardia's size and role was lauded as such, it would be eclipsed by the formation of Kennedy Airport in 1964 less than 30 years later.
That's the way it was in April 1938!
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the Greater Astoria Historical Society and do not necessarily reflect those of the Gazette.
For more information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-728-0700 or visit www.astorialic.org.
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