2008-08-20 / Features

Queens Develops At Rapid Rate In August 1912

Above, the Hell Gate Bridge. At left, the Lent Riker Homestead.

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 August 1912!

Development, eminent domain, making a greener city, and reckless bicyclists led the headlines.

The community was abuzz as a small army of men made rapid progress with the four piers for the New York Connecting Railroad (today known as the viaduct leading to the Hell Gate Bridge.) Tons of concrete were mixed in batches, then hoisted 150 feet into the air where the track bed was being poured. The line made a loop as it descended from the bridge in Astoria Park to almost ground level at the junction with the Long Island Rail Road in Sunnyside.

Queens Borough President Maurice Connelly suggested the elevated line in Sunnyside be given special treatment so that it would "harmonize with the plans for Queens Boulevard". He suggested a beautiful, noiseless structure from Van Dam Street to Greenpoint Avenue. Engineers of the Public Service Commission objected, noting that the design would increase costs by 60 percent. Borough President Connelly retorted, "It was not too much in view of the millions of dollars spent developing and beautifying the boulevard in an effort to make it one of the most notable thoroughfares in the country."

The paper's headlines were almost giddy with excitement on the changes in every community from new housing made possible by the new mass transit network planned for the borough. Money from around the country flowed into Long Island City, which, the paper assured the public, had the best investment opportunities in the New York area.

Change had another side.

Long Island City opposed an important new transit connection between Queens Plaza and Brooklyn. The elevated line was to run right down the middle of 23rd Street in Hunters Point. Homeowners were outraged. Even when the city promised a station, which would have almost certainly increased their property values, sentiment in the community would not budge.

Real estate broker William Richesteen wrote to the Star objecting to the holdouts. "The Steinway Tunnel is being held up by a few property owners who object to having an elevated in front of their premises. Their objections are purely selfish and personal. The courts will grant the city the right to build on the streets designated. It is approved by the Public Service Commission and the Board of Estimate. There is no power with us to stop it; they can only cause delay. If the other boroughs get transit lines, it may be years before Long Island City gets relief and this means failure and disaster for every real estate owner, business man, and merchant in Long Island City."

After blaming the property owners as committers of "awful crimes", he offered to rent their buildings from them for 10 years.

The paper reported the community's reaction the following day. Hundreds of names on a petition from community residents as well as businesses were united in opposition to the elevated line. An ad hoc citizens' committee was formed to advocate for a subway proposal (as opposed to the elevated) that was both cheaper to build and less damaging to the community. Instead of building a line to Brooklyn, they suggested connection with Grand Central via the unused Steinway Tubes (today, the East River tunnel for the No. 7 line). "We want to occupy our property as homes and do not want anyone to rent them for us," they wrote. "We contend that the city has no right to drive us out of places that suit us for residences and make us go elsewhere in locations that will not be as convenient or advantageous."

Development also eroded the traditional image of Queens as a "Green Borough". Park Commissioner Walter Elliot of Queens, who was recently talking to the business communities of Flushing and Long Island City about planting shade trees to beautify commercial districts, received a strange request from E. V. Kraus, president of the Jamaica Furniture Company.

Jamaica Furniture was in an area that just a few years before, was exclusively residential. Large shade trees 30 to 50 years old lined the streets. Kraus felt that they were in the way of pedestrians and obscured the views of business window displays.

The commissioner replied. "I personally inspected the trees and find no justification of your criticism. You are entitled to your belief that trees are inappropriate in a business street, but the vast majority of Jamaicans who are proud of their town and their trees do not hold this opinion."

A related article talked about efforts of the Tree Planting Association of New York in planning a big campaign to beautify the streets of Queens. "No borough needs more trees than Queens," states a booklet the association published. "Every effort to attract these settlers is being made; tree planting alone is neglected.

"Only Flushing has a few streets with excellent specimens of trees planted, some dating from the seventeenth century. We have long stretches of road in the borough with hardly a tree to protect us against the scorching sun of summer.

"Many trees on the streets are mutilated by boys, delivery wagons, or careless construction employees. If you see a tree mistreated, write to the Association or notify a police officer on patrol."

Finally a careless bicyclist was arrested for running down a boy in front of his home. Eight-year-old Eugene McGuire was playing a few steps from his front door when 22- year-old Robert Diehl came barreling down the street and carelessly mowed down the youngster. An angry crowd summoned a police officer who arrested Diehl for driving his bike without bells or lights. The paper, which noted that many similar instances of carelessness happened that summer, urged the arrest of anyone who "apparently is indifferent to the danger which such heedlessness involves".

That's the way it was in August 1912.

Take a historic house tour of the Lent Riker Home for a rare intimate glimpse into the last privately owned Dutch-colonial (1654) house in New York. Walk through the house and grounds with Marion Smith on September 13 at 3 p.m. The Lent- Riker-Smith Homestead is located at 78-03 19th Rd. at 78th Street in Jackson Heights. Take the V, G or R train to Steinway Street and the Q101 bus to Hazen Street and 19th Avenue or the N or W train to Ditmars Boulevard, then take the Q69 (formerly Q19A) bus to Ditmars Boulevard and 78th Street. $20 at the door, $15 in advance. Reservations required. For more information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700, e-mail info@astorialic.org or visit www.astorialic.org.

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