2008-10-29 / Book Review

'Bayside' Details Neighborhood's History

Bayside Alison McKay, Bayside Historical Society ISBN: 0738556815 128 pages Arcadia Publishing $19.99
BY LINDA J. WILSON

No matter what the subject may be, any book in the Arcadia Publishing "Images of America" series takes the reader gently by the elbow and points out a place and time that live on in the excellent photographs, the subject matter of which is underscored by the text. Among the latest releases in the series is Bayside by Alison McKay, archivist at the Bayside Historical Society. In 10 chapters plus an Introduction McKay gives readers both an overview and a meticulously detailed look at an area that has been considered prime real estate since 1824, when a wealthy shipping merchant by the name of Abraham Bell purchased 245 acres in the area now known as Bayside, created an upper and lower farm, and bisected them with a country lane now called Bell Boulevard, from which Bayside began to develop. Over succeeding generations, Bayside evolved from its beginnings as a rural farming community to a resort destination with lavish estates that lined the shore of Little Neck Bay. Later, the town was transformed again into a commuter suburb touted by real estate developers for its scenic beauty and convenient location. Bayside chronicles the community's ever-changing history with short narratives at the beginning of each chapter and goes into further detail with the captions for each of the vintage photographs culled from the Bayside Historical Society's archives in the section that follows.

Chapter 1, "The Alley", describes the "large tract of land nestled between Bayside to the east and Douglaston to the west", most of which today is Alley Pond Park. Reproductions of photographs, some almost 150 years old, show the once verdant landscape and the beginnings of the urbanization that in some three centuries later would encroach everywhere but in the park that owes its life to the "Walk In the Alley" in 1969 that brought renewed awareness of the unique ecological environment to the public's attention.

"Bell Boulevard" traces the development of the private, unpaved lane dividing the upper and lower sections of the 245-acre farm that the first Abraham Bell bought from Timothy Matlock in 1824 to what is today the neighborhood's main drag and a thriving commercial district. "Estates, Mansions, and Homesteads", as its title suggests, recounts the rise, flourish and later demise of the dwellings that once made the area prime residential real estate. Of the 29 homes whose photographs constitute the illustrations for this chapter, only two are still standing.

Like many of the properties in "Estates, Mansions, and Homesteads", many of the golf courses and yacht clubs that made up a large part of the facilities described in Chapter Four, "Recreation" no longer exist. The North Shore Tennis Club and Clearview Golf Course are two exceptions to the rule. Like the property now known as Crocheron Park cited in the previous chapter, they owe their continued existence either to private concern or the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. "Little Neck Bay" continues in this vein, noting that by the dawn of the 20th century, the bay, named for the small peninsula that juts into it, "was highly touted in real estate advertisements and auctions for both its scenic quality and recreational value". The last two photographs in the chapter and the caption for both describe the influence of Robert Moses on the bay and the shore that borders it when the Cross Island Parkway was constructed at the behest of the then Parks Commissioner between 1934 and 1940.

McKay points out in "Famous Residents and Pillars of the Community" that Bayside's residents "make up its unique quality" and adds: "Volunteerism, activism and community spirit are all characteristics of Bayside's residents." While the list of people who at one time or another called Bayside home cannot possibly be complete, McKay manages to include a sizable number of past residents of the community on the shores of Little Neck Bay who either enhanced their community by their efforts to give back to it in one way or another, such as Elizabeth Boyce Lawrence, Frederick Storm and William L. Titus, or who gave it a certain cachet merely by their presence. The latter category includes boxer "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, silent film star Pearl White, who frequently walked her pet pig through the center of town and William Picard Stephens, "Dean of American Yachtsmen". Of course, no history of Bayside notables would be complete without an encomium for Joseph H. Brown, activist, preservationist and founder of the Bayside Historical Society, and McKay

gives him his due at the conclusion of Chapter Six.

Chapter Seven, "In and Around Town" traces Bayside's transformation from a horticultural and farming community to a residential enclave, most of which took place during the early years of the 20th century. Railroads first reached Bayside in 1866, hastening its metamorphosis from the seat of estates and private golf courses and yacht clubs into a commuter suburb, a move later accelerated by the construction of the Throg's Neck Bridge and the Clearview Expressway. Two incidents indicative of the area's becoming more "citified" were the redesignation of Bayside's one public school, which had opened in 1842 and relocated and been rebuilt, as P.S. 31 in 1898, when Queens became part of Greater New York, and renaming streets with numbers to conform to city and United States Postal Service practice in 1916.

"Actors' Row" holds the names. photographs and brief biographies of some of the leading lights of stage and screen who have called Bayside home. Noted comedian W.C. Fields perfected his vaudeville routines and starred in "Ziegfield Follies" when he lived on 223rd Street from 1919 to 1921. The silent film "Sally of the Sawdust" in which he starred was filmed partly in Bayside.

"Parades, Celebrations, and Events" notes the community spirit of Bayside residents, from "Bayside Day" in 1914— five parades, a breadbaking contest, a 3,000-person barbecue and a ball for the Queen of Bayside—to the Bayside Memorial Day parade and a 1968 concert by the Metropolitan Opera in Crocheron Park. Of course, McKay points out, the most outstanding example of Bayside's devotion to civic improvements was the 1969 "Walk in the Alley" that brought about the revitalization of Alley Pond Park.

No history of Bayside would be complete without an account of Fort Totten, and the eponymous chapter devoted to the one-time headquarters of the North Atlantic region of the Air Transport Command does an admirable job. The fort was declared surplus property by Congress in the 1970s and became Fort Totten Park in 2005. Fittingly, the caption for the last photograph in Bayside is that of the officers' club, a battlemented style structure that replicates the emblem of the Army Corps of Engineers and today is the headquarters of the Bayside Historical Society.

McKay holds a master's degree in art history from Hunter College and a master's degree in library science from Queens College, where she was also a recipient of the H. W. Wilson Academic Scholarship. In Bayside she demonstrates an admirable ability to convey scholarly information in a lively style that holds the reader's interest without being didactic or ponderous.

Our only complaint with this book is one we have frequently voiced about other books bearing the imprimatur of Arcadia Publishing—though at most 150 pages in length (Bayside is 127 numbered pages long)—so much information has been packed into this slim volume that an index as well as a table of contents would be a welcome addition.

Bayside belongs in both a historian's library and that of any other person who wants to know more about the neighborhood and its relationship to its environs and the world. It is a worthy addition to the Images of America catalogue.

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