'Queens Then & Now' Shows Borough As It Was And is
The borough of Queens has seen many historical and geographical changes. Marshlands, woods and farms gave way to factories, thriving communities and the nation's premier arterial highway system. Queens, the latest offering in Arcadia Publishing's Then & Now series, by Jason D. Antos, a lifelong resident of Queens and the author of two other local history books about the borough, Whitestone and Shea Stadium, offers a rare look at New York City's largest borough, featuring many photographs never published until now.
Antos opens Queens with an Introduction that briefly recapitulates the natural, social and political history of the borough. In the last paragraph he makes no secret of where his sentiments lie: "Today, buildings of great architectural achievement and historical importance, including old trolley lines, railroad stations and homes of the rich and famous, are demolished and replaced with modern, cookie-cutter structures." Underscoring this point, most of the "Now" photographs of the present-day borough were taken by Antos, and they do not flatter their subject.
Queens includes four chapters plus the Introduction: Western Queens, Northern Queens, Central and Southern Queens and Eastern Queens and Beyond. Western Queens leads off because, as Antos points out, "The saga of Queens County began on its western shore directly across from Manhattan Island, when the first settlement of Dutch landed here in 1640." (The next sentence holds one of Antos' few errors, which may be attributable to copy editing, rather than the author: Dutch Kills was the first community settled on Newtown, not Newton Creek in 1642.)
The oldest known photograph of Woodside, taken in the winter of 1871-72, shows the Flushing and Woodside Railroad's steam locomotive, named the New York, crossing what would later become 58th Street and 38th Avenue. Antos notes that in 1915, the tracks where trains pulled by the New York once ran were elevated and the station house razed. Antos describes his photograph and his opinion of the present-day scene succinctly: "Today graffitied walls conceal the once-picturesque rural setting."
Even structures with some aesthetic appeal get backhanded compliments: "Queens's [sic] first skyscraper, the Citicorp Tower, was built in the last open space of Long Island City in 1990." Antos goes on to lament the loss of Gothic Revival Bodine Castle at 43-16 Vernon Blvd., torn down in 1966 and replaced by a Consolidated Edison substation, itself relocated in the 1970s and the site now occupied by a taxi repair garage. He notes that the site occupied by Astoria Houses, the New York City Housing Authority development on the shores of the East River at Astoria Boulevard and Third Street originally held a complex of wooden buildings constructed in 1870s and '80s vernacular. The wooden structures bearing the "gingerbread" ornamentation of their era, extant in the 1946 "then" photograph, were replaced by functional but architecturally undistinguished public housing.
Part of one structure has retained a little of its former glory: while the main entrance to the Kaufman Astoria Studios has shifted to 36th Street, the porte-cochere that was the front door to the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation Studios on 35th Avenue looks much as it did in the 1920s when the complex was built.
Chapter 2, Northern Queens, notes that many of the features of the natural landscape are now covered over in concrete. A modern-day explorer would search in vain for Jackson Creek, for example—what is left of the stream has been paved over by 94th Street, a main entrance to LaGuardia Airport. Factories stand at Northern and College Point Boulevards where plants were once cultivated at the Prince Homestead, site of the first commercial nursery in the United States.
Antos notes that not all elements of the landscape were destroyed by the ravages of man. Two large oak trees that marked the spot where George Fox, a founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers) preached to Flushing's Quaker congregation, were struck by lightning in the late 1880s, but an inscribed stone marks the spot where the Fox Oaks once stood and Quaker John Bowne's home, built in 1661, is still intact. The Quaker Meeting House on Northern Boulevard, built by Bowne in 1649, still exists also, but the ivy covering its walls was removed at some point in its history.
Poppenhusen Institute still remains much in its original state and is still used for many of the social programs started within its walls. Flushing Town Hall has been restored and is an arts and cultural center, but not all other such institutions were so fortunate. The Greek Revival style Flushing Institute was closed in 1902, torn down in 1926 and is today the site of an uninteresting postwar building housing a now-closed department store.
The Flushing branch of the Queens Borough Public Library at Main Street and Kissena Boulevard is one modern structure to which Antos pays some homage; he calls the 50,000-square-foot glass structure "amazing". The library replaces a 1957-era postwar structure torn down in the 1990s that in its turn replaced a building donated by Andrew Carnegie built in 1906.
The lost landscapes and structures of Central and Southern Queens are lamented in the chapter of the same name, the third in the book. Jamaica Town Hall did not fare as well as its Flushing counterpart—a fast-food restaurant now occupies the site where the imposing four-story-plus-cupola Italianate center of civic activities once stood. The elevated J train line follows what was once a plank road and consigns Jamaica Avenue to shadows beneath its stanchions.
Not all of Central and Southern Queens has suffered over time. Forest Hills Gardens has remained much as it was when the planned community was first constructed, due mainly to its existence as a privately held corporation. The Chapin Home for the Aged and Infirm complex was completely refaced in the 1960s, but remains acceptable to a student of architecture. However, much of the area, like Seaside Avenue in the Rockaways, once gaudy but amusing, is "just an ordinary side street".
Eastern Queens and Beyond, the fourth and final chapter in Queens Then & Now, notes that some historic structures have been landmarked and some natural features preserved. Antos also notes that part of what is now Nassau County once were considered to belong to Queens and touches briefly on them. Like much of the rest of the sites in the book, all that remains of some noted structures are markers delineating what once stood on a particular spot and what made the site noteworthy. Some structures do not rate even such brief note, and Antos makes no secret of his feelings. The last set of photographs in Queens Then & Now is of the former Macy's store at Queens Center Mall. The "then" photograph shows a Victorian house on the corner of 55th Avenue and Queens Boulevard and Antos notes that this holdout from a vanished era disappeared soon after the mall opened in 1972, replaced by two undistinguished branch banks. The "flying saucer" Macy's structure contrasted with the elegant simplicity of the Victorian house indicates a clash of cultures and attitudes that leaves the modern streetscape the winner in a Phyrric victory. There must and will be progress and development, but in the course of that progress and development irreplaceable parts of the community's heritage have been irretrievably lost. Queens Then & Now does its part by letting us know what we have let ourselves relinquish.
This book is an invaluable asset to anyone studying the history of Queens County or who appreciates that progress comes at a price.