I used to work in Long Island City, as production manager to a now defunct bedding and home furnishings company. We had our sewing and shipping facilities in a factory building near the Silvercup Studios. Whenever I had the opportunity, I would walk around the neighborhood on my lunch hour and see what I could see. Long Island City was hardly the new outpost of cool at the time, although if you were paying attention, you could see that it was coming. This was around 1998-99.
PS 1 had recently opened, (pre-MOMA) and work was being done on the platforms of the 7 train. They were also spiffing up the old Court House. If you stood where you could see the towers of Manhattan across the river, it was pretty clear that Long Island City’s days as a forgotten backwater were numbered. The harbinger of change, Citibank, had been there for several years at that point, although the plaza around it was still pretty deserted. Still, it would only be a matter of time. This part of Queens was just too tantalizingly close to Manhattan.
One day, on one of my wandering walks, I came upon this block. I lived in Bedford Stuyvesant at that time, surrounded by brownstones. I lived in a brownstone. Was this Queens? Land of 20th century housing? (Ok, I didn’t know much back then.) Where did this block come from? How did it survive? The houses were in pretty great shape, as a group, and were made of brick and, what was that? Marble? Who built marble houses? What was the story here? This block was an architectural miracle. (more…)
My interest in subway mosaics has been re-fired again, as it is every few years. I have a new admiration for the intricate mosaics that were assembled on station walls and signage in the subways between about 1914 and 1928 (after the initial Beaux Arts terra cotta and mosaics done in original IRT stations from 1904 to 1914.
Station appointments and signage from 1908 to the 1930s were developed by architect/artist Squire J. Vickers, who adjusted his approach over time from the florid Beaux-Arts period through a more mundane period in which subway tiling was more direct and informational, through the even more streamlined Moderne stations built for the Independent Subway from 1932 to 1948.
Two underground stations in western Queens (Vernon-Jackson and Hunter’s Point), belonging to the IRT Flushing Line, have acquired more importance in recent years as the surrounding area becomes more built-up. A third station, Court Square, is the site of a recent major transfer construction as the #7 train was united with the IND G, E and M stations.
Both Vernon-Jackson and Hunter’s Point, however, have remained almost unchanged in aspect since 1916, when the stations opened. Most original mosaic tiling is still in place and most exit/entrances are still open. Both stations can be considered living history.
Manhattan’s Wall Street is synonymous with the financial industry and with big money. We all know about the stock market, the banks, brokerages and big insurance companies that have their headquarters on the street, or nearby. People remember the skyscrapers and the counting houses, but forget that Wall Street begins at the shore of the East River, and in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, this was a working harbor. By the mid-19th century, lower Wall Street was best known as the center of the coffee district. And there was big money here, too.
Green coffee is the unroasted, raw beans, and like many commodities, it was coming into New York and Brooklyn ports in bulk by the mid-1800s. Lower Wall Street, along with the surrounding blocks of Front, Water, Pearl and other streets became the green coffee capital of America. There were dozens of coffee merchants headquartered here, with warehouses bursting with bags of coffee beans. Those beans came from Brazil, Central America, Mexico, Haiti and most of the other Caribbean islands. Most of the coffee merchants also became coffee roasters, with roasting plants also in the neighborhood. This area was also home to tea merchants, sugar merchants and other spice merchants. The smells, good and bad, must have been pretty overpowering. (more…)
Before the consolidation of the City of Greater New York, the center of the world in Queens was in Hunters Point. This was where the docks were, and where the LIRR ferries discharged passengers coming from Manhattan. These passengers would ostensibly board the east bound trains, but an entire industry of saloons, bars, and hotels had sprung up in the area around the LIRR yard to keep them in the neighborhood. Now… remember that we’re talking about the 1870-1900 period here. Your best point of reference, from a modern point of view, for what such such establishments offered is fictionalized in Cowboy movies and the Boardwalk Empire television series. There was gambling, women, and lots and lots of liquor. This was, in effect, a frontier town – one which was ruled over by a clique of politicians whose antics would have made Boss Tweed blush. Notorious even amongst his fellows, the last Mayor of Long Island City was Patrick Jerome Gleason. He was called Battle Ax Gleason by friend and foe alike.
Gleason was personally responsible for the construction of the exquisite P.S. 1 school house pictured in the next shot, a terra cotta masterpiece which nearly bankrupted LIC – amongst other imbroglios. Dogged by claims and accusations (and at least one conviction) of corruption – Gleason used to sit in a barber chair outside the Miller Hotel – known today as the LIC Crabhouse – and hold court with constituent and passerby alike. This was his favorite spot by all reports, directly across the street from the LIRR train and ferry terminal.
He instructed those he met to avoid addressing him as “Mayor,” instructing them to instead to “Just call me Paddy.”
Long Island City, which existed as an independent municipality that stretched from the East River to Woodside and from Newtown Creek to Bowery Bay for just 28 years, was hardly a candidate for the good government award prior to Gleason. For some reason, he raised the ire of press and political player alike. Remember – this is during the golden age of Tammany Hall over in Manhattan. Bribes and graft were a matter of fact in this era, a part of doing business. Liquor and gambling were commonplace, along with prostitution, and this turpitude raised the ire of do gooders all over the state and nation.
This massive, beautiful multifamily townhouse at 5-46 51st Avenue just hit the market for a cool $8,000,000. (Nope, that’s no exaggeration — check out the listing right here.) It’s currently configured as an owner’s duplex with four bedrooms, and two floor-through units on the first and the top floor. It’ll be delivered to the buyer vacant. The duplex unit, with its sleek modern kitchen and historically detailed living room, is quite beautiful. It looks like the rental units aren’t as fancy, but nice nonetheless. There’s also a backyard garden.
LIC Talk notes that the current owner was born and raised in the townhouse. The blog says that the owner and his wife “feel that LIC has become more like Manhattan and lost the flavor of the good old days and charms that they know.” But if this pad sells for $8,000,000, they’ll be able to move to Manhattan anyway!
The many-windowed Blanchard Building, its U changed to a V by stonecarvers under orders to make the “U” the Roman “V” to impart majesty and permanency, stands sentinel on Borden Avenue near 21st Street, the old Van Alst Avenue. Its upper floors look out on the noxious and noisome Newtown Creek. It’s one of the brick hulks around town that I ceaselessly admire, whether they are factories or warehouses (as almost all of them once were) or converted into residential apartments. In this part of Hunters Point, that fate is still largely unlikely, as the residential fever that has taken over the west side of the neighborhood near the East River hasn’t reached its business side. The Blanchard looks across the street at a Fresh Direct depot on Borden, one of the handful of main streets allowed to keep its name after many were given numbers in the early 20th century.
In a former life the Blanchard was a factor that made fireproof doors and shutters. Some years after a fire started in the Columbia Paper Bag company engulfed it in flames, Blanchard rebuilt, only to merge with the John Rapp Company, becoming the United States Metal Products Company.
Today the Blanchard hosts many businesses and offices, with a deli on the bottom floor. Its type of brick construction is timeless.
On Friday, the 11th of July, I found myself at the very edge of Queens in a very special place. At the end of Vernon Boulevard in LIC, where the old Vernon Avenue Bridge and the Newtown Creek Towing Company were found, is a facility which is engaged in the hands-on work of the Superfund process. The Anchor QEA company operates out of here, carrying out the collection of samples and scientific tests which will determine the exact nature of what’s wrong with Newtown Creek. These samples and tests are overseen and directed by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, and is an effort conducted by the so-called ”Potentially Responsible Parties” (PRPs).
These “Potentially Responsible Parties” have organized themselves together as the Newtown Creek Group, and they invited a small group of community members and representatives to their LIC facility to describe what they actually do at the Vernon street end and discuss the future of Newtown Creek.
As a disclaimer, the shot above was captured back in 2009, and it depicts a Hollywood crew dressing the set for the Angelina Jolie movie “Salt.” The sequence they were filming was located under the Queensboro Bridge, and since I was one of the Parade Marshals for the centennial parade, I made the most out of the unique vantage that a traffic free Queensboro Bridge offered.
Of course, if you live in Western Queens, sights like this are fairly common. People drive wildly around this densely trafficked area, something I’ve always chalked up to drivers being so close to their Manhattan destination.
You see A LOT of accidents around these parts, more often than not it’s just a fender bender, but sometimes… sometimes you see things that just confound…
Nightlight is a co-production offered by the Flux Factory and the LIC Community Garden which is described as “an interactive light-based outdoor installation that investigates public and private land use after dark.”
Jack Eichenbaum grew up in Bayside in the 1950s. He left for academic and vocational reasons in 1963, and when he returned from completing his doctorate in urban geography in 1976, he found a completely different borough. The mostly white, working class neighborhoods of his youth had transformed into multi-ethnic enclaves, creating the world’s most diverse county. Fascinated, he started giving walking tours of his beloved hometown in the 1980s, and in 2010, Eichenbaum was designated the official historian of Queens, as per the borough president’s office. The former city assessor has five upcoming tours, which are famous for the amount of local trivia he shares and the great restaurants he hits afterwards with participants. For more information, please see below.
Willets Point, Sunday, May 25th, 4 pm: East of Citi Field is a sewerless, hardscrabble area of auto junkyards and related businesses that has twice beaten back recent attempts at redevelopment. But since it’s located between the world famous baseball stadium and booming Flushing, public and private interests are again trying to transform Willets Point. Eichenbaum will walk from central Flushing to the area, while discussing political, economic and ecological issues and explaining why “Willets Point” is a misnomer. $20.
The World of the 7 Train, Saturday, May 31st, 10 am: Eichenbaum calls this full-day program his “signature tour,” although it’s actually a series of six walks (Long Island City, Sunnyside, Woodside, Jackson Heights, Corona and Flushing) and connecting rides. He focuses on the 7 train’s influence on surrounding neighborhoods. Lunch is in Flushing. Pre-register via email@example.com.
On and Off Jamaica Avenue, Sunday, June 8th, 10 am: After decades of dedication, redesign, and redevelopment, Downtown Jamaica is undergoing a renaissance as the borough’s major transportation center. Eichenbaum promises historic buildings, commercial activity, culture, and a surprise ending. $20.
More Space and New Arrangements in Western Queens, Sunday, August 3rd, 10 am: During the first third of the 20th century, Western Queens nurtured developments where traditional open space/building area relationships were altered to create new urban architecture. Sunnyside Gardens and the Jackson Heights Historic District anchor this tour, which includes Phipps Garden Apartments, various Matthews Flats, the Metropolitan Life houses, and early truck-oriented industrial buildings.