Tag Archives: Queens

The International Express: The Personality of the 7 Train

The New York subway system has been a frightening place recently — derailments, stalled trains underground, agonizing delays.

Most of these interruptions are experienced in a unique way, a group of strangers coping with a  situation outside their control. After a few minutes of waiting, people get impatient, pace the train, grumble silently, turn up the volumes on their listening devices. Their spheres of comfort may change, allowing them to speak to a fellow passenger in a sign of solidarity.

Now take those regular mass-transit routines and observe them on the most unusual train in all of New York  City (if not the world) — the 7 train which travels from the Hudson Yards to Flushing, passing through a wide variety of ethnic neighborhoods. It’s affectionately called the International Express.

INTERNATIONAL EXPRESS
New Yorkers on the 7 Train
By Stéphane Tonnelat and William Kornblum
Columbia University Press

In International Express: New Yorkers on the 7 Train, two ethnographers Stéphane Tonnelat and William Kornblum study closely the daily routines of subway riders along this line, representatives from a dozen unique communities, some blissfully lost in their own worlds, others suppressing their own racial prejudices, creating a fascinating space of temporary urban cohabitation.

Flickr/Tarek Awad

As the two authors observe, there really is no experience on earth like riding the subway.

Their observations of human behavior can be read to include all experiences upon the New York subway, but the 7 train provides a very unique mix of languages and cultures, intensifying and sometimes complicating regular daily routines.

Riders in rich ethnic communities of one type may only interact with those of other communities while riding the subway. On the 7, this means sharing a space with people of many ethnic backgrounds at once.  “Riders are fascinated by the diversity they experience and take pride in learning in learning to read cues regarding the identities of strangers on the trains.”

Flickr/Doug Letterman

In a very blunt but incisive way, the authors identify various aspects of New York that often hard to quantify. “[A]fter paying the fare, we all have an equal right to be on the subway, to be in the city dressed however we please, and to be ready to defend ourselves against stereotyping and bigotry.”

And yet, as observed in interviews with countless 7-train riders, the train becomes a sort-of safe space as well, where individuality is not only allowed but even supported, as it allows every rider to express themselves personally within basic norms of decency. Not that riders don’t personally harbor hostile or racist views at times; but mostly, perhaps as preservation of the 7 train’s neutral space, they keep these thoughts to themselves.

The authors also explore the particular power of the 7 train itself in transforming Queens into the most diverse and second-most populous borough, allowing neighborhoods of specific ethnic character to thrive, even at moments in New York City history where the rest of the city stagnated.

The success of neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Flushing ultimately depend on the train. The most illuminating sections of International Express seem almost like dire warnings in light of 2017’s recent mass-transit disasters.

Or, as the authors put it, “Despite overcrowding, construction and mechanical delays, sweltering platforms in the summer, and endlessly broken escalators, the physically and socially competent urbanite chooses the subway. Will that always be the case?”

The Ghost With Red Hair: Two Hauntings in Long Island City

Long Island City is really a confederation of small villages and hamlets along the northwestern shore of Long Island. The name began essentially as a re-branding of Hunter’s Point then grew to eventually include Astoria, Ravenswood, Sunnyside, Blissville and other communities after the development of the Long Island Railroad improved its land value.

“Fifteen years ago, outside of the village of Astoria, there was not a house in the limits of Long Island City, except the dwellings of half a dozen farmers and a line of palatial mansions fronting on the East River, from Hunter’s Point to Hell Gate,” said the New York Times in 1870 at the time of Long Island City’s charter.

It was an area of great change that still retained a rural character, even as two of America’s greatest cities rose to its south. The perfect setting — for a ghost story!

Haunted houses as often simply old mansions that look out of place on a changing landscape. By that definition, Long Island City in transition would have had its share of these. Interspersed within this article are a few old homes and mansions of northwestern Queens. Haunted or not, but still captivating!

I was looking through some newspaper archives looking for some old stories about Long Island when these two spooky stories popped up. Almost as if they wanted to be found and retold! Both are based on newspaper reporting of the day and were reported (albeit with a touch of skepticism) as fact:

Below: Bodine Castle at 4316 Vernon Boulevard

bodine

 

A Ghost In Long Island City 
January 29, 1874 [source]

There once was a home at Jackson Avenue and Dutch Kills Road that was quite haunted, so haunted that its landlord was unable to rent it out. Soon a fearless family with the last name of Daly decided to rent the house.

“They were informed that there would be other occupants besides themselves in the house, but that did not deter them.”

They were in the house for a week until one night they heard moans coming from the hallway. The father investigated the hall, then the kitchen. The sound seem to move away from him — into the parlor, then into dank cellar. But there was no evidence of any intruder, no reason for the noise.

“Shortly after this as if some heavy body were falling downstairs were heard.  Mrs. Daly, upon being interrogated, affirmed that the crockery in the cupboard was thrown down and broken, and declared the door was unopened.”

With a disturbing lack of empathy the newspaper then reports, “One child was so thoroughly frightened that it was thrown into violent convulsions and has since died.”

They stayed in the home the following evening to be awakened by horrific cries of ‘Murder! Murder!’ at midnight.  The following day the family finally moved out of this haunted house. “Today a rigid investigation will take place, and the hoax, if it is one, will probably be ventilated.”

No further information was found about this house.

Below: Vernon Boulevard, at the S.E. corner of Astoria Boulevard, showing the Cornelius Rapelye House, built about 1780. A garage was later erected on the site. Eugene L. Arabruster Collection 1922

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

A Red-Haired, Blue-Eyed Ghost
The Stoutest Hearted Citizens of Blissville Filled With Fear
March 10, 1884 [source
]

“All the hair in Blissville, Long Island, is on end with terror and excitement, and even the stoutest-hearted citizens feared to sleep until they got to church yesterday, because the ghost cries “Oh, ho!” and “Ah, ha! and likewise “Humph, humph” still haunted the Calvary Cemetery, and all Saturday night gave vent to weird and mysterious moans and sighs.”

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A hotel proprietor names John Powers was stumbling home at night — almost midnight — in some presumed state of inebriation. On the road he passed a very short woman dressed entirely in black, “mov[ing] along in a strange manner, looking neither to the right nor to the left.”

The little woman did not respond when Powers wished her good night.  Finally, “filled with strange forebodings,” he decided to look at the woman. But she had completely vanished.

“There were no houses, trees, nor fences near, nothing that even a cat could have concealed itself behind, and yet the weird apparition had disappeared and left not the slightest indication of its presence.”

Below: The old Payxtar Homestead, area of today’s Jackson Ave. and Queensboro Bridge Plaza, Long Island City

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

Another man named Thomas Culvert told a similar story that same evening. His description of the spirit is quite bizarre. “She was not more than three feet tall and had red hair, he said, and long curls hung down her back.”

His eyes lingered upon the woman a bit too long for she gazed up at him, making eye contact. “[H]er eyes were of a stony blue that chilled his very blood as she fixed them upon him for a single instant.” Culvert scurried immediately home and locked the door.

Throughout the night the townspeople of Blissville heard a series of shrieks and cries in the vicinity of an abandoned house.  “Numbers of persons, made brave by the daylight, visited the haunted house and locality yesterday afternoon, but shrank away when the shadows began to deepen.”

Efforts were made to disprove these spooky tales but no source was ever found. Thus the residents of Blissville lost many hours of rest. “There will be no peace until the grisly secret is explained.”

Below: 27th Avenue, no. 805, Astoria, taken in 1937

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York, photo by Berenice Abbott
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York, photo by Berenice Abbott

 

The breezy story of Ozone Park, Queens: “the Harlem of Brooklyn”

Ozone Park, a quiet residential Queens neighborhood near Woodhaven, is one of those places created by real estate developers in the 1880s. It happens to have one of the best neighborhood names in all of New York City. So where did it come from?

Ozone is a gas that exists as part of the Earth’s atmosphere and, more dangerously, as a component of ground-level pollutants like smog and industrial waste. By all accounts, the word should sit nowhere near the word ‘Park’ where the foul-smelling gas would kill everything.

OzonePark

But when ozone gas was first identified in 1840, its harmful effects were not widely understood. It was associated with fresh air, filled with refreshing recuperative properties.  One dictionary in particular describes ozone as “clean bracing air as found at the sea side.” By the 1860s and 70s, beach resorts and hotels were advertising their properties are paradises full of tonic air with all the ozone you could want!

Below: This cigarette card was labeled ‘Ozone is present in the air at the sea-side.” So you have cigarettes and ozone…..

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

 

There was no borough of Queens in the 1860s, only the counties of Kings and Queens sitting near each other on the western end of Long Island. The county of Queens was sparsely populated outside of a few towns further north, including Flushing, Jamaica, Astoria and Newtown (later Elmhurst).

The vast population rise and the improving financial fortunes of the cities of New York and Brooklyn in the 1860s inspired some developers to sweep into under-populated areas with the hopes of developing new communities. It was in the decades following the Civil War that many new Queens communities sprouted up in this way.

In the 1870s, the cooking and houseware manufacturers Florian Grosjean and Charles Lalance built a large factory near the site of the old Union Course racetrack, long since closed. The company town which sprouted up around the factory became the basis for the Woodhaven neighborhood.

In 1876, the factory was destroyed in a devastating fire, so complete in its destruction that Grosjean, upon seeing his life’s work in flames, fainted to the ground.

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Courtesy Project Woodhaven

 

But Grosjean rebuilt his massive factory just a bit south of the original site, constructing more new cottages for his workers. While the factory is long gone today, its distinctive clock tower can still be seen in the neighborhood today. [You can read more about Grosjean’s contribution to the area here.]

I bring up the origins of Woodhaven because the southern factory opened up new opportunities for some undeveloped land. New employees of Grosjean’s factory would eventually venture into this area needing housing,

In 1880, the Long Island Railroad built a station south of Woodhaven as part of its line from Long Island City to Howard Beach. Two years later, two speculators Benjamin W. Hitchcock and Charles C. Denton bought up most of the plots of land around the station and began marketing the area as a visionary new neighborhood called Ozone Park!

Hitchcock had made his money in the music publishing business, one of several enterprising Manhattan businessmen who looked to the vast undeveloped spaces of Long Island to make money. He coined the name Ozone Park to promote the area’s proximity to fresh tonic ocean air.

Below: Postcard of an Ozone Park filling station circa 1930s

Courtesy Boston Public Library
Courtesy Boston Public Library

Here’s a few examples of advertisements used to lure prospective customers to  the area:

From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (7/9/1882):

“A FREE invitation to visit Ozone Park, on the New York, Woodhaven and Rockaway Railroad, adjoining Woodhaven and Brooklyn, with a view of affording homes to persons of moderate means on easy payments.”

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From the New York Sun (8/27/1882):

“OWN YOUR HOME at OZONE PARK, And enjoy the pure, life-giving air of the ATLANTIC OCEAN……”

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From the New York Sun (4/21/1883):

“Save your children! Save your money! Invest and get rich! OZONE PARK is ‘the Harlem of Brooklyn.’ Come and investigate!”

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Wait — ‘the Harlem of Brooklyn‘? Ozone Park isn’t even in Brooklyn, although it’s near the modern border of the borough.  In the 1880s Harlem was a thriving and newly developed Jewish and Italian neighborhood, a new rowhouses were being built along the routes of elevated rail lines. This is certainly the comparison the developers had in mind with this particular advertisements.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

By 1884, the developers carved streets to connect the properties.  Far from relaxing and ‘tonic’, the area was a fury of building construction.  Five years later there were at least 600 residents living in Ozone Park, enough to merit its very own post office.

The development of South Ozone Park was bolstered with the construction in 1894 of the Aqueduct Racetrack (pictured below in 1941).  When Idlewild Airport (later JFK Airport) was completed in 1948, anything positively “ozone” about the the air quickly evaporated.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

 

Thank you Project Woodhaven for inspiring this article!

 

 

MYSTERY! “Doctor Busted” and the skeleton of College Point

Above is an illustrated bird’s eye view of College Point, Queens, from a 1917 guidebook “Illustrated Flushing and vicinity.”

As that book goes on to describe, “COLLEGE POINT is essentially a manufacturing town—the industrial center of the Flushing District.  It is an old settlement like Flushing and Whitestone, both of which it immediately adjoins on Flushing Bay, and like both, it is rich in its possession of old trees and old houses. It has many fine modern residences, too; and even the proximity of its scores of factories doesn’t seem to spoil its charm as one of New York City’s pretty home suburbs.”

But for a ‘pretty home suburb’, you never know what you’re going to find as you’re digging up out in your yard.  I found the following disturbing notice in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 7, 1914:

“College Point, LI, October 7 — The police of the College Point station thought they had a first-class mystery on their hands today for a time after John Kanter of 622 North Fourteenth Street [sic] dug up in his yard the skeleton of a man.

Just when the keenest Sherlock Holmeses in the College Point service were beginning to concentrate their minds on the subject, however, it was recalled by an old policeman at the station that the premises had been occupied until his death a few years ago by Dr. Busted whom, the police believe, buried the body after using it for dissecting purposes.”

It’s more likely the doctor’s name was Busteed.  Dr. Busted sounds like a character from a 1980s horror film.

Here’s a proper mystery: Would somebody like to figure out where 622 North 14th Street in College Point, Queens, is today?  Many streets and roads in Queens were renumbered in the 1920s.  I believe the house mentioned in the article above is on today’s 14th Avenue, but there’s also a 14th Road.  And neither of them is numbered in the 600s.

If there was one skeleton in the yard, might there still be others?

Below: A College Point home from the brochure described at top, belonging to a silk manufacturer.  From the brochure:

“As a bit of prophecy, the reader is asked to lay aside this book for ten years and then compare this portrayal of College Point-Flushing conditions as they now exist with those of a decade hence. It is pretty safe to say that the two old mansions, pictures of which are printed with this article—the Stratton and Graham homesteads — that today stand as landmarks on the trolley line between College Point and Flushing will long since have disappeared, and in their places and on their surrounding acre swill have risen many beautiful, modern residences and apartment  houses, and that the meadows some distance away will have been covered with manufacturing plants all th eway from the hills to the waters of Flushing Bay.”

Movin’ On Up: A skewed history of New York City as depicted by the opening themes of 1970s TV shows

The camera zooms over the New York City skyline as an earnest pop tune — usually devoid of any rhythm or edginess, but insanely catchy — descends as though sent from outer space.

The next shot focuses on one particular landmark, a bridge or a park, letting you know, see we’re not in some television studio in L.A., we’re really here, the Big Apple!

Then the scene abruptly changes to an interior of an office or a flat, uninteresting living room, the cheerful face of a person about to embark into a series of adventures in that very city.  We meet the rest of the cast, a wacky bunch of people, urban people, who find themselves in comedic situations.  The city appears again in the background, but we’re already off with our new friends — the stars of 1970s prime time.

That’s how a great many television programs began during the 1970s. New York City was heavily represented on television during the decade, an easily identified setting that could be depicted in two or three establishing shots before moving on to introduce the stars.

It popped up in no-nonsense crime dramas and sitcoms alike, an almost singular destination for television characters. (After the ‘rural purge‘ of folksy TV shows, there was little room for small-town America;  places like Cincinnati,  MilwaukeeChicago and of course Los Angeles filled out the schedule.)

In reality, New York was entering a dark period of deteriorating public services, high crime and financial woes. While television news would often dramatically reflect this image out to America, television entertainment would do the opposite.  Few TV series of the period accurately reflected New York’s troubles outside of a few occasional crime dramas and action shows (like 1977’s Amazing Spiderman, at right).

Of course, most television shows about New York City in the 1970s were actually filmed in Los Angeles. And you couldn’t fault sitcom creators for wanting to eschew real-life troubles that would distract from their clean and cheerful worlds of comic misunderstandings.  Even great detective shows like Kojak pulled their punches, largely because reality was often too graphic to present in prime time.

But an alternate world emerges from watching a series of television intros from the 1970s, pulled from top sitcom and dramas of the period.  New York City is essentially Midtown and Central Park (but for the few shows that ventured into the other boroughs), glamorous and utterly harmless, without edge.

And in those few shows that did exploit the city’s dangerous side, the intros made clear — through artistically rendered graphics — that the danger was merely of the pulp variety.


A Woman’s Playground
Many shows of the decade presented Manhattan as an aspirational destination, especially for women, even as thousands of people in real life fled the city.  Television was finally focusing on the adventures of single women, but to do so, New York had to be depicted as nearly flawless.

The iconic example of this is ‘That Girl’ starring Marlo Thomas.  In this 1970 opener, New York is nothing but glamour, shopping, Lincoln Center and Broadway.

The lousy sitcom On Our Own, New York’s variant of Laverne & Shirley, opens with a couple of crazy gals heading to their job at an advertising agency.  The intro actually features a bit of physical violence against one woman, played up for laughs!

Not every show was so blind to the rough edges of New York.  But it required a tough lady like Rhoda, a native New Yorker, to maneuver all those sliding locks and tough-talking cabbies. (The third season intro is below, but the first season intro is probably the more memorable one.)


The Hustle-and-Bustle
As with the On Our Own intro, many workplace comedies chose to contrast their wacky interior antics with the frenetic urban rhythms of New York City.  It’s as though the comedy you were about to see generates from walking through the crazy, chaotic streets of Midtown.

The intro to the Garment District comedy Needles and Pins ratchets the enthusiasm of That Girl‘s intro down to a quiet, confident strut. Yeah, I work here.

A variation of the buzzing energy of New York City being a impetus for comedy is seen in the intros for Saturday Night Live, even to this day.


The Taxi City
One identifying symbol of New York is the taxicab or, more specifically, the cabbie. While films like Taxi Driver were putting an ominous spin on this image, television still relied on the cab as shorthand for the modern urban experience.

And if you could somehow combine it with a basketball court — as with Busting Loose — then you know it’s really, really New York.

The taxi is a vehicle of love in the romantic comedy Bridget Loves Bernie.  There’s no way to see this today as anything other than slightly creepy.  This extended intro ticks off all the boxes — cabs, school yards, the Queensboro Bridge, Central Park….

Taxis were so representative of the New York experience that one of the era’s greatest sitcoms was centered around the industry. Taxi survived well into the 1980s showing a more realistic version of New York than other shows of the day.

It also features the Queensboro Bridge, a heavily used symbol for the expanse of the city.  Since shows of the period rarely went downtown, the Queensboro could sit in for the Brooklyn Bridge when long vistas of the East River were required.  (Taxi actually did go downtown; it was set in a garage at Charles and Hudson Streets.)


The Outer Borough
Television shows often went to the other boroughs when they wanted to express the clashes of modern life, contrasted against a more suburban backdrop which many Americans could more easily identify.

Most everybody knows the iconic theme song from All In The Family as delivered by Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton.  What you may not remember is yet another establishing shot of Manhattan, used to contrast with the rows of Queens homes.  In these few seconds, the intro excellently sets up the conflicts of modernity, a quiet residential present, and a duo that seem stuck in a sheltered past.

The same sort of pull-away from Manhattan is used in O’Connor’s follow-up series, Archie Bunker’s Place, which yanks the viewer away from the skyline, back over the Queensboro Bridge and down Northern Boulevard.  Archie has changed since those years at the piano, and so have his surroundings.  The blocks of uniform homes have been replaced with subway graffiti and bustling street life.

13 Queens Blvd went even deeper into Queens but still relied on the establishing shot of Manhattan to let viewers know how far we are from real urban issues. The show’s situations were driven by the comic misunderstandings within an apartment complex, a little like One Day At A Time (set in Indianapolis) or Three’s Company (set in Santa Monica) perhaps. The show didn’t last long.

Brooklyn was represented in the 1970s by Welcome Back Kotter.  Set in a fictional high school, it is New Utrecht High School that’s used in the opening.  While other sitcoms used a Manhattan establishing shot, Kotter prefers a beat-up sign that announces Brooklyn as the 4th largest city in America.  With its painted trains and lines of laundry, this might be the grittiest depiction of New York in a sitcom, even as its high school students (the Sweathogs) were incredibly unrealistic.


Movin’ On Up
Mostly though, sitcoms preferred the fantasy, Manhattan as an Emerald City. (It was literally depicted as such in the 1970s musical The Wiz.)  No amount of deterioration seemed to supplant the image of Manhattan as having ‘made it’, especially when dealing with African-American television characters.

Taxis are again the vehicle of transformation in The Jeffersons, plucking George and Louise Jefferson from the land of Archie Bunker — again, using the Queensboro Bridge — and putting them in a luxury accommodation on the Upper East Side.

Two African-American boys are saved by a wealthy white man in Diff’rent Strokes.  For emphasis in the intro, Arnold and Willis are playing basketball, the de facto symbol in 1970s television of the inner city.

I don’t know if the show was any good, but the intro to the 1970 sitcom Barefoot In The Park seems refreshing in retrospect.  The show, based on the Broadway show, features a young black couple trying to make it though the first years of marriage in Manhattan.  It seems to handle the subject with the same euphoria used in ‘That Girl’.

They’re riding a horse-and-carriage drinking champagne!  It literally does not get cheesier.

De-Glamorized New York
There were a few shows that felt embedded within the actual New York experience. Their intros reflect a certain melancholy, a feeling that perhaps the city was not always a whirlwind of breezy excitement. The champagne remains corked.

Barney Miller is one of the few shows actually set in Greenwich Village. Perhaps as a result, its establishing shot of Manhattan is moody, even dreary, a perfect backdrop for a comedy television show about criminal behavior.

In the opening to The Odd Couple, New York is an embodiment of its characters’ anxieties and differences.  There is no establishing shot of Manhattan, no attempt to glamorize the big city.  These two are actually at odds with the city, not each other, as presented here.  The intro ends with a rare pan-up of the two characters with the city looming behind them.

 


The Wild East
In an opposite reaction to rural shows like Green Acres (where people fled New York), a maverick sensibility came to New York in the 1970s, especially in the detective genre, with iconoclastic characters bringing foreign forms of justice to an ungoverned city.

On McCloud, a New Mexico detective wrangles up a few pimps and car thieves, bringing fun but clumsy cowboy tropes to Times Square.  Unlike sitcoms, detective dramas actually went to 70s Times Square all the time for obvious reasons.  Although most did not bring stagecoaches with them.

Another bizarre crime-fighter to the New York skyline was the Amazing Spider-Man. We get a Manhattan establishing shot here, comically interrupted by Spiderman’s awful costume.  They spend a great amount of time with Spidey on the Empire State Building; in fact most of the show was filmed in L.A.

You didn’t even need a reason to bring in a cowboy. In the 1970 sitcom Mr Deeds Goes To Town, a folksy newspaper editor takes on the big city. The intro lays it on thick.


Groovy 70s Noir
A few crime dramas of the 1970s were actually filmed in New York City and thus could highlight the city a bit more fully in their intros.

The short-lived television version of Serpico features numerous places throughout the city, from the Battery to Times Square. And, yes, the Queensboro Bridge is again represented here via its subway stop.

New York’s greatest television crime fighter of the 1970s was Kojak, so cool that the city is given a trippy noir vibe, peeking from the nooks of swirling graphics.  Of course most of Kojak was filmed in Los Angeles, but, according to writer Burton Armus, the production crew went to New York on occasion for “surrounding shots, background shots, one or two scenes.”

Taking its cue from Kojak in its tone, Eischied was also a bit of a cowboy, bringing some Southern swagger to the mean streets of Manhattan. Its credit sequence is a confused mess.

 

And finally, check out this opening sequence from the 1973 television movie Brock’s Last Case.  It doesn’t really tie in to anything above, but it’s a pretty amazing view of the Brooklyn waterfront.  This is what we lose when we put up things like Brooklyn Bridge Park. Proper places to chase down criminals!

The Corona Ash Dump: Brooklyn’s burden on Queens, a vivid literary inspiration and bleak, rat-filled landscape

Ah, take in the horrid reality of the Corona marshes with their ashes, manure and garbage! (Courtesy CUNY)

Outside of probably Hell, there is no literary landscape as forlorn and soul-crushing as the ash dumps of Corona, Queens.

This is the valley of ashes,” writes Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, “a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.”

The Corona ash dump was a stain on Queens every bit as real as Fresh Kills landfill would later be on Staten Island, a repository for the detritus from Brooklyn coal furnace that created crud-caked mountains amid a salty marsh.

The salt marshes sat relatively untouched, along with other large stretches of the newly formed borough. The Brooklyn Ash Removal Company moved here in 1909 after it outgrew its dumping grounds on a small island in Jamaica Bay named Barren Island.  (The island no longer exists per se; landfill connected it to the mainland and Floyd Bennett Field was built there in 1930)

Below: A sanitation worker carting carting away a full barrel of ash. The open cart would be filled, taken to barges, then sent to far-away dumps. In the 1910s, Brooklyn ash went to Corona. {NYPL}

With the increase of coal-burning furnaces in the late 19th century, the city had yet another sanitation crisis sullying the streets.  Even by 1910s, New York was trying to clamp down on the situation — literally — attempting to get residents and private businesses to cover their ash carts and containers “as to protect pedestrians from the annoyance of flying ash dust.” [source]

In Queens, mountains of choking, awful ash made for poor living conditions for neighboring Corona on one side, Flushing on the other.  It was a constant eyesore for early commuters, as the Long Island Railroad went right past it, as did the main thoroughfares of northern Long Island — roads taken by many of the wealthy ‘Gold Coast’ families.

One ash pile was so large — almost 100 feet — that it was christened Mount Corona.  And of course it wasn’t just ash; barges filled with animal manure docked here as well, awaiting local farmers who used the waste as fertilizer.

And new menace was introduced in 1920  — an infestation of rats. “War Declared Upon Rats,” declared the New York Times. An army of exterminators were sent to wipe out the colony of rats that lived among the ashen meadow dumps.

Below: From 1897, loading a scow full of ash to be taken to the local dump (NYPL)

Believe it or not, the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company tried to convince residents that presence of the grim, brimstone terrain next to their homes was getting rid of pests. When they were taken to court in 1923, “charged with permitting dense smoke to issue from the dumps,” they claimed the dumping grounds were good for the salt marshes, as they helped rid the neighborhood of mosquitoes!

With the population of Queens almost doubling during the 1920s, it seemed the days of the Corona Ash Dump were numbered. Enter Robert Moses, with his dreams of a large and spectacular park for the growing borough.  He swiftly moved in, bought all the marshland, all the mountains of ash, and filled in wetlands and the dark hills to create Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.  If you’ve been to Citi Field or the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, then you have sat upon land that was once the Corona ash dumps.

The Queens boundary line, some amazing New York City trivia, and a clarification to our latest podcast

 Reaction to the Bowery Boys podcast on the Consolidation of 1898 has been tremendous!  But I do have one clarification, and provided by a very excellent source.

The accurate placing of the boundary line between Queens and the newly created Nassau County was a source of frustration for a great many months after consolidation.  I recounted one such tale involving a schoolhouse in Hempstead, included within New York City’s border after a revised survey was completed. (You can read the complete tale here.)

But that is only one part of the story, specific to the area around that particular building.  It may have gained a schoolhouse, but in fact, overall, New York City lost land in the revised survey, and quite a bit of it too!

According to Manhattan borough historian Michael Miscione:  “When the NYS legislature created Nassau County on Jan. 1, 1899 out of that portion of Queens County that was not part of Queens Borough, they almost entirely redrew the Queens Borough line. In the process, Greater New York did NOT gain territory as you state; though it may have acquired an extra sliver of real estate here and there in the resurvey, NYC ultimately LOST about 12 square miles.

Check out the Queens Borough border on an 1897/8 map versus a map from 1899 or later, and the difference is obvious. As a consequence, NYC was the largest it has ever been during the 12 months from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 1898! (A very cool piece of trivia that might come in handy some day.)”

Thanks for that great information, Michael!   If you enjoyed our podcast, you’ll have to check out Miscione’s upcoming lecture on the most malleable neighborhood in the history of New York — Marble Hill, the Manhattan neighborhood that’s really in the Bronx:

PEOPLE V. BOYD: THE MURDER TRIAL THAT NEARLY REDREW THE MAP OF NEW YORK CITY 

Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione will describe the peculiar and complex status of Marble Hill, a neighborhood that is attached to the Bronx but is legally a part of Manhattan. (Or is it?)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013
6:00p The General Society Library
20 West 44th St. (Between 5th & 6th Aves.)
 $15 general admission / $10 General Society members / $5 students
Advanced registration is suggested.
Call 212.840.1840 ext. 2, or email victoria.dengel@generalsociety.org .
http://www.generalsociety.org/

Above: A map of the town of Hempstead in 1876.  Part of its western border was affected by the re-surveying of the border with New York City.

Consolidation! The tale of five boroughs and one big city

PODCAST Our 150th episode! Here’s the story of how two very big cities and a whole bunch of small towns and villages — completely different in nature, from farmland to skyscraper — became the greatest city in the world.

 This is the tale of Greater New York, the forming of the five boroughs into one metropolis, a consolidation of massive civic interests which became official on January 1, 1898. But this is not a story of interested parties, united in a common goal.

In fact, Manhattan (comprising, with some areas north of the Harlem River, the city of New York) was in a bit of a battle with anti-consolidation forces, mostly in Brooklyn, who saw the merging of two biggest cities in America as the end of the noble autonomy for that former Dutch city on the western shore of Long Island. You’ll be stunned to hear how easily it could have all fallen apart!

 In this podcast is the story of Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island (or Richmond, if you will) and their journey to become one. And how, rather recently in fact, one of those boroughs would grow uncomfortable with the arrangement.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to straight from here:
The Bowery Boys: Consolidation 1898: Five Boroughs, One Great City

The hero of our story — Andrew Haswell Green

Below the prize-winning anti-Consolidation song mentioned in the podcast (courtesy NYPL):

A map of Richmond from 1874

The Dual Contracts: The New York City subway system gets a serious upgrade 100 years ago today

A subway map from 1924, illustrating the system created as a result of the Dual Contracts agreement.

After years of negotiations, false starts and lengthy arguments played out in the press, a group of greatly relieved businessmen entered the large hearing room of the New York Tribune Building (at Nassau and Spruce, where Pace University is today) and put their names to a series of documents that have come to be known as the Dual Contracts.

The beleaguered ceremony ran a half hour late, as a great many gentlemen crammed into the third floor meeting room to sign the official documents, stamped with gold lettering and expensively bound in morocco leather and colored ribbons.

With those signatures, the chaotic New York transportation system — with its fledgling subway and its miles of elevated lines — officially came of age that day — March 19, 1913.

“This makes March 19 a red-letter date on the municipal calendar,” declared the New York Tribune, in whose building the agreement was signed.  The Dual Contracts authorized millions of dollars of new tracks, more than doubling the system in size, from 296 miles of track to 618 miles!

Below: The buildings of Newspaper Row. The towered Tribune Building, in the middle, was the site of the Dual Contracts signing in 1913. 

This seminal agreement in American transportation history is ‘dual’ because the city negotiated two separate contracts — one with August Belmont Jr.’s Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) who operated the New York subway, and the Municipal Railway Company on behalf of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT), who ran most of Brooklyn’s transit system.

Under the agreement, the city would shoulder some of the cost of building new subway services — many into places where New York expected populations to rise in the coming years — and the two private companies would then lease the new routes from the city and profit from their operation.

At right: the headline from the New York Evening World

Essentially this gave IRT permission to operate into Brooklyn (once the domain of the BRT) and vice versa.  Previously, people arriving from Brooklyn to Manhattan had to immediately change trains once arriving into the new borough.

According to a report by the Public Service Commission later that year: “The Dual System will remove this abnormal condition and give the Brooklyn company a system of subways in Manhattan, by means of which it shall distribute its passengers through the territory south of 59th Street. Thus the present congestion at the Manhattan terminals of the bridges will be ended and the passengers from Brooklyn will be enabled to reach their destinations in lower Manhattan without change of cars or the payment of an additional fare.” [source]

As part of the deal, the two companies agreed to operate two new lines into Queens.  The importance of this particular part of the deal cannot be overstated.  The borough of Queens was just over a dozen years old by this time and still sparsely populated given its size. (Less than 300,000 people in 1910.)  With the arrival of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909, paired with new subway and elevated services provided by the Dual Contracts, the population of Queens would explode in the 1920s to well over a million.

And this didn’t just stimulate development there.  The deal brought a subway to the Manhattan’s Upper East Side and to the West Village, to most Bronx neighborhoods and down the Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.  New home and apartment developments into those regions soon followed.

Below: City luminaries gather around to watch representatives from government and the two private companies sign the pretentiously bound contracts. (Picture courtesy NYCSubway, an indispensable destination for transit history.)

The Dual Contracts also created express and local trains, facilitating another great development in the history of New York — the arrival of midtown Manhattan as the heart of business and entertainment.

In all, the contract signed one hundred years ago today made the New York City transit system the largest in the world.  In fact, it was larger than all the rapid transit systems of the world at the time — combined (according to Peter Derrick’s excellent book on the subject Tunneling To The Future).

But this also set in motion one of the great flaws of the subway system. Tracks operated by the IRT were a different size from those operated by the BRT.  The track gauge was wider on BRT tracks.  As a result, today the New York subway system still operates two different sizes of cars. (Ed: See notes below for a slight clarification/better explanation.)

On a humorous note, the original contracts, bound as they were in thick leather volumes, were apparently quite heavy to lift.  The president of the IRT remarked, “I am glad that I have enough strength to receive these contracts.”

For more details on the Dual Contracts, please check out the second podcast on the birth of the New York subway system — Subway by the Numbers (and Letters)

“Designing Tomorrow” glimpses the elegance of modernity via the earnestness of the World’s Fairs of the 1930s

The Museum of the City of New York‘s new exhibition “Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s” examines the aspirational vision of the American future in the automobile age, and the use of a mostly-defunct style of public exhibition as a way to sell that vision.

There were over two dozen World Fairs in the 1930s, several of them in the United States. (The last American Worlds Fair was in New Orleans in 1984.)  While the MCNY show does feature artifacts from some of the other American shows (Dallas, San Diego), it mostly focuses on the biggest and most influential of these events — the 1939-40 exhibition held out in Flushing-Meadows, Queens.

The Flushing-Meadows extravaganza found optimism in all facets of modernity, from the eagerly awaited expansion of automobile culture to the slickness of modern design infiltrating the middle-class household. The MCNY exhibit is arranged by themes, using prints and dioramas to illustrate what exhibitors thought the future would bring.

Below: A pretentious introduction to the General Motors exhibit Futurama which delighted audiences with a miniaturized depiction of the future (circa 1960) designed by Norman Bel Geddes

Railroad cars transform into rolling luxury hotels. Home conveniences emerge from an industrial horizon of chemicals and plastics. The privileges of living modern even mutates the private home itself, as rooms take on new shapes and purposes to accommodate future conveniences.  In a way, fair exhibitions predicted the non-traditional household; they just assumed it would be the house itself that would change, not the nuclear family residing within it.

Attendees at the fair would have seen their entire reality methodically dissected and upgraded as they wandered from one corporate pavilion to the next. “Designing Tomorrow” leaves out most of the camp associated with World Fairs to illustrate the cold, beautiful and desirable efficiency exhibitors hoped would be associated with their products.

I’m sorry, it leaves out most of the camp. My personal highlight of the MCNY show is the return of Elektro, a brawny, golden robot by Westinghouse who became a spokesman of a product-consuming future. He even smoked cigarettes like all of us would certainly be doing in the upcoming years.

Below: The golden boy in all his mechanical masculine glory

The most powerful objects on display are actually its collection of early fair mockups, drawings of pavilions even more bizarre than those that were built. Be sure to search out an early suggestion for the entrance to the Flushing-Meadows fair, a gigantic Roman centurion that would have been the tallest thing standing in the entire borough. You’ll also see a breathtaking early vision the U.N. Headquarters by architectural wizard Hugh Ferriss.

There are examples of some items that would eventually invade American homes, including a gorgeous looking toaster. But who wants toast when we could have had a smoking robot?!

Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s Dec 5 through Mar 31
For more information, visit their website