Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Long Island City: Hinge Connecting Midtown Manhattan and Queens

I am taking a class in the Geography of NYC, which I am really enjoying. One of our assignments was to take a series of eight walking tours around the city, using brief descriptions prepared by our professor, Jack Eichenbaum. For extra credit, I presented the Long Island City tour to the class. Below is my presentation. The presentation mixed the text prepared by Jack with my own add-ins scoured from the internet. (Sorry, not much original research in this particular assignment.)


Historically, Long Island City was a wetland at the western edge of Queens County. Due to flooding, it was not an important settlement until the railroad era. In the mid-19th century, Brooklyn pushed back the Long Island Rail Road from its terminus at the Atlantic Avenue waterfront. Soon, railroad interests in Queens sought outlets in Hunters Point -- Long Island City was chartered in 1870 as an industrial and transportation satellite friendly to heavy industry. After consolidation, Long Island City became modernized. Landfill and sewers remade it as a modern industrial district at the center of New York City’s transportation options early in the 20th century. As American manufacturing declined, Long Island City’s buildings and transportation have attracted new uses.

The map to the left shows the Hunters Point section of the walk. Highlights include the Vernon Mall, the Pulaski Bridge, and Gantry Plaza State Park.

The map below shows the Queensboro Plaza and Sunnyside Yards sections of the walk, which are taken by riding the 7 train toward Flushing.

Our walk starts at Vernon Mall. I've highlighted the area on the map below. Vernon Mall is at the angular intersection of Vernon Blvd (which parallels the East River Shore) and Jackson Ave (which runs northeasterly and parallels the original Flushing railroad route).

The mid-street parking in the Vernon Mall is on the right-of-way of a 19th century bridge to Brooklyn. The bridge went over the Long Island City railroad station where trains from Jamaica and points east discharged passengers to Manhattan ferries. A century ago, this was the busiest place in Queens County.

Below are two photos of Vernon Mall. The left-hand photo, taken in 1939, shows the bridge coming into Queens from Brooklyn. Cars and trucks can be seen on the bridge. We are facing north, looking along what is now Vernon Mall. In 1954 the bridge was replaced by the Pulaski Bridge a few blocks away. Vernon Mall is now a parking lot with a few benches, as shown in the photo on the right.

To the right is a 1909 map that shows the transportation links of Long Island City at the turn of the 20th century. [Note: the map is rotated about 90 degrees from the other maps on this page.] There are two competing sets of rail links. The rail route up Jackson Avenue goes to Flushing, and was built in 1852. The rail route along Newtown Creek goes to Jamaica, and is essentially still in use today as the main line of the Long Island Rail Road. Both railroads had ferry connections to Manhattan.

On the 1909 map you can also see bridges over Newtown Creek. There are roads converging on the Hunters Point section. Finally, trolleys also terminated here, with ferry connections to Manhattan.

The map on the left highlights Jackson Avenue, the diagonal street. Jackson Avenue was built in 1857 as a turnpike between Hunters Point and Flushing Bay. Looking up Jackson Ave, you can see the Citicorp Building (below), the tallest building on Long Island, constructed in 1989.

The map below to the right shows today's transportation links. The Vernon/Jackson and Hunters Point subway stops on the 7 train are in a tunnel built by William Steinway in the 1890s as a means of getting by trolley from Grand Central Terminal to his piano factory empire in the northeastern part of Long Island City. The venture was never completed but the Interboro Rapid Transit (IRT) bought them and used them for the subway in 1914. Now, the 7 train travels under through the tunnel under the East River to 42 Street. The Long Island Expressway becomes the Queens-Midtown Tunnel to 38 Street. Under the Long Island City railroad station, most Long Island Railroad trains tunnel to Pennsylvania Station at 34 Street. The Queensboro Bridge to the north takes traffic to 59 Street and three more subway tunnels connect to 53, 60, and 63 Streets. Long Island City and midtown have evolved together.

Other transportation links in the area include the G train to Brooklyn, the Pulaski Bridge to Brooklyn, the Roosevelt Island Bridge between Queens and Roosevelt Island, the Long Island Expressway, ferries to Manhattan, and the Roosevelt Island tram.

The map on the left highlights the location of the Pulaski Bridge. Below is a panoramic view of Newtown Creek from the Pulaski Bridge looking west toward Manhattan. You can climb stairs up to the Pulaski bridge walkway and head toward the Brooklyn side. Brooklyn, although it has older industrial functions, never had the transportation advantages of the Queens side.

What is the land use along Newtown Creek now? On the Brooklyn side, you can see older warehouses, a sewage treatment plant, and a dorm for Pace University. On the Queens side, there are road construction businesses, home bases for field crews (e.g., Fresh Direct and Cablevision), low transportation-related businesses (bus wash, train wash), and daylight manufacturing buildings.

How can you tell that the Queens side of the bridge is thriving more than the Brooklyn side? Queens has more new residential construction. There are direct trains and roads to Manhattan from the Queens side (and none from the Brooklyn side). The Queens side has more restaurants. On the Brooklyn side, the buildings tend to be lower, bigger-footprint buildings, implying that the land is cheaper. The map below shows the income levels on either side of Newtown Creek -- the darker the green, the higher the income. The data on this map is from 2000. I suspect that the new high-rise residential buildings near Gantry Plaza State Park would make this dark green even darker today.

And what about Newtown Creek itself? It was "discovered" by Europeans in 1613 and remained rural until the railroad came to this area after it was pushed out of the Brooklyn waterfront. Starting around 1860, heavy industry moved in, the combination of railroads and a waterway being too tempting to pass up.

Newtown Creek is a tidal creek, without a water source to help it refresh itself. Over time, it has been shortened and deepened (through dredging). Now, east of the bridge. there is an anti-pollution and recycling area in East Greenpoint. Newtown Creek is still one of the most polluted industrial sites in the U.S.

Now we head back into Long Island City, and walk west on 48 Avenue, highlighted on the map to the right. The aerial photo below shows that 48 Avenue runs parallel to the 1852 railroad right-of-way to Flushing.

You can see from the aerial photo that much of this right-of-way is not built upon. Near the East River, the Queens West project on the waterfront has been constructed mostly on former track. Other portions of the route have been used for a linear park and for Gantry Plaza State Park. Why would you build on former railroad land? Because it's not been built on previously, and because it's already graded.

Now we head to the East River shoreline, (see map below) where the Flushing railroad met the water. Until the 1970s, the gantries (black steel mechanisms that transferred goods from the railroad to barges until trucks transported stuff more cheaply) were in use. The public waterfront area is called Gantry Plaza State Park. Piers are built out into the river, and tiny bits of railroad track lead up to the gantries as a reminder.

The map to the left shows the location of the huge building that once housed a private power plant. The power plant was built in 1909 by the Pennsylvania Railroad to meet the needs of the new Pennsylvania Station, the electrified Long Island Railroad, and tunnels. The photo below shows the power plant when it was operating.

In 1959, the plant was sold to Schwartz Chemical. In 2005, to the chagrin of many, the smoke stacks were removed. The building is currently being converted to apartments, and half the building has been torn out. There is a photo below. The rounded turret-looking things are supposed to be a nod to the smokestacks. A very, very small nod indeed.

Now we board the eastbound 7 train. The map below shows the route. As the train rounds a sharp turn just outside the Hunters Point station, you will see Five Pointz, photo below.

This is a large daylight factory building. About 1900, the technology was perfected for making large buildings out of concrete poured around metal reinforcing bars. The floor slabs were poured integrally with the building framework. Solid concrete columns were used for support. The technology allowed for large expanses of window glass, which brought in good daylight and allowed for ventilation. Because the floors were strong, heavy machinery could be used inside the buildings. The materials needed for construction were easy to obtain: sand, cement, and aggregate. Additionally, the buildings were fireproof. The construction method was very popular from about 1900 to about 1930, and there are many examples in Long Island City. 5 Pointz, the building shown here, is a well-known example. It is covered with graffiti, and was used as artist studios until a recent fire escape collapse caused the building to be closed. I don't know its current fate.

After the Courthouse Square station, there is a huge cluster of daylight factory buildings that were built on a former creek bed, filled with the construction of the train.

The train then makes a sharp turn to the east into the Queensboro Plaza station. See map below.

Queensboro Plaza is a filled wetland that became the Queens terminus of the Queensboro Bridge, finished in 1909. Below is a photo of the area, looking into Queens. When Queensboro Plaza was built, it was hoped that it would become the Times Square of Queens.

For those who know Queensboro Plaza today, this is a laughable notion. The elevated train was built in 1915, and completely changed the area. See photo below.

Although there used to be twice as many tracks as there are now, the super-structure still overwhelms from the street level.

At the Queensboro Plaza train station, the 7 train (part of the IRT) meets the the N and W trains, which were part of the rival BMT company. The station was originally designed so that a passenger would pay a transfer fare to switch lines. The N and W trains, the Astoria lines, used to go over the Queensboro Bridge and connect to the 2nd Avenue El. Now they tunnel under the East River. Nearby but underground is the Queens Plaza station, where you can catch the E, G, R, and V trains.

If you get out of the train, you can see how the trains converge to the Queensboro Plaza near the bridge and diverge at the eastern end. The schematic at the left illustrates the connections made at Queensboro Plaza.

North of the train, and highlighted in the map to the right, there are a pair of interesting buildings.

The renovated Brewster Building, originally used to assemble horseless carriages and Rolls Royce cars, now holds offices for Met Life (connected to a new taller Met Life office building behind). The Brewster Building dates from 1911. A photo is below.

If you re-board an eastbound 7 train, as you leave the station, you pass the Bank of Manhattan building, from 1927 (photo below). At 14 stories, it was once the tallest building in Queens. The Citicorp Building, mentioned above, is nearby.

Our next and last stop is Sunnyside Yards, highlighted on the map below.

The train crosses the Sunnyside Yards at about their widest.

The Pennsylvania Railroad built them to store and service trains (land was cheaper here rather than in expensive Manhattan). The Yards were built on drained swamp land at the time Pennsylvania Station was built. They are now used by Amtrak, the Long Island Rail Road, and New Jersey Transit.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Consolidation of NYC in 1898

This is the second (and final) assignment for my NYC history class. For this paper, we were to imagine ourselves in 1898. New York has just expanded to include all five boroughs. We have just been hired by the mayor's office to discuss the problems created by the growth of the city and to suggest solutions to these problems. Side note: upon reading my paper, my wife commented that she liked it because my ideas were so communistic. 8-)


The Mayor's office of New York, recently consolidated to include the outlying territories of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx, has requested an analysis of major problems likely to face the consolidated metropolis. This report discusses three such problems, along with suggested solutions.


Originally, New York as a city was composed only of Manhattan. Manhattan was given a head start as a dominant territory after being granted domain over the East River and its ferry traffic, essentially robbing Brooklyn control of its own waterfront.

By the 1850s, the state combined the police, fire, and health departments of Manhattan and Brooklyn into joint metropolitan boards and soon after, annexation of the outlying territory was being promoted. In 1874, portions of the western Bronx were moved from Westchester County into New York, with additional portions joining in 1895.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn had been undertaking similar annexation projects, combining the previously independent towns of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick in 1855. By 1896, Brooklyn also included New Lots, Flatbush, New Utrecht, Gravesend, and Flatlands.

With both Brooklyn and New York growing via annexation, it seemed a logical next step to combine the two, plus other surrounding areas, into a single metropolis. Similar centralization efforts have demonstrated benefits in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Paris, and London. Centralized planning, coordination of municipal functions (e.g., port administration, utilities, bridges, transportation, and other city services) could be more efficiently handled by a single entity than through the attempted cooperation of dozens of independent towns and villages that were in existence.

Similarly, the potential cost of doing nothing was great. The port, one of New York's greatest assets, was losing ground to other, more efficient facilities. Numerical superiority in terms of square miles of terrain or population could, by itself, rob a city of prestige, taking with it the magnetic pull of corporate headquarters and cultural activities.

As a result of these factors and more, consolidation was recommended by the voters in 1894 and approved by the state in 1897.


Inequality Among The Boroughs

New York was the leading city prior to consolidation, and has been chosen as the seat of government for the consolidated city. There is a danger that Manhattan-centric policies will be implemented, to the detriment of the other boroughs.

Overall, the city is expected to prosper. Consolidation is producing economies of scale in important areas, and is allowing the best minds in the city to focus on the ideal solutions to our problems. Coordination issues, inordinately complicated when there were 40-some independent entities to be considered, should be greatly simplified - municipal utilities, transportation, sewage control, and water supply, to name a few.

However, there is concern that the outer boroughs may not fare as well as Manhattan, and that across-the-board prosperity will not be seen. For example, tax rates, zoning codes, and business ordinances that make sense in Manhattan may make less sense in other, more residential areas.

Additionally, there is the danger that major cultural institutions, such as parks, museums, and theaters, may flourish in Manhattan, while being ignored elsewhere. Brooklyn, in particular, has exemplary cultural variety, rivaling that of Manhattan; any loss in or degradation of Brooklyn's amenities would be a loss to the entire city.

Historically, the south end of Manhattan has been a focus of business activity in the region. But other parts of the region also have thriving business centers. There is a concern that Manhattan businesses may displace those in other boroughs as the primary drivers for commerce and employment. For example, Brooklyn has fine port facilities, and the Jamaica Bay region could also be developed into a port. But if New York as a whole is Manhattan-centric, then Jamaica Bay may be seen as too far away for development of this type.

If Manhattan does become a center of business and culture, this could well mean that the other boroughs would be relegated to housing for the workers of Manhattan. An alternative possibility is that, with less political power, the outer boroughs could become homes to the undesirable elements of any great city, including the dumping of waste, the site for polluting industries and facilities, and the residence of those without homes or means of support.

The following are suggested solutions to ensure that all boroughs are treated on an equal footing:
  • Consider the effect of all regulations on differing groups of citizens. If necessary, develop differing sets of codes, regulations, tax rates, and ordinances for different areas of the metropolis.
  • Ensure that municipal funding on cultural institutions is evenly spread across all the boroughs. Use such funding to develop new cultural amenities in areas that now lack them. Additionally, ensure that existing cultural amenities, such as those in Brooklyn, continue to be funded and expanded.
  • In centralizing transportation planning, ensure that transportation routes for trolleys and other conveyances are designed to move citizens from their residences to all business centers and cultural destinations. If public transportation is limited to routes that travel in and out of Manhattan, it will greatly hinder the ability of any other locality to draw the public.
  • Ensure that all boroughs receive their equitable share of both desirable and undesirable elements of city life. Homes for rich and poor, clean offices and dirty industrial facilities -- all should be located in all boroughs.
Loss of Local Control
In the past, the independent municipalities and other entities that now comprise New York could look out for their own citizens. If the local citizens were unhappy with the way in which their problems or concerns were being addressed, it was a fairly quick and easy process to change the governmental representatives and alter the decision-making process.

The danger here is that, as the problems became bigger, the focus will be on the overall city-wide problem, and the local parts of the problem will get lost in the process. Previously, the local governments in the region had control over taxes and assessments, expenditures, development policies, and the racial and ethnic composition of neighborhoods. These smaller cities could experiment in small ways, learn quickly from their mistakes, and generally be more nimble. All of this local control is likely to vanish as the centralized government determines policies for the entire region. With a larger government, the decision-making process takes longer, is more prone to compromise, and tends to be focused on the big picture.
For example, as transportation options have increased, people have moved out of the city center to more suburban areas that are less crowded, with larger homes and smaller governments. Brooklynites have generally preferred a slower pace of life over the frenetic tempo of Manhattan. How can Brooklyn ensure that this quality of life continues for its residents?
The following are suggested solutions to ensure that the localities within New York continue to maintain some local control over their own destinies:
  • For selected facets of life, turn over central control to regional or local governing boards, fully empowered to set and implement policy. This will allow the local residents to maintain full control over portions of their lives.
  • Allow experimentation in policy-making to occur on a regional level. Some policies do not need to be implemented city-wide, but can instead be established according to local needs and desires.
Inequitable Burdens on Citizens
Anytime that a group joins together, the distribution of costs and benefits among the group members are unlikely to be equal. There are concerns about tax increases, real estate speculation, the spreading of Tammany politics, increased competition from similar businesses in other boroughs, and increased crime. Additionally, others are thankful for reduced debt, access to water, and better employment opportunities. Former New York residents who had left for the outlying areas are now back onto the tax rolls. But, the popular vote tallies in some of the more far-reaching areas were less enthusiastic about consolidation. It is important that all our citizens see and reap the benefits of consolidation.
In addition to the local concerns, upstate citizens are concerned that a consolidated New York will dominate state politics.
The following are suggestions for dealing with the disparity in costs and benefits that will accrue to our citizens in different regions of the city:
  • Quickly implement selected policies that will provide benefits to large numbers of citizens and for which the costs can be spread widely. For example, pollution in the harbor and other waterways has been an ongoing problem. Cleaning up this pollution will provide a visible and tangible benefit to all; having the costs spread among many will reduce the apparent burden to any single citizen. And, because pollution is something that can be readily seen by all, it will be quite apparent to all that action has been taken. By doing this quickly, citizens will have a first impression of their new government taking action on their behalf.
  • Try to ensure that no region or group of citizens is overwhelmingly saddled with reductions in services or amenities, without seeing any associated improvements. The regional boards may be able to assist with assessing the geographic impacts of policies. As for citizen groups, the government can partner with churches, civic associations, and other clubs and organizations to allow these voices to be heard.
Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, Oxford University Press: New York, 1999.
Ellis, Edward Robb, The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History From 1524 To The Present, Coward-McCann, Inc.: New York, 1966.
Fieldston School, Department of History, "Inventing Gotham,", August 6, 2009.
Gonzalez, Evelyn, The Bronx, Columbia University Press: New York, 2004.
Hammack, David C., "Consolidation," The Encyclopedia of New York City, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson, Yale University Press: New Haven and The New-York Historical Society: New York, 1995.
Tierney, John, "Brooklyn Could Have Been A Contender," The New York Times Magazine, December 28, 1997.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Junction Boulevard -- Corona vs. Jackson Heights

I took an adult education course at Baruch College that covered the entire history of NYC in six weeks! Including two walking tours! Unlike any other adult ed course I have ever taken, this one actually had homework assignments. For our first assignment, we were to find a pre-1950 photo of a NYC location, find a current photo of the same location, and write a short paper about what had changed and what had stayed the same.

I wrote my paper about Junction Boulevard in Queens, a main street just a few blocks from my home. Here is my paper.

Junction Boulevard in Queens is a major north-south thoroughfare going from Queens Boulevard at the southern end to LaGuardia Airport at the northern end (after merging with 94th Street). In its mid-section, between Roosevelt Avenue and Northern Boulevard, it serves as a dividing line between the communities of Jackson Heights (to the west) and Corona (to the east).

In 1896, a trolley line was opened from Ridgewood to Bowery Bay (now LaGuardia Airport) along Junction Boulevard. The older photo, on the left, was taken in 1925 of the southeast corner of Junction Boulevard and 34th Street. The building is identified as P.S. 15, which no longer exists. The newer photo, from 2009, shows the same location, which is now home to Junction Playground. Although not shown in the photo, the playground includes a play train, in a nod to the trolley past. The trolley line was replaced by a bus route in 1949.

Left: 1925
Right: 2009

Although Corona and Jackson Heights are adjoining communities, and were developed within a few decades of each other, they have taken differing paths since their inceptions.

Corona, developed in the late 1800s, was initially settled by an Italian population. During the 20th century, blacks and Hispanics started to move to the area. According to the NY Times, by 1960 the portion of Corona near Junction Boulevard was 83 percent black.

Jackson Heights was a planned development, with the first homes built around 1920. The early residents were Irish and Italian, but by the 1950s the area had a large Jewish population. By 1960 the portion of Jackson Heights near Junction Boulevard was 99 percent white.

In 1964, a few months prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the New York City Board of Education implemented a school integration plan known as the Princeton Plan or “pairing.” Under pairing, a community zone was established for two segregated schools in close physical proximity. All the students in the community zone attended the younger grades at one of the schools and the older grades at the other.

The Board of Education established four pairs of elementary schools, including P.S. 149 in Jackson Heights and P.S. 92 in Corona. The two schools were six blocks apart on 34th Avenue, one on either side of Junction Boulevard.

In general, the (black) Corona residents felt that the pairing would benefit their children. A vocal group of (white) Jackson Heights residents, on the other hand, organized to fight the plan. Families moved out of the area, students were enrolled in private schools, and boycotts were organized. Many students boycotted the pairing and 100 of them were still enrolled in a special private school set up to avoid integration, as late as December 1966.

Eventually, the uproar over school integration died down. But, Junction Boulevard still functions as a dividing line between ethnic groups. Maps showing the distribution of ethnic groups by census tract indicate the following, as of the 2000 Census:

 African Americans are less than 5% of the population in census tracts in Jackson Heights, but constitute 20% to 40% of the population in several of the Corona census tracts.
 Whites are less than 20% of the population in every Corona census tract, but are 35% to 55% of the population in several Jackson Heights tracts.
 Colombians comprise 20% to 30% of the Hispanic population in many of the Jackson Heights census tracts, but are never more than 10% of the Corona Hispanic population.
 Dominicans are less than 10% of the Hispanic population in nearly all of the Jackson Heights census tracts, but comprise 30% to 100% of the Hispanic population in Corona census tracts.


Buder, B. Leonard, “School Pairings Called A Success,” New York Times, December 14, 1966.

Buder, Leonard, “Queens Parents Ignore Deadline,” New York Times, January 12, 1965.

New York Public Library, NYPL Digital Gallery, Image ID 727107F, Queens: Junction Boulevard - 34th Avenue (1925; 1935).

New York City Department of City Planning, Community District Profile for Queens Community District 3,, July 13, 2009.

New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, “Junction Playground,”, July 10, 2009.

New York Times, “New Integration Program of Public Schools Will Be Put Into Effect Here Today,“ September 14, 1964.

Powledge, Fred, “’Mason-Dixon Line’ in Queens,” New York Times, May 10, 1964.

Queens Community Board 3, “The Map Room,”, July 22, 2009.
wikipedia, “Civil Rights Act of 1964,”, July 14, 2009.

Roberts, John A., “A Grand Tale of Two Trolley Lines,” Juniper Park Civic Association website,, July 10, 2009.

Terte, Robert H., “Heated Debates Over Pairing of 2 Schools Divide Queens,” New York Times, March 19, 1964.

wikipedia, “Jackson Heights, Queens,”,_Queens, July 15, 2009.

wikipedia, “Corona, Queens,”,_Queens, July 15, 2009.