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.