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Pictures dated 2003, 2002 and 2002
Pictures did not appear in original article
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Inside Kew Gardens
[Reprinted from the October 1982 issue of Metropolis Magazine]

By Michael Winkleman

Urbanization has a way of obliterating geography. Ponds get filled in; hills get leveled; old country roads become eight lane highways and turn distant towns into neighboring suburbs. In places where the urbanization is relatively recent, old-timers love to regale new comers with tales of what the place was like when cows grazed across the street, when there was a brook to fish in, when you could see all the way to the ocean and beyond. After a while, of course, those memories fade and the prevailing geography seems to be the way it's always been. Only the place names, a few old buildings, the occasional flood from an underground stream, and the often mysteriously meandering street system are reminders of a different time and terrain.

The scarred and scattered landscape of Queens is covered with such reminders. Not long ago, this was a county of farms and country estates, villages and independent towns, not unlike Suffolk County is today. But the proximity of Queens to Manhattan - and even to the once-thriving independent city of Brooklyn - meant early development, as soon as access could be assured. That access took the form of railroad lines, transit routes, and later, an extensive freeway system, all of which served not only to accelerate development but also to give Queens some semblance of form, structure, and connectedness.

But looking at a map, one sees that that sense of connectedness is rather illusory. Queens is still a collection of villages and towns, little clusters of development nestled in between parks, cemeteries, and the ubiquitous parkways, boulevards, and highways, each sprouting its own network of roads and each defined by an image-laden name that generally attests to a geographic or pastoral quality that is reminiscent at best. These names function not just as historical markers, as similar names do in Brooklyn, but also as actual place names, codified by that arbiter of location, the Postal Service. And not only are residents of Queens neighborhoods likely to concur with the Postal Service by defining their place of residence by its postal zone name, but they will refer to the adjacent neighborhood as "the next town over." Well so much for consolidation.

Three years before the 1898 annexation that brought all of Queens into the political borders of the Greater City of New York, Richmond Hill, a town of some 620 souls out the Jamaica Plank Road from Brooklyn, became incorporated and elected Alrick Man, the son of its late founder, Albon Man, as mayor. The elder Man, a Manhattan lawyer, had come upon this area thirty years earlier, while traveling to a summer home in the more distant town of Lawrence. Because it was easily accessible to Manhattan and Brooklyn by rail and plank road, and because it afforded breathtaking views of Jamaica Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and Long Island Sound as it climbed up the Long Island terminal moraine, this land struck Man as a natural site to develop housing - for summer or even year round residence. Teaming up with landscape architect Edward Richmond, Man laid out streets, leveled the land, sold lots, and began building houses. He called the community Richmond Hill, some say after his partner, but most agree the inspiration was British, after Richmond-on-Thames, a similarly scenic suburb of London. In 1884, when he found that sales were stymied by a lack of available water, he had a reservoir built on part of his property to supply the village; by 1905 the community had some 15,000 homes, most of them shingle-style frame Victorians, and was quickly pushing its way up the slope from Jamaica Avenue (the former plank road) toward the newly opened Forest Park and the Richmond Hill Golf Club in neighboring Maple Grove.

By 1909, the golf club was being hemmed in by the "cottages" in which Richmond Hill's wealthier citizens preferred to dwell. And the golf course's lake, Crystal, was being filled in for a new Long Island Rail Road station, a stop on the soon-to-be-completed electrified line from which residents would be whisked through a new underriver tunnel directly into Manhattan.

To control the development of the newly valuable Maple Grove - redubbed Kew Gardens, after London's Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, near Richmond-on-Thames - Alrick Man and his brother Albon Jr., who already owned much of the land, formed the Kew Gardens Corporation in 1912. They graded the land and laid out a road system that curved with the terrain but at the same time led as directly as possible into the streets of Richmond Hill so that the two communities could share services and facilities as well as cultural and social advantages. The Man brothers provided all the streets they laid out with sewers, water, telephone and electricity lines, macadam paving, shrubbery and shade trees and began building homes. By 1921 when the Park Lane road opened the Mans had built some 350 English- and Colonial-style brick, stucco, and frame homes. Five years earlier, they had built a clubhouse and 18 tennis courts on Austin Street near the railroad tracks, providing Kew Gardens with the country club atmosphere it had lacked since development overtook the golf course, and serving as a buffer between the homes and the railroad tracks.

Today both communities do retain much of the original ambience of scenic suburbanity the Mans meant to impart. Still the changes wrought by time, growth and progress have turned them into very different sorts of places and much of the original that remains easily evades the casual visitor.

Much of the early change was brought about by pressure for development that replaced homes and clubs with apartment houses, town squares with public buildings. In more recent years, however, the toll has been more cosmetic and less physically disfiguring. The Victorian homes in Richmond Hill, for example, are as grand as ever but the community as a whole has lost its shine, its gleaming aura of prosperity and exclusivity. Many of the homes are boarded up and fire scarred. The commercial buildings on Jamaica Avenue and in the center of town many of them now vacant, are generally in great need of repair. Although the towering elevated tracks do create some sense of closure and continuity along the avenue, the noise and grime they impose have not lessened with the years. On the other hand, the actual impact the presence of elevated tracks has had on downtown Richmond Hill is problematic; other factors more related to the community's changing economy, demography, and geography are probably more relevant. To wit: the removal of the elevated tracks in Jamaica, some two miles east, actually worsened the appearance of the shopping street by eliminating the closure the tracks provided and casting much-too-brilliant sunlight upon the avenue's troubled and deteriorating face. Contrarily, in the somewhat more prosperous Woodhaven neighborhood, just to the west, Jamaica Avenue seems to thrive and bustle, indeed almost shine, even with the trains still rumbling on the tracks overhead.

Kew Gardens is still posh and manicured, it's homes and gardens well cared for. Up on the hill, protected and enclosed by Forest Park and Maple Grove Cemetery, it remains a quiet, rambling suburban oasis. But, although its complexion is less pitted than is Richmond Hills, it has its blemishes. Lefferts Boulevard, a vibrant shopping street as recently as 15 years ago, has not fared well in the competition posed by nearby shopping malls.

The conflicts and contradictions evident in Kew Gardens and Richmond Hill are characteristic of Queens communities, neighborhoods - even towns - that were forced to grow up faster than was organically possible. But existing in a middle ground between city and suburb, the conflicts that this quickened growth created were never resolved. In Manhattan, early rapid growth overwhelmed entire neighborhoods, replacing them almost completely, equipping them more adequately for a new life. More distant suburbs are allowed to age rather gracefully, protected from the incursions of increased density and the ravages of change, abandonment, and disrepair. Neighborhoods like Kew Gardens and Richmond Hill were allowed neither luxury. And they remain neither urban nor suburban. They are solid yet crumbling, their advantages as close-in city neighborhoods clear and yet muddled. They are integral pieces of the borough and the city that have annexed them, yet they function, curiously as independent towns. They are characteristic of Queens neighborhoods, but like most other neighborhoods in Queens, they are, by virtue of their geography, their location, and their individual patterns of historical growth and development, unique. A tour through them, looking closely for the patterns that intense urbanization has all but obliterated, is a short course in the pleasures and pitfalls of urban development.

Start a tour of Kew Gardens and Richmond Hills by the Kew Gardens Long Island Rail Road station at Lefferts Boulevard and Grenfell Street. Before the station and the tracks running through it opened for service in 1920 [sic], this was the heart of the Richmond Hill Golf Course. The bullrushes pushing up around the platform remain to represent the ghost of Crystal Lake. As in many similar railroad suburbs, the new train station came accompanied by a hotel. Kew Gardens's [sic] hotel, the Homestead, has been converted to a senior citizens home.

The stretch of stores on Lefferts Boulevard between Austin and Grenfell streets - which replaced part of the area's country club when development and service pressures became too great - appears to be built on a hill, hardly a surprising feature in an area with rolling terrain. This particular rise in the land however, is no natural outcropping. It is, instead, a railroad overpass with the semi-Tudor-style stores that line it, turning it into a modern day Ponte Vecchio; the ruse is most evident from the station platforms. (Stop at the bakery on this stretch of Lefferts for some of the best Pita and Levosh available; the owners, Iranian Jews, are representative of some of the many new, middle-class ethnic groups settling in this changing area.)

Major thoroughfares, railroad tracks, and preserved green space carve Kew Gardens into a series of relatively distinct districts. Between Lefferts Boulevard, the railroad tracks, Union Turnpike, Forest Park and Metropolitan Avenue, streets with names like Abingdon, Audley, Beverly and Onslow climb in a sort of curving grid up to the heights of Forest Park at the top of the terminal moraine. The winding, tree-lined streets, seem to intersect at less-than-regular angles and then curve out of view, luring the traveler up the hill to see what lies beyond. The high banking of the macadam road surfaces further exaggerates the sense of hilliness.

The homes here are generally large and solid, their gardens well manicured, their lawns green and recently cut. The section is neither as extensive nor as lushly planted as Forest Hills Gardens, which is just to the north across Union Turnpike, but it is more characteristically suburban. Although they are generally not as handsome nor as uniform in design as those in Forest Hills Gardens, these homes evoke many of the standard clichés of suburban respectability posing as colonial, plantation, Tudor, and Spanish-style mansions, but scaled down to fit on suburban lots. Many of the homes are those built by the Man brothers in their early attempts to develop this area; others, like the striking modern house at 83rd Avenue and Beverly Road were added later. Park Lane runs along the southern edge of Forest Park and provides a suburban contrast to its park-side counterparts in Manhattan and Brooklyn. No street wall of apartment and town houses lines this curving drive. Instead, there are large, free standing suburban palaces, sometimes set out of sight behind shrubs and wide, rolling lawns.

This type of suburban ambiance continues in the section that is between Lefferts Boulevard and the park, and between Metropolitan Avenue, a major thoroughfare lined with stores and apartment houses, and 84th Avenue, the traditional dividing line between Kew Gardens and Richmond Hill. Here, however, the streets straighten out and head down into Victorian Richmond Hill.

Closer to the train station, in a triangular area bordered by Lefferts Boulevard, Metropolitan Avenue, and the railroad tracks, the land is flatter, the trees less overgrown. Here large suburban houses, generally frame, less grand, and possibly older than those further up the hill, stand next to new, three-story apartment houses set on lots that each once held a single freestanding home. This contrast in style and density makes the district curiously undefinable. Although the typically suburban ambience is gone, the streets don't yet feel as densely built up as those in, say, Borough Park, Brooklyn, where similar apartment houses now line the streets. This is due partially to the continued predominance of freestanding homes, but largely to the proliferation of street trees and deep setbacks, which help to remove the apartment houses from view.

Around the train station and south of Lefferts Boulevard, between Maple Grove Cemetery and the railroad tracks, single-family homes began to give way to apartment houses in the twenties. Rising six to ten stories and evoking images of English Village and Spanish architecture (and sometimes a touch of art deco), these buildings featured step-down living rooms, maids rooms, and fireplaces. Some of the most exceptional are on Talbot Street; one of these, at Talbot and 83rd Drive, sports a gatehouse at the entrance to its courtyard and a sunken, heavily planted garden.

The apartment houses south of Lefferts Boulevard along Austin Street replaced the community's tennis courts. Further south, Austin Street is met by a series of short, angled blocks, lined with brick apartment houses: it is a dense and narrow residential strip, squeezed between the railroad tracks and the cemetery. An exception of this pattern of development is Dale Gardens, a low-rise residential island built in 1926 that fills the block between 125th and 126th Streets, between Austin Street and the cemetery. To create an insular development that totally excludes the outside community, the developers of Dale Gardens lined the street sides with ground-level garages and set the rambling, image-laden, tree-filled courtyard one level higher, upstairs from the street, out of pedestrian view. Residents enter their homes directly from the courtyard.

Below 84th Avenue, Richmond Hill is a relatively coherent and consistent collection of single-style freestanding homes: some elaborate, some more ordinary, some uniquely designed, many cut from the same pattern, some well maintained, many in disrepair. The street system here is a gridiron, except where the railroad and Myrtle Avenue cut through diagonally, interrupting the flow and creating short blocks and obtuse angles.

Down at the Triangle, the center of town, where Lefferts Boulevard, Myrtle Avenue, Jamaica Avenue, the Long Island Rail Road and the "J" train meet, the traveler still can sense the Richmond Hill of yore. Although the presence of the elevated is undeniable, shading the street and drawing the traveler's eye further down Jamaica Avenue, it is easy to imagine the small, small-townish buildings on the avenue without the elevated superstructure they now crouch behind. And the flourishes on the Jahn's building and on its neighbor, a former movie palace, at Hillside and Myrtle, are still elegant enough to recall this community's grander past. (On Jamaica Avenue stop in for chocolates at Davies, a fixture at Jamaica Avenue and 101st Street for over 50 years. And check out the costumes at Ruby's, at 121st Street, a hugely successful costume supply house with a recently "modernized" façade.)

There are few areas that boast such a density and variety of styles clustered in so small an area. With its distinctive, if altered, geography, its admixture of building styles, its historical references, and its well defined boundaries, this is a veritable museum documenting the patterns of urban growth and change over the last hundred years.

  • Metropolis, October 1982 issue, copyright 1982 Bellerophon Publications, Inc. Permission granted by Metropolis

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