Archive for the ‘Queens’ Category

Vintage subway signs that point the way to Queens

May 8, 2023

The richly colored tiles, the old-school lettering, the slender arrow that tells you exactly which way to go if you’re seriously confused—these features make coming across vintage subway signs such a treat.

But some vintage signs point the way with a little more detail. Case in point: the mosaic signs inside Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Avenue station on the G train, which opened in 1933.

The G train is the former IND crosstown line traveling through Brooklyn and Queens. If you’re headed deeper into Brooklyn, the sign is simple: It points the way to Brooklyn.

For Queens, however, it gives direction not to Queens itself but to Long Island City and Jamaica. Calling out these two locations on different ends of Queens County harkens back to a time when Queens was less a united borough like Brooklyn and Manhattan and more a collection of towns, each with its own identity.

It’s a small but charming experience to see these directionals and thank the subway gods that the MTA hasn’t done away with them in favor of the standardized black and white signs adorning most stations across the city.

The scheme behind the way Astoria got its name

May 1, 2023

Some long-established New York City neighborhoods got their names from nearby natural landmarks; others took the moniker of an early landowner or the landowner’s hometown in England or Holland.

But the story behind the name Astoria, in Queens, is a little more about wheeling and dealing. It focuses on an ambitious 19th century developer who was hoping that New York’s richest man, John Jacob Astor, would invest thousands of dollars to help build the neighborhood if it carried Astor’s name.

First, a brief history of the East River enclave that would become Astoria. Colonized by the Dutch in the early 17th century, the area was occupied by William Hallett’s vast farm. Hallett lent his name to what was then called Hallett’s (also spelled Hallet’s or Halletts) Cove, which is marked on the 1873 map below.

“Over the next 100 years, Hallett and his descendants developed the area into a thriving farming community,” wrote Ilana Teitel in a piece on the website of the Old Astoria Neighborhood Association. “Early settlers transported grains, livestock, timber, and firewood across the river from Hallets Cove to the growing city of New Amsterdam.”

By the early 19th century, the Hallett family sold off much of their farmland. Wealthy Manhattanites replaced the farm fields with summer villas, turning Hallet’s Cove into a placid resort area for boating and breezy river strolls.

The slow pace of the area began to change with the arrival of Stephen Halsey in 1835. A fur trader, Halsey had big plans for Hallett’s Cove. His idea was to develop it into a modern town with houses, businesses, churches, and factories. But he needed money to get things going.

That’s where Astor (above) came in. “Halsey had connections to the biggest fur trader of the time, John Jacob Astor,” explained Teitel. “He proposed that Astor donate $2,000 towards the construction of a new Episcopal female seminary in exchange for naming the village after him.”

An 1896 article in the New York Times recalls a slightly different story, with Halsey proposing to Astor that he contribute $10,000 to $15,000. In return, Hallett’s Cove would bear his name.

What was Astor’s response to this idea, which he may have pondered across the East River in his Manhattan country estate house (appropriately named Hellgate, above) off today’s East 87th Street? Teitel wrote that Astor ponied up just $500.

Most sources point out that Astor never visited the enclave that would take his name. But the Times has it that Halsey brought Astor to Hallett’s Cove and showed him around.

“Shrewd old Astor looked about and found that the first church in Astoria was just struggling into existence—St. George’s Episcopal—so he contributed just $50 toward its erection,” stated the Times. “He got the honor of having the village named after him, the church got the $50, and the only unhappy people recorded were Mr. Halsey and his fellow village trustees.”

Even with so little of Astor’s cash, however, Astoria thrived—becoming a diverse residential suburb and manufacturing hub in the consolidated New York City on the 20th century (above, in 1915).

Halsey is also remembered; his name graces a junior high school across the borough in Rego Park. And Hallett’s Cove survives as Hallett’s Point, a luxury high rise.

[Top image: MCNY; MNY12251; second image: Beers map, 1873; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: Househistree; fifth image: MCNY; M3Y44321]

The giant rock that helped end a bitter colonial-era dispute between Brooklyn and Queens

March 27, 2023

In some locations, the boundary line between Brooklyn and Queens is simple.

To the north, Newtown Creek separates Brooklyn’s Greenpoint from Queens’ Long Island City. At the southern end, Jamaica Bay serves as a divider. But the border between the two boroughs can get a little murky through the neighborhoods in between.

Colonial-era settlers found the boundary line confusing as well—so much so that a bitter battle to define the borders in the 17th and 18th centuries finally ended in 1769 thanks in part to a massive boulder appropriately named Arbitration Rock.

The boundary dispute began soon after the founding of two towns of farms and small houses in the 17th century, one settled by the Dutch and the other by English Puritans.

The Dutch town of Bushwick (above) formed in what would soon be called Kings County. Next to Bushwick was Newtown, the English town, soon to be part of the newly named Queens County.

For the next century, the residents of Bushwick and Newtown maintained a beef about the two towns’ border. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle recalled in 1916 that “sometimes the boundary line swung far into the depths of Newtown, sometimes it oscillated into the very midst of Bushwick.”

This was no gentlemanly dispute. In 1880, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote that the “boundary dispute between Bushwick and Newtown rose to a white heat, and resulted in the destruction of a great deal of property by fire and ax, on either side.”

The fight went to the highest levels of government, with comical results. Lord Cornbury, the corrupt governor of New York in the early 18th century, decided that the 1,200 acres between the disputed borders belonged to neither town but to himself, the 1916 Eagle article reported. (Cornbury was recalled back to England in 1709.)

Finally, seven years before the start of the Revolutionary War, the battle ended when a commission appointed by British leaders drew a border based on local creeks, ponds, hills, and a rock called Arbitration Rock (above), wrote Marc Ferris in a 2002 Newsday article.

With the dispute settled, Arbitration Rock became less important in the ensuing decades, especially after Brooklyn and Queens became part of the City of New York in 1898. In 1930, it was buried below Onderdonk Avenue during road reconstruction near the once-disputed border, according to a 2015 article in the Ridgewood Times, via

“Toward the end of the 20th century, historians’ interest in the rock’s locations were piqued, and after a seven-year hunt, the boulder was located and unearthed from Onderdonk Avenue,” per the Ridgewood Times article.

Where is Arbitration Rock now? This historic boulder can be found surrounded by a white picket fence (below) on the grounds of The Vander Ende-Onderdonk House, a circa-1710 fieldstone treasure (above) that’s one of New York City’s oldest dwellings. The house is an excellent example of the kind of farmhouse one would encounter in rural Brooklyn and Queens in the 18th century.

The Vander Ende-Onderdonk House sits just inside the Queens border in Ridgewood—the neighborhood formerly known as Newtown. Considering how fraught the border fight was, I’m surprised the rock wasn’t split in half, with each borough getting a piece!

[Top image: 1750 map, NYPL Digital Collections; second image: Brooklyn Museum; third image: Eventbrite/Vander Ende-Onderdonk House]

Two married artists, two similar views looking outside their East Side hotel window

December 19, 2022

When Alfred Stieglitz met Georgia O’Keeffe in 1916, the 52-year-old photographer and 28-year-old painter began a passionate love affair that led to their marriage in 1924 and an artistic adventure of ups and downs until Stieglitz’s death in 1946.

At the time, Stieglitz was already part of the New York City art establishment. In the early 1900s he founded the Photo-Secession, a movement to accept photography as an art form. His own work, particularly his city scenes, won praise for its softness and depth.

He also established his own gallery, where he exhibited O’Keeffe’s early abstract drawings before falling in love with her and considering her his muse.

After the couple wed, they moved into the Shelton Hotel (bottom image in 1929). A 31-story residential hotel that opened just a year earlier on Lexington Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets, it billed itself as the tallest hotel in the world at the time, with commanding views of the East Side of Manhattan.

Stieglitz and O’Keeffe took advantage of these views. From their apartment on the 30th floor, O’Keeffe painted several images of what she saw outside her window in the 1920s—industry along the East River, the lit-up windows of skyscrapers lining the business corridors of East Midtown after dark.

But one from 1928 struck me the most, and it’s simply titled “East River From the Shelton Hotel” (top image). Though the couple had very different styles and worked in different mediums, the painting feels very similar to a 1927 Stieglitz photo.

“From Room 3003—the Shelton, New York, Looking Northeast” captures the same expansive cityscape of neat and uniform low-rise tenement blocks and belching smoke along the riverfront.

Both works seem to hint that the East Side which came of age in the late 19th century would soon give way to the tall, sleek city of the Machine Age that Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were currently part of.

[First image: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Second image: Art Institute of Chicago; third image: MCNY, X2010.29.218]

A sleek 1937 poster of New York City’s two public airports

September 27, 2021

Doesn’t this poster make you excited to fly? Well, considering the state of commercial flights today, maybe not. But in 1937, when the poster was created, it would have…the era of air travel was a thrilling development.

Air travel surged in popularity in the 1930s. Only 6,000 people took a commercial airline in 1930; by 1938 that number rose to 1.2 million, according to USA Today.

Ready to serve those air travelers were New York City’s two municipal airports. Floyd Bennett Field, near Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, began to handle commercial passengers in 1931.

North Beach airport was named for the North Beach amusement resort developed by the Steinway company in Queens in the late 19th century. Opened in 1935, North Beach was eventually renamed for Fiorello LaGuardia.

What about Idlewild, aka JFK Airport? That one didn’t open until 1948.

[Poster: LOC]

What happened to the big whale at the Central Park Children’s Zoo?

September 16, 2021

If you were young in New York City in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s, then you probably remember the thrill of visiting Jonah’s Whale at the Children’s Zoo in Central Park, with that smiling open mouth you could practically walk into.

Jonah’s Whale had been part of the Children’s Zoo since its 1961 opening, according to The New York Times. But this star zoo attraction got the boot in the mid-1990s, after the zoo fell into disrepair and the whale was “derided as kitsch,” as the Times put it.

“A new generation of sober-minded zookeepers, trained to re-create natural habitats, questioned its educational value,” the Times wrote. “And critics wondered whether a sculpture depicting the biblical tale of Jonah, who spent three nights in the belly of a whale, was appropriate in a public park.”

In the mid-1990s, Jonah’s Whale was carted away to the Rockaways, where it was supposed to live in a happy retirement. But apparently the whale was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, per a 2014 article in Rockawave, which covered an attempt to raise money to rebuild it.

The fate of Whalemina, as the whale was renamed in the Rockaways, isn’t clear. But Baby Boomer and Gen X New Yorkers surely are hoping that this zoo icon is safe and in one piece again somewhere.

[Top image: eBay; second image: NYC Parks]

Vintage store signs from the 1970s live on in Astoria

August 23, 2021

Astoria is known for its low-key neighborhood vibe, Greek food, beer gardens….and some very atmospheric vintage store signs on the main drag of 31st Street that look time-capsuled from the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s hard to beat this charming, no-frills sign from Rose and Joe’s, a traditional Italian bakery (and pizza place). The bakery has been at this address since the 1970s; previously it operated on the corner of 31st Street and Ditmars, per

Housewares shop King Penny has a mom and pop neighborhood store feel to go with the old-school signage and striped fabric awning. Psychic readings, why not?

The Fabric Center sign just gives it to you straight in big bold red letters and a few details in blue. Based on the sign, I’d guess this business has been here since the 1970s, but I found no corroborating information.

Ferrari Cleaners has a horizontal sign over the entrance that may not be nearly as old as the vertical one attached to the facade on the second floor.

La Guli Pastry Shop is another stunner: the classy cursive lettering, slightly torn fabric awning, the curves in the display windows.

It’s hard to guess how old the sign is. But the folks behind La Guli have been running it in this location since 1937, and the current owner actually grew up in the apartment above the store, according to their website.

A painter in Astoria captures what he saw across the East River

July 26, 2021

When painters depict the East River, it’s usually from the Manhattan side: a steel bridge, choppy waters, and a Brooklyn or Queens waterfront either thick with factories or quaint and almost rural.

But when Richard Hayley Lever decided to paint the river in 1936, he did it from Astoria. What he captured in “Queensboro Bridge and New York From Astoria” (above) is a scene that on one hand comes across as quiet and serene—is that a horse and carriage in the foreground?—but with the business and industry of Manhattan looming behind.

This Impressionist artist gives us a view at about 60th Street; the bridge crosses at 59th, of course, and that gas tank sat at the foot of 61st Street through much of the 20th century.

Is the horse and carriage actually on Roosevelt Island or even still in Queens? Often these details can be found on museum and art or auction websites. Lever came to New York City from Australia in 1911 and taught at the Art Students League from 1919-1931, establishing a studio in the 1930s and teaching at other schools. But aside from this, I couldn’t find many details about his work.

He did paint the Queensboro Bridge and East River again though, as well as the High Bridge over the Harlem River and West 66th Street, among other New York locations. The title and date of the second image of the two ships is unknown right now. “Ship Under Brooklyn Bridge” (third image) is from 1958, the year he died after a life of artistic recognition and then financial difficulties, per this biography from Questroyal.

The ox head mosaic fountain hiding on First Avenue

September 28, 2020

The Queensboro Bridge is an architectural treasure, with some of its loveliest features off to the side or under the bridge approach, at least on the Manhattan side.

Two examples: the original lamppost dating back to the bridge’s opening in 1909, and the blue and white tiles on a First Avenue ramp leading to the bridge.

But there’s another little-known gem built alongside the bridge, accessible through a gate on 59th Street or from the exit of the TJ Maxx store on First Avenue.

It’s a small, park-like plaza decked out with benches, flowers, and trees—and a granite water fountain with an ox head spout and a kaleidoscopic glass mosaic of a dreamy woman rising from a pile of produce.

With a description like that, you just know this plaza and the fountain inside it must have a pretty interesting backstory.

First came the mosaic fountain, in 1919. It was conceived and funded by a woman named Evangeline Blashfield.

A feminist, writer, and intellectual, Blashfield (below left) decided to install a fountain on what was then one of the city’s largest open-air farmers markets.

She wanted the vendors (and their horses), who came over the bridge from the farmlands of Queens with their wares, to have fresh water.

In the 1910s, Blashfield “noticed that the market under the ramp at the Manhattan end of the Queensboro Bridge had only one unsightly water faucet for all of its vendors,” wrote John Tauranac in his book, Manhattan’s Little Secrets.

Blashfield, who would have been described as “strong-minded” by men and women of her era, was also a supporter of public art.

“Inspired by the beauty she saw in European cities, Mrs. Blashfield championed for changes in the urban environment, particularly the installation of public art in this country,” states the Municipal Arts Society of New York (MAS).

Blashfield’s husband happened to be an artist (and a founding member of the MAS). She served as his model for the fountain, lending her image to the allegorical figure Abundance.

“The nine-by-four-foot mosaic panel, composed of thousands of brilliant colored tesserae, depicts a regal female figure reclining on a cornucopia laden with fruits and vegetables sold in the marketplace,” explains the MAS.

The ox head and granite basin (a drinking bowl also or horses, something the city sorely needed in the still-equine-powered early 20th century) was designed by another MAS member.

Unfortunately, Evangeline didn’t live to see its completion.

She died in 1918 at age 59, a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic, six months before the fountain was given to the city and dedicated in her honor.

The fountain may have been a welcome addition to the farmers market. But once public art is installed, of course, it isn’t always maintained properly.

By the 1930s, the farmers market under the bridge had been cleared away in the name of progress. (Open-air markets created sanitation issues.) Until the 1970s, the space served as a warehouse for road signs and garbage trucks.

After decades of debate about what to do with the space (and the fountain that badly needed repair), the retail complex known as Bridgemarket finally opened in 1999.

“Florence D’Urso, an MAS member and compassionate philanthropist for several art restorations here and in the Vatican, provided a generous grant to restore the mosaic, Abundance, in memory of her husband Camillo who appropriately had been in the food and supermarket business,” states the MAS.

In June 2003, the restored mosaic returned to what was now known as Bridgemarket public plaza, installed once again on a granite base with its ox head fountain. (When I visited, the fountain wasn’t working, sadly.)

“Abundance, restored to its jewel colorings, once again graces the public streetscape, carrying the history of public art, public space, and food into the twenty-first century,” wrote MAS.

And Evangeline Blashfield, looking like a goddess rising out of a bounty of fruits and vegetables, towers over this former farmers market once again.

[Third image: Find a Grave]

The factories of Queens sparking to life in 1910

May 18, 2020

Born in Dublin and educated in Paris, Aloysius C. O’Kelly was a turn of the century painter whose body of work reflects time spent in Europe, Ireland, and England.

But he spent time in New York, too, where he captured the congestion and manufacturing happening on the Queens side of the new Queensboro Bridge in “Tugboats in the East River, New York.”

“The East River, circa 1910, stands apart as one of O’Kelly’s few industrial New York landscapes,” writes Heritage Auctions, where the painting is up for sale.

“Shaping the composition is the dramatic cantilever Queensboro Bridge connecting Manhattan and Long Island, considered an engineering marvel at its completion in 1909. Here, the viewer looks north from the East River toward Queens, with its dense cluster of factories and warehouses sparking to life in the early morning haze.”