Monday, August 24, 2015

30 Days in NYC (Day 8)- Queens

   For many years Queens was seen as the everyman, middle-class borough of New York City. It was seen as not only lacking Manhattan's glitz, but also lacking The Bronx's grittiness, Brooklyn's creativity, or even Staten Island or New Jersey's 'we get no respect' swagger. Queens has been the TV home of New York's unglamorous, mostly White middle class for years. From Archie Bunker, to the Costanzas on Seinfeld, to King of Queens and Fran Drescher's "Nanny." Essentially, Queens has a reputation for being boring. But things have changed in Queens over a generation. Queens is still home to the hard-working, unassuming residents it always has been, but now there's a twist. Queens is now the most ethnically and culturally diverse place on Earth. Immigrants from all over the world call Queens home and now foreign-born residents make up almost half of Queens' population. Exploring Queens is like making a trip around the world. You can taste the food and hear the music of cultures as varied as can be found anywhere.So it's time to put the sitcom tropes to bed and explore the incredible culture of Queens.

Day 8 - Queens (Forest Hills, Jackson Heights, and Flushing)

Morning - Unlike Manhattan and Brooklyn, Queens is a product of the 20th century. For most of the 18th and 19th centuries Queens was just farmland, with scattered towns or factories mixed in. Construction and development exploded with the completion of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909, the opening of Penn Station and the Long Island Railroad tunnel in 1910, and the first subway tunnels in 1915 and 1917. Suddenly and entirely undeveloped part of the city had rail, road, and subway access to Midtown Manhattan. Developers madly rushed into the void and began building houses and apartment buildings all over Queens. In some neighborhoods, developers were able to buy up farmland in large swaths and create entire communities. Forest Hills and Jackson Heights both were built up in this fashion and Forest Hills is where we start the morning. Multiple subway lines bring you to 71st Ave, the E and F are express from Manhattan and get you to Forest Hills in only a half hour from Midtown. Walking down 71st Ave brings you past the commercial strip of Austin Avenue, under the Long Island Railroad tracks and into Station Square, the grand entry to the Forest Hills Gardens section.




   Passing through the entryway on the left brings you into one of the most unexpected sights in NYC, the leafy streets and English-style manors of Forest Hills Gardens. The gardens are a 175 acre community designed in 1909 to emulate the garden communities built in England over the previous decades. These communities were meat to provide regular people a leafy, self-sufficient town in which they could live, shop, and work in a more urban version of the sweeping country homes the English aristocracy enjoyed. And while the ideal may have been an everyman community, in reality the large homes on plush lawns, easy Manhattan access, and privately managed community structure have all made the gardens into one of the most expensive areas in the Outer Boroughs. And the fact that the whole community is privately owned and operated means the standard NYC street signs and lamps are replaced with whimsical, nostalgic pieces with a tudor flair. Walking along Greenway North or Greenway South gives the best views of the neighborhood. As you walk in past Station Square, the first sight are apartment buildings and rowhouses full of bay windows, turrets, spires, and other tudor accents. Past Ascan Avenue, the townhomes become mansions, and each street is full of larger and more ornate homes, until reaching Markwood Road and Greenway North where the largest home in the gardens recalls more a nobleman's estate than a working man's cottage.
   Return towards the station by cutting back to Greenway South. From there, make a left on Slocum Crescent and walk out of the gardens to 69th Avenue. One block to the right on 69th is the restored ruins of Forest Hills Stadium. In 1914, the West Side Tennis Club moved from it's club on Manhattan's West Side to a new facility in Forest Hills. Up to that point, the US Open Tennis Championship was held in Newport, Rhode Island. But the new facility gave an excuse to move the tournament to Queens in 1915 where it has been ever since. Forest Hills Stadium was built in 1923 to host the tournament, which it did until moving to Flushing Meadows in 1978. In addition to tennis, the stadium hosted concerts through the 60s and 70s serving as a host to famous performances by Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and The Rolling Stones. After crumbling for decades, the stadium has been partially restored and 2015 saw the first lineup of summer concerts that included Alabama Shakes, Ed Sheeran, and even the return of The Who. Walk back on Burns Street to Station Square and hop on the E or F train one (express) stop back to Roosevelt Ave in Jackson Heights.
A photo posted by Shawn (@nytourguy) on
 
   Stepping off the subway onto bustling Roosevelt Avenue certainly feels like a different world than Forest Hills. The intersection of Broadway--not the one in Manhattan--and Roosevelt is one of the busiest in the city and serves as Queens' largest transit hub. But the neighborhood around it, Jackson Heights, was built at the same time and with the same principles as Forest Hills Gardens. The neighborhood was farmland when the whole area was bought by the Queensboro Corporation in 1909. Development was slow at first but the opening of the elevated 7 train in 1915 led to a boom in property values and construction began in earnest.

View from the 7 train in 1917
   Unlike in Forest Hills, the development in Jackson Heights consisted almost entirely of apartment blocks. Each one would take up the entire frontage of a block and look into a private interior garden shared by the whole building complex. These "garden apartments" create long blocks of beautiful, uniform apartment entrances. The other big difference to Forest Hills Gardens is that Jackson Heights' streets remain public. The mix of grand apartments and smaller, simpler rental buildings have meant cheaper rents. This has led to Jackson Heights becoming New York's famous neighborhood for cultural diversity. South Asians from India, Tibet, and Bangladesh mix with South Americans from Peru, Colombia, Argentina, and Ecuador to create a wonderful ethnic stew. So it sounds as if lunch is in order!

Lunch: Options are everywhere! The hub of South Asian food is on 73rd and 74th Streets, as well as nearby 37th Avenue. Sari shops, Bollywood music stores, and Indian grocers line 74th while Bangladeshi markets and mosques feature more prominently on 73rd. There's tons of options for snacks, and there's outdoor tables on the plaza between Broadway and 74th Street. Samudra Chaat House on 37th Ave (between 75th and 76th) is great for South Indian crepes called dosas, or snacks like chaat or samosas. Excellent himalayan dumplings called momo can be found from carts like Potala Cart on Broadway and 73rd. There's more delicious Tiebtan/Nepalese food at tiny Tawa Foods on 72nd and Broadway. There's even a Tibetan snack shop inside the mobile phone shop at 37-50 74th Street. For an authentic Bangladeshi experience grab some biryani or other hot dishes inside the grocery store Haat Bazaar on 73rd Street. Desert is always great at Rajbhog bakery on 37th Ave. But what about the Latino options?! Back under the elevated train on Roosevelt Ave is Taqueria Coatzingo for awesome tacos and tortas on Roosevelt (between 76th and 77th). One of my absolute favorites is the new Arepa cafe on 77th Street just south of Roosevelt and is the spot for arepas, Colombian corn patties filled with meat and cheese. The owners' are the family of the famous Arepa Lady who would appear late on weekend nights only to sell from a street cart. Mama's Empanadas is on Roosevelt (between 77th and 76th) and offers dozens of varieties of empanadas cooked fresh to order.

A photo posted by Shawn (@nytourguy) on
 
   After lunch, have a walk up 80th Street to 34th Avenue. This will pass by the finest of the garden apartments, The Greystone, The Chateu, and The Towers on the corner of 34th Ave. Planted medians grace 34th Ave, which used to lead to the short lived Jackson Heights golf course. It also provides a peek in to the private gardens on The Towers and The Chateau. Walking back along 81st Street, you'll notice a street sign at 35th Avenue with numbers underneath each letter. This denotes the birthplace of Scrabble, which was invented by Alfred Mosher Butts and first played in the basement rec room of the church on the corner. Head over to 82nd Street and back to Roosevelt Ave to catch the 7 train out towards Flushing.

Afternoon: Get off the 7 at Mets-Willets Point and head into Queens' most famous landmark: Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Before the 1930s this area was the famous ash heap featured in The Great Gatsby. In 1939 it was transformed into a new fairground and hosted the 1939 World's Fair. Many of the structures remained and were used for temporary headquarters of the United Nations before their Midtown offices opened. It was used again for the World's Fair in 1964 and attracted more than 50 million visitors during its run. Now, 50 years after the last Belgian waffles were served, the fair buildings are in various states of repair and serve as the backdrop to the everyday groups of families picnicking, playing volleyball, soccer, or skateboarding. From the subway, cross over the train yard and follow signs for the Unisphere. This 140 foot tall steel globe was the centerpiece of the fair and is now the undisputed symbol of Queens and its global diversity. When the fountains at the base are on in summer, neighborhood kids jump in the cool spray. And when cooler weather prevails the base becomes a de facto skate park.

A photo posted by Shawn (@nytourguy) on

   Other fair relics are in less pristine condition. The famous towers of the NY State Pavilion are nearly destroyed from neglect--though you may still recognize them as the UFOs from Men in Black. But one fair attraction still remains on display inside the Queens Museum, right next to the Unisphere. It is the Panorama of New York City. It was built for the fair to highlight the municipal infrastructure and housing of the city, but the view that fairgoers and visitors today see isn't just diagrams or maps of housing plots. Instead, builders created a scale model of the entire city. All five boroughs, and every single building within them. The panorama is on a 1:1200 scale, meaning structures like the Empire State Building tower at 15 inches tall. Major landmarks and buildings were built with  exact miniatures and the rest of the city's structures were completed with non-specific home or apartment designs. All told, the model covers almost 10,000 square feet and 895,000 buildings are represented. The last major upgrade was 1992, but the model remains an imposing achievement. And other than actually flying above the city, there's no better way to get a view of the whole scale of the five boroughs and where everything fits within it.

Manhattan and Brooklyn on the Panorama of New York City

   After leaving the museum, you'll head back towards the 7 train and past the Nationl Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open every September since moving from Forest Hills in 1978. The dominant feature is Arthur Ashe stadium, the world's largest tennis arena. But there are smaller courts inside and out and when the Open isn't in town, the courts are available for the public to play. Get back on the 7 for one stop to the terminus, Main Street-Flushing.
   The neighborhood of Flushing is one of the most historic areas of the city. It was one of the original Dutch towns of Long Island and one of the only places in New York City where any 17th century buildings remain standing. Today, they are hidden among 20th century homes and apartments and a huge influx of Indian, Korean, and especially Chinese immigrants. Flushing--along with Brooklyn's Sunset Park--have both passed Chinatown in Manhattan to become one of the largest Chinese immigrant settlements in the world. And when you come aboveground on Main Street you will be right in the heart of it. Markets, bubble tea shops, and all kinds of Chinese shops line Main Street for blocks. Just like Manhattan's Chinatown, Main Street feels like you have been dropped off in another world.
   Flushing's history is one of religious freedom and diversity. Walk east on Roosevelt Ave for two blocks and take a left on Bowne Street. Just up the street is the Bowne House, the former home of local leader John Bowne. The house was first built in 1661 and expanded a few times to its present appearance in 1695. It is incredibly rare to have an intact, onsite 17th century building in New York City. No more than a few exist. The Bowne House also saw incredibly important history in its first few years. Dutch authorities had forbid the practice of any religion but the Dutch Reformed Church. Flushing's Quaker community defied the ban, delivering a petition to Governor Stuyvesant called the "Flushing Remonstrance." They cited Dutch charters granting freedom of conscience and continued to worship secretly, including at the Bowne House. Bowne was arrested and refused to pay the fine so he was sent for trial in Holland. He won his case and returned to Flushing. The old Quaker Meeting House from 1694 also still stands and holds services on Northern Blvd--one block north of Bowne House--between Union and Main Street. It is one of over 200 houses of worship inside the two square miles of Flushing that represent dozens of different faiths. Two of the most beautiful are in opposite directions. The Hanmaum Buddhist Temple is an architectural gem that belongs on a Korean mountain, and is located on Bayside Ave between 146th Street and Parsons Blvd. And the Ganesh Hindu Temple stands proud on Bowne Street between 45th Ave and Holly Ave. In addition to fabulous Indian architecture, it is known for its cafeteria which serves flavorful South Indian food. And speaking of food:

Dinner:  The Chinese food in Flushing is more varied, flavorful, and exotic than even Manhattan's Chinatown. More recent immigrants have hailed from all over China and thus Flushing provides food from almost every imaginable province. Some are in modern restaurants or shopping centers, some are pleasant but simple restaurant spaces, and some are basement stands with little English to help the "foreign" diner. Some of the best are on Prince Street, one block west of Main. Nan Xiang, between 38th and 39th Avenues, specializes in one thing: Xiao Long Bao, better known as Shanghainese Soup Dumplings. They are a mess to eat, but taste amazing. Fu Run, between Roosevelt and 40th Road specializes in Northern Chinese cuisine. Their famous dish is lamb chops smothered in spices and seasoning. Biang is on Main Street between 41st Ave and 41st Road and is a much more modern feeling restaurant but serving the authentic spicy fare of Xi'an. The owner's father opened the first Xi'an food stand in Flushing and now his kids have taken over and brought the food into a modern New York setting. The lamb burgers and handmade cold noodles are the favorite here. And if you want to see where the Flushing food craze took off, head into the barely signed Golden Mall 41-28 Main Street. There's a small entrance from the street that seems like a tiny shop. But inside is a rat maze of shops and food stalls on the 1st floor, and an entire warren of food in the basement. Lanzhou handmade noodles is my favorite--and it even features English translations. But the incredible variety of food from Chengdu, Henan, Wenzhou, and Taipei is amazing.

I'm enjoying lamb noodle soup


Evening:  Flushing doesn't have a prominent nightlife scene. So if the weather is nice and the schedule lines up, it's time to step right up and greet the Mets! Take the 7 train one stop back to Mets-Willets Point and on the other side of the tracks is Citi Field, home of the New York Mets baseball club. The Yankees may have championships, history, and an international brand, but there's another baseball team in town. The Mets are the favorite for many residents of Queens and Long Island, but especially for anybody who loves an underdog. The team may have two World Series titles since their inception in 1962, but they've had a lot more near misses, crushing defeats, and lackluster seasons. But as I write this in 2015 the Mets are on track to head to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. But it's not yet September, and as every Met fan can tell you there's still plenty of time to screw it up. The stadium is modern and enjoyable, the fans are fun, the food and beer is great, and it all adds up to a great evening outside in the summer air.

A photo posted by Christine Lynch (@purplecl) on

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