Historical district. Garden sanctuary. Street food paradise. Jackson Heights Queens is all of these things. From its humble beginnings as dirt-paved farmland to its construction renaissance in the 1940s and 50’s, Jackson Heights is re-emerging as one of New York City’s most diverse and livable communities.
Before 1900: Living Off the Map
If you tried to locate Jackson Heights on a map of Queens County back in 1900, chances are you’d have a pretty hard time. That’s because the city simply did not exist. According to Jackson Heights: A Garden in the City by Daniel Karatzas, the area consisted mostly farms and fields and was originally known as the Trains Meadow section of Newtown (later re-christened Elmhurst).
An article published in the Jackson Heights News characterized the town as “barns and bee hives, carriage-houses and corn-cribs...dirt roads, packed hard by years of iron-shod hooves.” Except for a large horse-racing track running along Northern Boulevard near 72nd Street, the area saw relatively little residential or commercial activity.
A Bridge and a Plan
The opening of the Queensboro Bridge connecting 59th Street in Manhattan with Long Island City on March 30, 1909 helped changed all that. Also known as the 59th Street Bridge, a name popularized by the Simon & Garfunkel hit The 59th St.Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy), the Queensboro Bridge was influential in transforming Jackson Heights from a rural area into a viable commuter suburb.
The decade prior to the bridge’s opening saw real estate speculators purchasing large quantities of property. Among the most aggressive was Edward MacDougall of the Queensboro Corporation, one of the first to recognize the area’s enormous potential for growth. According to Karatzas, MacDougall’s group spent nearly $4 million on various parcels of land, including a number of area farms. Nearly half a million was spent giving the area formerly known as Elmhurst a makeover. Streets were paved and new sewers and sidewalks were installed as the first apartment buildings appeared on 82nd and 83rd streets north of Roosevelt Avenue.
The European Influence
In addition to being one of the most prominent real estate developers of his time, MacDougall was also fond of traveling. During a 1914 trip to Europe, MacDougall was influenced by what was being called the “garden city movement,” an approach to urban planning first pioneered by Sir Ebenezer Howard in England in 1898.
MacDougall recruited a number of leading architects to design rustic-looking row houses and ornate apartment complexes centered around spacious interior courtyards rich with beautiful flowers and greenery. This building style took its inspiration from a wide variety of sources, including Tudor, Spanish, Italian, and Art Deco.
A New Multi-Family Vision
Central to MacDougall’s vision was the idea of adequate space and ventilation, standing in sharp contrast to the tenement housing popular throughout the city at the time. The Queensboro Corporation’s first major apartment complex went up in 1917 and it reflected these principles.
Unfortunately, MacDougall’s vision also included a bias against non-white and non-affluent residents. The prices MacDougall charged for his homes and apartments (from $18,000 to $25,000, with monthly charges of $265 for a seven-room, three-bathroom apartment) made them off-limits to the majority of New Yorkers. While not explicitly stated, the “restricted” status of his communities was synonymous with selling only to white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant residents.
Great Depression Days
During the 1920s, Jackson Heights saw an increase in the construction of private dwellings, which the Queensboro Corporation billed as “English Garden Homes.” These structures cost between $20,000 to $38,500 and came complete with “high-quality construction and amenities that included a generous front and rear garden, solid brick construction, rear garages, fireplaces, and slate or tile roofs,” according to Karatzas.
All that changed with the Great Depression, which put the brakes on the 130 percent growth the city had experienced during the previous decade. New home construction slowed, apartments were divided into smaller units, and tensions between tenants and landlords flared as several prominent housing cooperatives reverted back to rental dwellings.
One small, bright spot during this time of turbulence — and another claim to fame for the neighborhood of Jackson Heights — was the invention of the wildly popular board game Scrabble. The game was originally known as “Lexiko” or “Criss-Crosswords,” and was invented by local son Alfred Moshe Butts. Scrabble became the second most popular board game in the U.S. — just behind Monopoly — and in honor of Butts’ contribution to American leisure, the street sign that stands at the corner of 35th Avenue and 81st Street contains the Scrabble point values for each letter on the sign.
By the mid-1930s, the tide began to turn and things were looking up for Jackson Heights. Over a dozen apartment complexes appeared, and transportation innovations such as the Triboro Bridge, the Grand Central Parkway, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, and LaGuardia Airport helped bring back residents and revive the local economy.
The 1944 death of MacDougall brought the succession of his son, the equally ambitious A.E. MacDougall, who sought to fulfill the burgeoning housing demand that a wartime halt on new construction had created. More than a score of new housing cooperatives were formed, and 38 new apartment buildings went up in Jackson Heights in 1950 alone.
An unfortunate side effect of this new construction was the removal of many of the garden areas that had made the neighborhood an object of admiration. Writes Karatzas, “This wave of construction obliterated many end-block gardens along 35th and 34th Avenues. By 1954 virtually every plot of ground had been used for residential construction.”
The breakneck speed of development was tempered by a number of quality of life enhancements made during this period, owed in large part to The Jackson Heights Community Federation. The group lobbied for the construction of what’s now known as Travers Park at 77th Street and 34th Avenue, a library at 81st Street and 37th Avenue, and a junior high school — I.S. 145 on 80th Street and 34th Avenue.
The World’s Neighborhood
A relaxation of U.S. immigration policies during the Kennedy administration gave way to a sharp increase in immigration during the 1960s, and Jackson Heights was no exception. Thousands of Asians and Latin Americans arrived in the area, prompting some to call this section of Queens “The Ellis Island of the 20th Century,” according to the community-moderated website www.NYWikiJacksonHeights.com.
This influx did much to shape the current demographic of the neighborhood and marked the beginning of Jackson Heights we know today. The development of a new highway system pushed forward by the influential yet controversial city planner Robert Moses helped bring in a new population of commuters as many families moved further out of town.
Crisis, Conversion, & Rebirth
The nationwide fiscal crisis and interest rates upwards of 20 percent made the 1970s uncertain times for the city of Jackson Heights. Steep increases in residential rents sparked a cooperative conversion of massive proportions. Karaztas claims that in Queens, 639 buildings (with 76,900 apartments) were converted to cooperatives or condominiums during that decade alone. According to city records, upwards of 60 buildings were converted during the 1980s, adding to the area’s existing base of over 5,000 cooperative apartments.
In 1988, the Jackson Heights Beautification Group was formed as “a grassroots community organization of people who live and work in Jackson Heights and care enough to help make Jackson Heights one of the best neighborhoods in Queens and New York City.”
A movement to designate Jackson Heights as a historical district achieved its goal in 1993, when the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted to designate roughly 36 blocks of Jackson heights as a historic district — making it the second of its kind in Queens, and one of the largest in the city.
Jackson Heights Today
The Jackson Heights of 2005 is a far cry from the “fields and farms” of days past. More than half of the neighborhood’s residents are foreign-born, and most occupy a housing stock consisting mostly of middle-income to upscale cooperative apartments, and many of them commute across the East River to work in Manhattan every day. A simple stroll down 37th Avenue, the neighborhood’s main retail thoroughfare, reveals a heady mix of Indian, Jewish, Korean, Polish, Irish, Chinese, Russian, and South American sights, sounds, and flavors. Jackson Heights is also home to one of the city’s most prominent gay and lesbian communities outside of Manhattan. And despite its urbanization, the neighborhood still boasts more private parks (traditionally called “gardens” by the locals) than any other community in the United States.
A Neighborhood Voice Weighs In
Kevin Ward first arrived in Jackson Heights in 1981 as a bachelor looking for a large apartment with a reasonable rent. He found it — an 850-square-foot one-bedroom for a rent-stabilized $400 a month. He also found something a little more unexpected — his wife. “I saw her walking to the subway one morning and managed to squeeze onto the train next to her, chatted her up, and the rest is history, as they say.”
Today Ward, his wife, and their young daughter live in a two-bedroom co-op purchased for roughly $75,000 in the late 1980s. In a telling measure of how real estate has trended in Jackson Heights since then, Ward expects to eventually sell the apartment for somewhere in the mid-$400,000 range. He currently pays $885 per month in maintenance plus additional for parking.
Why Jackson Heights? According to Ward, “I like the convenience to the city and the airports. There are some nice shops here, and definitely anything you need you can easily find amongst the stores on 37th Avenue and 82nd Street.”
He’s also a fan of his neighborhood’s architecture. “The gardens in the back of many of the developments are just stunning — and as far as I know, they’re unique to this area. Most of the apartments are large, and many of them have the features you typically associate with prewar construction, like tall ceilings, crown moldings, hardwood floors, and eat-in kitchens.”
As for real estate, Ward has definitely noticed prices on the rise. “This area has been neglected by the market for many years, and it’s only now finally getting into parity with the rest of Queens, and with pricing for comparable space in Brooklyn,” he says. “So generally, I think prices in this neighborhood have been moving up slowly until 2004, and from mid-late 2004 until now they have really taken off — but actually, we’re just catching up now to where prices should have been [relative to Manhattan and Brooklyn] for a long time.”
Real Estate on the Rise
Megan Hoffman, a sales associate for The Corcoran Group specializing in the Jackson Heights area, shares Ward’s view of Jackson Heights as an upwardly mobile area where real estate prices are climbing.
“The number of young professionals moving in from Williamsburg and midtown is skyrocketing,” says Hoffman. “People are buying because of the deals,” she continues. “Rentals are from $950 for a studio to $1,650 for a huge two-bedroom. Sales are $150,000 for a one-bedroom needing a little TLC to $650,000 for a three-bedroom in mint condition.”
Four- to eight-story low-rise buildings dominate the heart of Jackson Heights, but one- and two-family dwellings abound as well. According to Hoffman, low-cost row houses and co-ops can be found north of Northern Boulevard, and renters can expect to pay anywhere from $900 to $1,300 for a one-bedroom, between $1,100 and $2,000 for a two-bedroom, and upwards from $1,500 for a three-bedroom. Co-ops range from $150,000 to as much as $700,000, and condos (if you can find them – they’re relatively rare) start at around $200,000. Single-family houses tend to start at around $400,000, with two-family models averaging somewhere in the neighborhood of $600,000.
Located in the geographical center of New York City, Jackson Heights is a 20-minute commute on the 7 subway line to Midtown, and the neighborhood offers easy access to major roadways as well. The 7, E, F, G, R, and V subway lines and various bus routes transport the non-car-owning residents wherever they need to go, including direct lines to LaGuardia Airport and Penn Station via the Queensboro Bridge to Fifth Avenue.
Beauty and Convenience
This blend of beauty, value, and convenience is part of why Hoffman is so puzzled why real estate developers aren’t taking more advantage of Jackson Heights as a hot new development zone.
“Developers should definitely be looking at Jackson Heights, but not many of them are,” she says. “Hopefully someone will get the idea and do it — but let’s hope they remember what make this area so special and respect the fact that most of its residents have been there for generations.”
Erin Bradley is a freelance writer living in New York City.