Of the over 2 million people who inhabit the borough of Queens, there are probably at least one or two members of actual royalty.
They might be from countries few have ever heard of, or from places so remote they don’t often show up on the map. But in what many consider the most diverse neighborhood on the planet, one thing is for sure: If a person lives and breathes and moves to New York City, that person can find a home in Queens.
Into the Past
According to the Queens Historical Society (QHS), the 118 square miles that make up Queens has changed a lot since it was incorporated as a borough of New York in 1898. And even before that milestone, what we now know as Queens went through many transformations.
New York was originally a Dutch settlement, but what was considered Queens in the 1600s was mostly made up of English colonists who gave the area its namesake — a nod to Queen Catherine of Braganza. When it was established as one of the 10 colonies that made up New York in 1683, Queens was three times as large as it is now — it included all of Nassau County, and reached into Suffolk County as well. The land that made up Queens was divided by the English into three distinct towns: Newtown, Flushing and Jamaica.
With the onset of the Revolutionary War almost a hundred years later, Queens was divided. According to the QHS, the final withdrawal of British troops occurred in 1783. Peace returned to the area once the war was over, but some of the divisions of townships that exist today follow territories established during wartime.
According to the QHS, Queens grew very little during the half-century following the Revolution. There are several reasons for this, among them the fact that Queens was largely farmland and small villages during its early development, and many young people left to seek their fortunes in other places — like New York City, for example. The Big Apple was experiencing unprecedented growth at the time, and many of Queens’ finest were heading into a young city that offered untold riches and opportunity. At that time, of course, there was no subway system or expressway to allow quick commuting — once people left, they stayed gone.
But those post-Revolutionary years would be the last time Queens could catch its breath. From 1830 to 1840, the borough’s population grew by over 5,000, due to a handful of rich developers and what historian Barry Lewis on his “A Walk Through Queens” website at (www.thirteen.org) called “urbanizing forces.” The turnpikes built from neighborhood to neighborhood were essential to this growth, allowing the easy transfer of goods from town to town. In 1839, Astoria was officially founded, and Ravenswood came into being about 10 years later, establishing a coterie of fashionable houses and shops that eventually moved to the north shore of Long Island.
In the 1850’s, more neighborhoods were established, like Maspeth, Corona, Winfield, and Long Island City. Farmland was rapidly becoming village lots. Luxury homes were springing up, offering a getaway for wealthy city folk, and entertainment venues — such as racetracks — followed. Also in the mid-nineteenth century, a major wave of Irish immigration occurred, due largely to the infamous potato famine that had struck Ireland. Most of the Irish immigrants located in Astoria, and were followed by a wave of German immigrants who settled in what is now called Flushing. Both groups still have a large presence in their respective neighborhoods today.
From 1868 to the early 1870’s, neighborhoods such as Glendale, Richmond Hill and Queens Village were incorporated and more immigrants came to these new spots to make a life for themselves. There were better jobs and more opportunities in America and especially in Queens, where industry had taken hold. Steinway pianos started manufacturing in Astoria in 1870, and is still based there to this day. Other jobs in manufacturing were available, and many more in construction. While there would still be farms and farmland in Queens for some time, an industrial village model had developed and people were coming in droves, looking for work.
With the introduction of the Long Island Rail Road in the late 1800s, both population and industry increased. Suburbs began to develop rapidly after that, and at the close of the 19th century, the population of Queens reached over 153,000. At that time, the New York State Legislature established the greater City of New York and consolidated the five boroughs once and for all. Queens was now officially part of that large homogeneous family called New York City.
When the LIRR went electric in 1900, several tunnels were forged under the East River. Queens suddenly became incredibly “commuter-friendly.” Up until that point, the only way to get to Queens (other than the railroad) was by ferryboat. Now that it was so much quicker to get back and forth, real estate developers and entrepreneurs came calling.
In just 10 years, the population of Queens shot to almost 300,000. The Queensboro Bridge, built in 1909, along with the country’s auto boom helped this occur. In addition, the 250-foot-wide Queens Boulevard established a major artery for traffic through the borough. The New York Transit Authority also aided in Queens’ boom time, extending service into the borough after World War I.
In the 1920’s, Queens’ population doubled again. Homes were going up seemingly overnight to accommodate the new residents. Brick and wood-frame housing was being built as fast as was humanly possible. The only thing that seemed capable of stopping the development of the area was a national disaster, which came in the 1930’s in the form of the Great Depression. Just like everywhere else in the country, the borough came to a virtual standstill during that time — keeping afloat was the goal, not taking risks.
But Queens couldn’t be kept down for long. By 1940, development surged, paving the way for the addition of Queens College, Grand Central Parkway, La Guardia International Airport and the Triboro Bridge to the landscape of Queens. After a short slump during World War II, moderate growth followed into the early 1960’s. In 1968, Congress restructured the legislation on immigration from third-world countries. As a result, immigration skyrocketed and the intermingling of cultures increased — especially in hotspots like Queens.
While most of those new residents weren’t the ones to build them, huge high-rise apartment buildings went up during that time as well, and expensive luxury apartments could be spotted in some neighborhoods. Throughout the 1970s, new housing was developed in Queens, but population stabilized for the most part and actually slowed for the first time in years. In the 1980s, Queens was — like the rest of New York City — in a serious recession. This prevented booming growth in industry or population, but Queens continued to be a dynamic area of New York City.
Queens now comprises over a dozen distinct neighborhoods; Jamaica, Flushing, Long Island City, Astoria, Jackson Heights, Corona, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, College Point, Douglaston, Floral Park, Belmont Park and the Rockaways. With so many neighborhoods within the relatively small area, diversity is a given.
According to Mitchell Grubler, who has served for five years as executive director of the QHS, even though today’s Queens is vastly different from Queens in the 1600’s, it is diversity that remains one of the area’s primary personality traits. Grubler says there are approximately 112 languages spoken in Queens today, and that in itself makes Queens a cultural treasure-trove.
“I think we’re getting away from the ‘melting-pot’ theory, actually,” he says. “All of the groups maintain their individual cultural identities.” Grubler says that from Chinese to Korean to Latin American and beyond, Queens is rich in culture and cuisine, because of what the people bring with them to their new community.
Bill Egan, executive vice president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “Queens is unlike any of the other boroughs in that it is so incredibly diverse and has such a mix of cultures,” he says. “That diversity itself has become a magnet, and it’s one of the reasons Queens is growing.”
Community and access to services also are drawing families to the borough like never before. That sense of community can be hard to find in other parts of the city, says Jacqueline Alvarado, a broker with Coldwell Banker who handles properties in Queens and the other outer boroughs.
“There are also lot of growing families who are looking for better education for their kids and better school districts,” Alvarado adds, “and people like to buy around this neighborhood for that reason.”
Queens is also growing and diversifying as prices in Manhattan and Brooklyn continue to spiral upward. Prices for apartments in Queens aren’t as sky-high as they are in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, but some neighborhoods are catching up. According to Leonard Jacobs of MPJ Realty, Inc. in Flushing, “I see a lot of young people who are now sinking their money into Queens. They’re turning out these old apartments and making them new with complete renovations.”
Queens won’t stay cheap for long, though, say the pros. “It’s going to be as expensive one day as living in the city,” says Alvarado. “I already see it happening slowly. You can’t find places now for less than half a million in a lot of neighborhoods, and the people who live here are seeing how much they can get, and are getting out and moving to Florida.”
“I do think it’s getting harder for young people, as prices continue to go up, to try and stay and raise a family,” agrees Egan. “I don’t see Queens becoming Manhattan, though, and I don’t think it will match Manhattan prices. But it’s a different type of community. Many more of the people who work in Queens live in Queens, and that’s not true of Manhattan. The demographic will always be different — and that’s a good thing.”
Protecting the Past, Building the Future
Also looking out for that unique borough history and spirit is the Queens Historical Society. Grubler says his organization is “bursting at the seams” with projects to renovate landmarks such as the Kingsland Homestead building in Flushing, which sits near the site of the first Quaker meeting in the borough and now serves as the QHS headquarters.
Today, the first floor of the Kingsland Homestead house is used to display exhibits on the history of Queens, and a parlor on the second floor is decorated in middle-class, Victorian-era style. Personal effects and mementos belonging to the original occupants and owners of the Homestead are on display to give visitors an idea of how Queens residents used to live more than a century ago.
“We’ve got future plans for an exterior restoration project and we just converted one of our galleries into a lecture room,” says Grubler of the Homestead. “We also have plans to convert some of the basement for proper collection storage.”
“We have early documents, maps and atlases, photography and textiles,” Grubler continues, “which all help preserve and showcase the history of Queens. In addition to artifacts that show the social aspect of the area as well as the industry, the QHS has many articles from the families who lived at the Kingsland Homestead itself. Grubler says the furniture, books and decorative arts, among other pieces, serve as a window to the past.
Along with the exhibits and collections, the QHS is dedicated to reaching out to the community to which it dedicates itself. Through programming at the Society, Queens’ rich history can be embraced by those who either have deep Queens roots already or are looking to put some down.
“We offer lectures and various panel discussions that focus on specific communities,” says Grubler, noting that the QHS featured the Corona neighborhood in the last lecture series. In the next few months, a series on Queens’ role in the abolition of slavery will premiere, with talks given about the area’s underground railroads. “We give house tours and offsite presentations, we advocate for preservation of historical landmarks and we publish books on Queens community history,” Grubler says.
But that’s not all. Grubler says a major focus of his organization is education for kids. “We have a contest that fourth-graders in any school in Queens, parochial, private or public can participate in,” he says. “It’s an art and history contest. By providing this opportunity, we help instill in them a desire to know about the history of their community at a young age.”
And that history is a rich and varied one, from the borough’s beginnings as a rural farmland to its current incarnation as the most diverse neighborhood on Earth. Throughout its long history, it seems that Queens has always been a place for anyone — from any country, ethnic background, creed, or profession — to call home.
Mary Fons is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator. Special thanks to the Queens Historical Society for their assistance with this article.