Miracle on 45th Avenue

by Stanley Cogan

"I was biking around this neighborhood, and I thought it was beautiful, an oasis in the middle of an industrial park."

So spoke Scott Schimmel, thinking back to his introduction to 45th Avenue, between 21st and 23rd Streets, the Hunters Point Historic District in Long Island City, Queens.

Julia Schimmel, Scott's wife, expressed it this way: "This is what you think of. I mean, not being from New York, this is what I thought New York would be like, as soon as I found this block. You know, every single New York movie I've ever seen, every Woody Allen flick that I've seen, says 'Now I've finally arrived. I'm in New York, and I'm going to live in a great place'!"

Conversations with ten residents, from third generation to recently arrived, revealed delight, pride, neighborliness, friendship, and mutual respect. A neighborhood one block long (with a snippet around the corner on 23rd Street) exemplifies "small is beautiful."

Bernard Wolf, a twenty-three-year resident, "came to lunch one day, and fell in love with the street." He bought his house sight unseen. Bernie loves his neighbors, and feels that 45th Avenue is a very friendly place to live. He also feels that the intimacy of a single block produces an extended family with respect for family values, and a community of good will.

Fifty-nine-year-old James Best has lived in his house all of his life, following his father and grandfather. He was born in a second-floor bedroom, and "moved from the second floor to the third floor when I got married." Most certainly, Jim says,"I'm not going to move!"

What is it about 45th Avenue that produces this pride of place, this almost fanatical devotion?

Perhaps the fact that Manhattan is only two subway stops away. Perhaps, as Alex Molly describes it, it is her love of the incomparable view of the Manhattan skyline, the bicycle explorations of the surrounding industrial area, the never-ending fascination of the waterfront, with surprises and adventures "always beckoning, always there."

The checkerboard pattern of light industry and residential neighborhoods, the equally variegated multi-ethnic patterns surrounding the "oasis" satisfy the need for change, for exploration, but always balanced by the miraculous stability of 45th Avenue.

The joys of handiwork and restoration of an old but solid and substantial building or apartment are tempting to both novice and expert. The knowledge that a hundred-and-thirty-year-old wall or window is one's responsibility, and that its maintenance and/or restoration contributes to the structure's survival (and the occupant's enjoyment) is sufficient motivation to invest labor in any needed project. And, as Steve Cramer, who lives on the fifth floor of a railroad flat apartment building, said, "I like old buildings and high ceilings." Steve talked with pride of his work repointing the fireplace bricks, installing crown moldings, repairing a wall that had suffered water damage, refinishing a sagging ceiling with acoustical tile, installing new window sills, restoring woodwork, and removing an archway between two rooms.All this was done in an 1867 building.

No one could disagree with two primary factors that draw and hold inhabitants to an historic district and instill a deep feeling of pride of place--history and architecture. And certainly 45th Avenue, and its adjoining piece on 23rd Street, have a cornucopia of each.

Bob Brunell, Hunters Point Historic District historian, was a rich source of information and knowledge as we strolled the District. His discourse on the area's history and architecture was a constant blending of the two disciplines.

Hunters Point, the southern area of Long Island City, has been no stranger to change. The quieter changes happened during the first two centuries of colonial settlement, from the 1650s through the 1850s. They included three successive names, reflecting Dutch and English ownership, numerous private land ownership transfers, property changes including the acquisition of a large tract of land by a college, and backwash incidents resulting from the Revolutionary War.

Of far greater impact, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, was a series of major events. They included the Newtown Creek industrial development; the coming of the Long Island Rail Road; the construction of the Queensborough Bridge; the extension of the subway through Long Island City; the influx of a labor force; becoming a County seat and having a County Courthouse; two World Wars; the juxtaposition of industrial and residential areas; changing ethnic populations;the construction of a skyscraper; and the current anticipated changes of the nearby waterfront development, Queens West.

Brunell pointed out that each of these changes had its own impact on Hunters Point, major and minor, permanent and temporary. But just as a fierce storm has its calm eye, so has Hunters Point had its tranquil center--45th Avenue with its tail on 23rd Street. The Hunters Point Historic District is a true miracle on 45th Avenue.

Perhaps the creator of the miracle was Sal Saraceno, a visionary developer and preservationist.

Recognizing the uniqueness of 45th Avenue, Saraceno bought and renovated nearly a dozen homes and apartment houses. He recognized the need for preservation, and led the movement for historic district designation. He stated, "The history of the past is a treasure not to be destroyed," and he applied this to all of Queens.

Architecture rivals history in its attraction for residents and visitors alike. Monte Mitchell and Harry Van Dyke, both resident architects, gave their professional insiders' views of the street.

Van Dyke discussed building construction patterns on 45th Avenue. "Houses are built in blocks of 100'x100', always 100' deep, and then you put the number of houses you feel like putting into the 100' property. So here we have the house we're in today, a 20' house, one of five built in this 100' lot. They have exactly similar facades, done in Westchester stone, which is a type of marble. It isn't brownstone at all. Across the street we see smaller houses, 2 1/2 stories tall. There are six, (not five) to 100 feet."

Mitchell has done extensive architectural work on 45th Avenue. "What you have here is speculative development built in a very short period of time by one developer who was the architect. The people they were building for weren't individual home owners (with individual orders). They were building something that had to be built very fast. Cost was a major concern, not the desires of the buyer. You can see on parts of some buildings pre-cast concrete, rather than Westchester stone."

Van Dyke responded, pointing to the stoops, " I was always told that these were ground-up Westchester stones. They're cast stone, but they ground up the stone and tried to get the same color. All the sills and everything else are cast."

The Landmarks Preservation Commission's designation report states," The Italianate, French Second Empire (Mansard-roofed), Neo-Grec, and diverse styles of the 1890s are all represented by examples which range from fully developed expressions of the Italianate group to various later vernacular interpretations, which, in their own right, illustrate the development of our architectural history."

A stroll down 45th Avenue with Harry and Monte brought this statement to life. The reader is strongly advised to try it (with our two friends, if possible).

Is it possible that life on 45th Street is all extreme bliss, that it is not prey to life's vicissitudes that daily assault more common streets?

Jean Molly and her daughter Alex are not enthusiastic about Queens West, the projected water-front development project. Jean noted that the piers, which provide access to the East River, would be blocked off, eliminating the gorgeous views of Manhattan. "When Queens West is built, it will block off the river completely. There is insufficient sensitivity to the older residents, many of whom have lived here for years." Alex observed that she "would rather have no change whatsoever. They can make money that way.That's what they're thinking of. Some development makes sense, but not this. It could be a model for future planning, but not this! It puts a tremendous strain on the neighborhood and wipes out what's here."

Bernie Wolf agreed, saying that he was not against any kind of building, but from the plans he had seen, he thought it was going to be a jungle. "It's too tall, there's not enough space given for citizenry, there's no run in the front, it's all narrow, the strip mall is an abomination, and to have a basketball court facing someone's backyard is outrageous!"

Queens West is to the west of the historic district, and the Citibank Building, another source of contention, is to the east. There seems to be resigned acceptance of its towering presence. Initial hostility was gradually ameliorated by the installation by Citibank of such amenities as a library, an atrium with cafes, a stationery store, and a new entrance to the subway.

Reaction to the new Citibank sign at the top of the building, which is lighted every night, was far less accepting. "It was arrogance on their part," summed up the feeling.

How can the 45th Avenue experience be best expressed? Is living on a beautiful street, a landmarked street, only two subway streets from Manhattan, with a view of the gorgeous skyline (directly across from the Citibank Building, by the way) sufficient unto itself? It is, perhaps, for many or most residents on the street.

But for others there is a deeper meaning. How could there not be for James Best, whose grand-father moved to the house, and whose father and he were born there? He has lived there for all of his fifty-nine years. Heritage and continuity are the mainsprings of James's life. "Long Island City (Hunters Point) was a grand place. My father could never understand why anybody would want to leave it. I wouldn't trade it for anything."

How many people could talk of their grandfather and father bringing their cows down to the long-defunct St. John's Hospital (the area now occupied by the Citibank building), to graze them? Only a James Best, with an idyllic Hunters Point childhood, could say about Hunters Point--"Gee whiz! It was GRAND! " Here is a man who had the same teacher that his father had. "I never think of leaving Long Island City. This is the place to live!"

In contrast to James Best's fifty-nine years, Scott and Julia Schimmel have lived here almost four years-- old-timers and newcomers--and yet they share the same sense of continuity and heritage, which might be called the infrastructure of living in an old house in a landmarked district.

Scott and Julia beautifully elaborated on these themes in discussing the maintenance of tradition. Scott spoke of their 1870 brownstone, which, as he put it, was "not renovated, but preserved."

The feeling of one hundred and twenty six years of continuity gave him "a tremendous feeling of pride in carrying on the tradition of the house. "Living here in this house gives me a feeling of historic continuity, of just being part of history, a part of New York history, a part of everything going on ever since the building went up in 1870....It's fascinating to sit in this room, in this parlor, having a drink after working, looking out the window, and thinking that one hundred and twenty years ago there was somebody who had just gotten back from work, sitting in this room, looking out the same window, thinking about current events. It's mind boggling! It gives you a feeling of permanence. It makes you feel like you're home, and nobody is going to take it. Perhaps one day I'm going to move, but this house is going to be here forever!"

Julia added, "What is it about this neighborhood? Why is it that we seem to have more fun on this block than we would have living in Manhattan? Because the buildings are smaller, the proximity to each other, perhaps. There's some sort of camaraderie."

They talked of coming home to 45th Avenue, of going over the Queensborough Bridge, going through blocks with factories, "and all of a sudden you find this little block....It's an anachronism!"

Perhaps....But more likely, it's a miracle on 45th Avenue.

Return to Queens Historical Society

last revised 11/17/96
by David Goldfarb