Oct 18, 2023, 06:27AM

An Evening in Blissville

Blissed out in Western Queens.

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On a recent Saturday I traveled around Blissville in western Queens with my friend Mitch Waxman, who I call the King of Newtown Creek. He’s a historian and preservationist who’s led dozens of walking tours and boat tours with the Newtown Creek Alliance and other groups, some of which I have participated in. He and his wife Catherine have recently moved to Pittsburgh, but not before he rang up and proposed one last tour around the Creek area.

Blissville is a small wedge of Queens positioned between Newtown Creek, Calvary Cemetery and the Queens-Midtown Expressway; it takes its name from Neziah Bliss, inventor, shipbuilder and industrialist, who owned most of the land here in the 1830s and 1840s. Bliss, a protegé of Robert Fulton, was an early steamboat pioneer and owned companies in Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Settling in Manhattan in 1827, his Novelty Iron Works supplied steamboat engines for area vessels. By 1832 he’d acquired acreage on both sides of Newtown Creek, in Greenpoint and what would become the southern edge of Long Island City. Bliss laid out streets in Greenpoint to facilitate his riverside shipbuilding concern and built a turnpike connecting it with Astoria (now Franklin St. in Greenpoint, Vernon Blvd. in Queens); he also instituted ferry service with Manhattan. Though most of Bliss’ activities were in Greenpoint, he’s remembered chiefly by Blissville in Queens and by a stop on the Flushing Line subway (#7) that bears his family name: 46th St. was originally known as Bliss St.

Our first stop was the oldest section of Calvary Cemetery. In 1847 the Rural Cemetery Act was passed, prohibiting any new burial grounds from being established on the island of Manhattan. Presciently anticipating the legislation, trustees of the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry St. in what is today known as Little Italy bought property in western Queens. Calvary Cemetery, named for the hill where Christ was crucified, opened in 1848. The original acreage had been nearly filled by the late-1860s, so additional surrounding acreage was later purchased to the east for the section between Queens Blvd. and the BQE known as New Calvary.

This shot was taken just inside the cemetery fence at Greenpoint and Borden Avenue, which serves as the service road for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The pace of new construction has quickened in recent years in both Manhattan and Queens, and most of the taller buildings you see in this photo are new with the exception of the Empire State Building (1932) and One Court Square on the right (1989).

Steve Brodie (1861-1901) is more famed for what he didn’t do than for what he did. He’s well-known as a fabulist for claiming to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, July 23, 1886 and lived to make the claim. (Though others have truly accomplished the deed, Brodie never did.) He was able to make a living off the claim for many years at speaking engagements and circuses. He needed the money, as he’d been a profligate gambler but not a very successful one. Brodie later opened a saloon on the Bowery and when he died at 39, he was said to be worth $100,000. Westerns actor Steve Brodie adopted his screen name from the real Brodie. Another story, though, holds that Brodie was egged on by Bugs Bunny in “Bowery Bugs.”

I wander through Calvary, and plenty other cemeteries, and marvel at the craftsmanship, all devoted to people who can’t possibly enjoy their own monuments. I always feel at home in Calvary, as I grew up as a Catholic and the majority of burials in Calvary are Irish Catholics, or at least Catholics from Italy or eastern Europe.

After forming the Degnon Construction Company in Cleveland in 1895, Michael Degnon (1858-1925), whose chief line of construction was in railroads, moved his headquarters to New York in 1897. The Degnon Company built many of the IRT’s early subway tunnels in Manhattan and Brooklyn from 1904-1908; the Steinway tunnels originally meant to carry trolley cars but later fitted for subways; what’s now known as the PATH tunnel under 6th Ave.; and much of the original Pennsylvania Station.

Degnon also built a now-defunct railroad serving several warehouses and businesses in Sunnyside that connected to the nearby Sunnyside railyards, as well as many of the warehouses themselves which are now home to schools and the International Design Center. Some of the Terminal’s early clients were Sunshine Biscuit Company, Packard Automobile Company, American Ever Ready Company, and American Chicle Company. The rising cost of doing business in New York forced all of these companies to find other cities in which to manufacture, and the Degnon tracks in Sunnyside were defunct by the end of the 1980s. Degnon’s railroad works around the country are also numerous.

The mayor of Long Island City before Queens became part of Greater New York was a colorful character named Patrick Jerome “Battle Ax” Gleason. He was elected mayor of Long Island City for three separate two-year terms between 1887-1897. Gleason could be said to be the Boss Tweed of Queens. He owned the area trolley lines, leased land to the school district, and formed the City Water Supply Co. to sell Long Island City water from his wells. When a ferry erected a fence to block access to the waterfront, Gleason destroyed it with an axe, earning his nickname.

When The New York Times published an article exposing his graft, he purchased and destroyed nearly every copy distributed in Long Island City. He approached Associated Press reporter George Crowley in a hotel lobby in 1890 and berated him, then attacked him, throwing him against a glass cigar stand. He was arrested and convicted of third-degree assault, and served five days in the county prison , paying a fine of $250. Nevertheless Gleason was beloved in Long Island City. The Romanesque PS 1 at Jackson and Van Alst Ave. (21st St.) is his greatest remaining legacy. Hundreds attended his burial in Calvary Cemetery in 1901.

The centerpiece of Calvary Cemetery is its chapel, designed by architect Raymond Almirall in 1895. With its “beehive” tower, it resembles the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Paris. Almirall designed a similar dome for the massive St. Michael’s Church in Sunset Park. The dome goes up to 80 feet and is 40 feet wide, which was a great feat of concrete construction for its time, and it is topped by a statue of Christ reaching out his arms in a blessing, which was carved from a single block of limestone. It was also designed as a burial crypt for NYC’s parish priests.

According to Popular Mechanics, “The crypts or catacombs are for the burial of the priests of the diocese of New York, under the charge of which the cemetery is maintained. At present, but one section of the catacombs has been completed with accommodations for twenty-four bodies in the concrete niches. But the section can be extended underground in four directions, and at any time an addition for seventy-two more bodies can be made. For a cryptal burial there is a lift set into the floor of the chapel to lower the body to the level of the crypts.”

Bantry Bay Tavern, Greenpoint Ave. and Bradley Ave., and the County Cork Association speak of a tenuous Irish presence in Blissville, which is actually larger in neighboring Sunnyside. Irish immigration to the USA has ebbed and flowed in response to Ireland’s economy, way up in the 1990s but way down since. The Cork Association was founded to help immigrants from County Cork as well as Irish immigrants as a whole: “The County Corkmen’s Benevolent, Patriotic and Protective (B, P & P) Association was founded in 1884. The purpose of forming the Association was to promote unity, good will and protection amongst its members and to foster their culture and traditions. A fund was established to aid the sick and disabled members and to assist in payment of funeral benefits.” [NY Cork Association.]

Mitch and I stopped here for eats, made welcome by hostess Erika Clooney, who Mitch knew; he knows everyone creekside.

On Saturday, September 7, 2019, I did something for the first time: I walked across the Kosciuszko Bridge. I’d never had the opportunity on the old bridge that bore the name, because while it had walkways when originally opened in 1939, they were quickly eliminated. Just as well since the bridge’s steep ramps would’ve made any walking or bicycling on it arduous.

The crossing of Newtown Creek between Meeker Ave. and Laurel Hill Blvd. at Calvary Cemetery has now been accomplished by five separate bridges. The first of the two New Kosciuszko spans opened in August 2017. When the second cable-stayed span opened in 2019, it featured a walkway/bike path, which enables pedestrian/bicycle crossings for the first time in decades.

I have crossed the New K on foot on repeated occasions, but had never been near it when its colored lights had been turned on. I requested a dusk trip with Mitch; by the time we were almost done, the bridge would be lit up, and I’d have my pictures. This view of the bridge is looking south on Review Ave., with Calvary Cemetery on the left and the Long Island Rail Road on the right, out of the picture. I’m never here at night, but Mitch’s wheels made it possible; even before he bought the SUV, he would prowl the area on foot at night, and knew the best vantage points.

The bridge lighting cycles through seven separate colors. The project is part of an initiative announced by ex-governor Andrew Cuomo in 2016; included are the George Washington, Mario Cuomo (Tappan Zee) Bridge and several others. Unlike Mitch, I’m rarely out late at night, so I hadn’t seen any of the bridge lighting projects anywhere, until now.

—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)


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