Last week’s recounting of a recent October jaunt in Flushing, Queens only started on the wonders found in this over 300-year-old town. Northern Blvd. has crossed the Flushing River in a succession of bridges going back to the 19th century. A pair of service roads connect it to College Point Blvd. On the boulevard facing west, is a painted ad showing the traditional logo of Chevrolet, between Collins Pl. and Prince St. Chevrolet has used this cross with slanted edges, which it calls the “bowtie,” since 1913 (the company was founded in 1911).
There are a variety of stories about how and why the logo was designed this way. The company’s website proposes four different ways: Chevrolet co-founder Billy Durant saw the design and liked it while he was vacationing in Paris, and saw it as a pattern on hotel wallpaper. Durant’s daughter, Margery, says she saw him doodling it on a sheet of paper. It copies the Swiss flag, a red square (sometimes a rectangle) with a central white cross. Louis Chevrolet was a Swiss. Durant copied the logo from the Southern Compressed Coal Co. logo for its brand Coalettes, which ran magazine and newspaper ads in 1911, the same year Chevrolet was founded. This seems to be the most believable theory, as hard evidence for it exists.
Chevrolet didn’t begin printing the logo without the word “Chevrolet” in it until 1985.
The Flushing River side of College Point Blvd. is lined with concrete plants. On Time Ready Mix proclaims, on its stacks and on other signs, that it’s “open to the public.” I suspect that if I shuffled onto the premises and started shooting photos, I’d be quickly booted. In the past, coal and ice yards lined the creek.
I turned east on 34th Ave. but not before taking a look at the stacks of the Willets Point Asphalt Company, which its website says has been in business for what is now over 85 years. Oddly, the plant, as well as the neighborhood referred to as Willets Point, is nowhere near the point in far northeast Queens where Fort Totten is located. Charles Willets, one of many plant nursery owners in Flushing, acquired land in northeast Queens which was sold to the US Government to build Fort Totten there in 1857.
This area is known as “Willets Point” because of the presence of Willets Point Blvd., which was originally mapped in the 1920s to run continuously from Roosevelt Ave. to Fort Totten. However, when the Whitestone Parkway, now Whitestone Expressway, was built in the 1930s, it assumed the boulevard’s route and was built in two separate pieces, one running a few blocks between Roosevelt Ave. and Northern Blvd. and home to the auto repair and wholesale parts shops that the city has tried to evict for decades for shiny new housing, and the longer eastern section, which runs from Union St. to the Cross Island Parkway.
The confusion arose because of the new Willets Point Blvd. el station opened in 1925. Train operators referred to it as simply “Willets Point” and that abbreviation stuck.
34th Ave. east of College Point Boulevard used to reach a dead end at the Whitestone Branch of the LIRR. It still dead-ends today but there are surprises just ahead, even though the railroad stopped running in 1932 and was demolished soon after that. Brick and wood frame dwellings, looking as they have for decades, appear on the north side of the street. I don’t think they’re still used as residences and may have something to do with the building at the very end of the road, which is the home of the New York Badminton Center. Pictures of Malaysian champion Lee Chong Wei and Lin “Super” Dan (China) can be seen at the door.
On maps, Linnaeus Pl. looks like a Greek letter Pi turned sideways on Price Street north of 35th Ave. Real-estate listings (which are dubious) say the attached buildings date back to 1901, but that seems about right. The name is a relic of the days when the Prince family owned a retail plant nursery here featuring flowering plants and fruit trees. Prince’s son William Prince Jr. established a new plant business north of Northern Blvd. (then called Broadway) in 1793; it would later be united with the original gardens and named the “Linnean Gardens.” Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus established the system of biological naming known as “binomial nomenclature” consisting of a Latin genus name followed by a descriptive term. Today only the street names bear witness to the plant nurseries’ former presence: the Waldheim development’s Ash, Beech, Cherry, etc. Avenues; Prince St.; and an odd, Pi-shaped little alley on Prince between 33rd and 35th Aves., Linnaeus Pl., hidden among the auto parts stores and lumberyards that now dominate the area.
Returning to 35th Ave., this is the rear end of the RKO Keith’s Theater at Northern Blvd. and Main St. RKO Keith’s has remained empty at the head of Main St. at Northern for over 30 years, resisting all attempts to restore or renovate it; a previous owner, developer Tommy Huang, gutted much of the lobby. It was built by prolific theater architect Thomas Lamb in 1928. It was demolished in 2022.
Heading north along curving Leavitt St. to the irregularly-shaped Leavitt Park, which contains a modest, well-preserved frame house. it was the residence of Lewis Latimer, engineer and inventor of the lightbulb filament. Latimer (1848-1928) was born in Massachusetts to parents formerly held in slavery in Virginia. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1864 and upon his release, answered an ad for an office assistant from the patent law firm of Crosby and Gould, ascended to head draftsman, and discovered he had a knack for invention.
While still at Crosby and Gould, Latimer assisted Alexander Graham Bell, providing the drawings for Bell’s patent application for the telephone; after leaving the law firm, Latimer joined the U.S. Electric Lighting Co., a chief rival of Thomas Edison. There he’d produce a long-lasting carbon filament that was a major improvement on Edison’s 1878 electric lightbulb; Edison’s filaments, which used bamboo filaments, burned out quickly, making early bulbs impractical. Latimer published Incandescent Electric Lighting, A Practical Description of the Edison System, an early electric lighting guidebook, and went on to develop arc lamps and cooling and disinfecting devices. Latimer also developed the first threaded lightbulb socket and assisted in the installation of New York City’s first electric street lamps.
After residing in Brooklyn for a number of years, Latimer moved his family to a small frame house on Holly Ave. in Flushing, where he corresponded with Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. By 1995, the house, which had deteriorated, was declared a landmark and was later restored to its original condition and moved to a new location at 137th and Leavitt Sts., across the street from the public Latimer Houses, which were named for the inventor. Latimer’s granddaughter, Winifred L. Norman, assisted in converting his home into a museum.
The Quaker Meetinghouse, Northern Blvd. opposite Town Hall at Linden Pl., opened because of Stuyvesant’s religious intolerance. In 1657, Quakers living in Flushing sent a letter to Stuyvesant in that year that’s known as the Flushing Remonstrance, reiterating the settlers’ desire for religious freedom. The document was signed by Flushing’s town clerk and sheriff, who were not Quakers but Dutch Reformed Church members; nevertheless, they were arrested for insubordination and spent time in prison.
Thirty-seven years after the Flushing Remonstrance was presented to Stuyvesant, this meetinghouse was constructed in 1694. At the rear you’ll find a quiet churchyard with graves hundreds of years old that makes a rural riposte to bustling Northern Blvd.. More old stones can be found at St. George Church at Main St. and 37th Ave.; that church, where Francis Lewis of Declaration-signing and Queens Boulevard fame was a vestryman, dates to 1854. It has been used for Quaker meetings in every year except when The NYC area was occupied by the British from 1776-1783. True to the building’s name, the Meetinghouse is open on Sundays; Quakers don’t hold services per se, but they do convene on Sundays for meetings for religious-themed discussions. All are welcome, Quaker or not.
—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)