Apr 24, 2024, 06:27AM

Queens’ Grand Gesture

Astoria was named for a man who apparently never set foot in it.

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On a spin through Long Island City, I encountered Halsey’s, on 33rd St. off 31st Ave., a tavern that takes its name from Stephen Ailing Halsey, the founder of Astoria Village. Astoria’s pedigree dates to the mid-1600s, when William Hallett received a grant for the area surrounding what is now Hallett’s Cove by Peter Stuyvesant. However, the oldest structures in the region date to the mid-1800s, after fur merchant Stephen Ailing Halsey had incorporated the village in 1839.

Astoria was named for a man who apparently never set foot in it. A bitter battle for naming the village was finally named by supporters and friends of John Jacob Astor (1763-1848). Astor, entrepreneur and real estate tycoon, had become the wealthiest man in America by 1840 with a net worth of over $40 million. (As it turns out, Astor did live in “Astoria”—his summer home, built on what’s now E. 87th St. near York Ave.—from which he could see the new Long Island Village named for him.) After Stephen Halsey incorporated a village there in 1839, streets radiated east and south from the area, with fanciful dwellings constructed along them. Many have disappeared in the past few decades as developers place larger high-rises in the Village, which was never granted Landmarks protections.

Next was 30th Ave., parts of which are a very old road in NW Queens. Its former name, until the 1920s, was Grand Ave. Before most Queens streets received numbers, 30th Ave. was called Grand Ave., and the Maspeth/Elmhurst Grand Ave. was called Grand St.; it’s an eastern extension of Williamsburg’s Grand St. Flushing Ave., which runs through parts of Brooklyn and Queens (but not Flushing), intersects a Grand Ave. in Clinton Hill and ends at another one in Maspeth! And, 57th St. in Maspeth was once called Flushing Ave., so for some years, Flushing Ave. intersected Flushing Ave. in Maspeth.

Mitch Waxman, the best night photographer in Queens until he moved to Pittsburgh last year, runs a site called Newtown Pentacle. It’s his theory that the Grand Ave. of Astoria and the Grand Ave. of Maspeth are the same route. They’re not: but do have a direct connection. I’ve reproduced part of the Matthew Dripps map of Queens from 1852, the oldest Queens map I know of. At lower left, the Maspeth Plank Rd. crosses Newtown Creek and runs northeast. Parts of this formerly tolled route became Grand Ave., whose twists and turns avoided hills and swamps.

The Plank Rd. ended at the heart of today’s Elmhurst; most of Queens Blvd. hadn’t yet evolved, but today’s Broadway curved northwest, continuing into Woodside as today’s Woodside Ave., turning northwest past another swampy area into Astoria, where it ran to the East River front along Newtown Rd., Grand (30th) Ave. and Newtown Ave. These two old routes are linked by ancient roads, most of which are still in place today.

Rudy’s Hobby Shop, 30th Ave/ off 36th St., has busy display windows: religious icons on the left, toys on the right. The store was founded in 1939 by Rudy Oest as a candy store, and converted to today’s hobby business in the 1980s by his son-in-law Marvin Cochran. “It is quite probably the only place you can pick up a set of acrylic paints and an H.O.-scale New York Central locomotive and a two-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary.”

The former Loew’s (pronounced incorrectly as Low-ee’s by New Yorkers) Astoria Theatre stretches on 30th Ave., fronting on Steinway St., rear-ing on 38th. The Astoria opened in November 1920 by the Loews’ organization as a 2750-seat, one-screen, one-auditorium venue that, like most theaters of its time, was also home to musical and vaudeville acts. It survived as a theater until fairly recently, closing on December 26, 2001 as the United Artists Astoria Sixplex. Home to a Duane Reade drugstore and a gym chain now, it’s still recognizable as a former theater, with its grand arched entrance and marquee still intact.

One of Queens’ most gorgeous brick churches, St. Joseph’s R.C. Church, 30th Ave. between 43rd and 44th Sts. The church was organized in 1877 when there was a large amount of German Catholics in the region (the Steinways had set up their piano manufacturing plant in Astoria that decade), with the first wooden structure erected in 1880, and the current building with its massive campanile (bell tower) in 1906. Catholic churches seem to build the equivalents of small towns for their parishes, and the church is surrounded by a school rectory and convent.

Many New Yorkers cite 1993’s A Bronx Tale as their favorite movie. Though A Bronx Tale was set in the Arthur Ave. region in the Bronx, many of its exteriors were filmed here on 30th Ave., using vintage buses from the NYC Transit Museum (De Niro’s character in the film was a bus driver). De Niro and Chazz Palminteri felt that because so many older buildings were preserved along this stretch, which is less crowded than Arthur Ave., it’d be a better place to film. Palminteri’s mobster, Sonny’s club “Chez Bippy” was filmed at this corner, 30th Ave. and 44th St.

East of 41st St., 30th Ave. enters the Mathews Zone: several blocks of apartment buildings constructed with yellow bricks from the kilns of Balthazar Kreischer in the far south end of Staten Island and developed by Gustave X. Mathews beginning in 1915.

The Municipal Art Society : “The Mathews Model Flats were built by speculative developer Gustave X. Mathews and designed by Louis Allmendinger in the early part of the 20th Century. Considered to be some of the most innovative housing in the city, these ‘new law’ tenements were designed with more space and better sanitation than their overcrowded 19th Century counterparts. By making use of generous lot sizes, introducing wide air shafts to provide improved air circulation and light quality, including bathrooms in each unit, and limiting the number of apartments per floor, Mathews established a new housing paradigm that was a welcome departure from the congested tenements of the Lower East Side. The three-story apartment buildings were simple, sturdy, and relatively cheap to construct, and therefore became the standard for subsequent tenement house construction. Exhibited at the 1915 Panama Pacific Fair in San Francisco, the Mathews Model Flats were heralded as an exceptional achievement.”

You’ve probably seen some of these painted fire alarms around town. Chances are they’re the work of security guard John Colgan, who has made it his business to “rescue” badly graffitied alarm boxes in the Woodside area since 2015, though I’ve begun to see them elsewhere, like here in eastern LIC.

—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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