May 17, 2023, 06:27AM

The Great Plains of Queens

Queens and Kissena Corridor Park, built in the summer of 2012.

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After spending my first 35 years in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, I moved to Queens in 1993, in that gray area on the borders of Flushing, Auburndale and Fresh Meadows. My home park, Kissena, was a couple of blocks away. When bicycling in the area I was in awe of how wide open everything was. Bay Ridge was crowded and congested in comparison to eastern Queens, with its wide roads and surfeit of stoplights. It was a revelation for a bicyclist, especially when I discovered the extant section of the Long Island Motor Parkway, one of the first express auto routes built by William Kissam Vanderbilt in the early-20th Century.

Kissena Corridor Park in the summer of 2012, an unusually-shaped park that cuts as a diagonal athwart the Flushing-Fresh Meadows street grid. I know why it does, but I’ll mention it later.

Peck Ave. runs along the south end of the Queens Botanical Garden for a couple of blocks. It’s an unusual avenue in eastern Queens, as it runs through Flushing, Fresh Meadows, and Hollis Hills in five different sections; in its longest section, it runs south of Corridor Park, while Underhill Ave. runs along the north. At one time, Peck and Underhill were mapped out to the Nassau County line along the route of the Long Island Motor Parkway, but were never built that far.

Peck Ave. is named for longtime Flushing resident and property owner Isaac Peck (1824-1894). He owned a department store in College Point for many years. Members of the Peck family are buried in St. George Churchyard on Main St. in downtown Flushing.

Utopia Parkway is a major north-south Queens route, running from the East River in Whitestone south to Grand Central Parkway in Jamaica Estates, where it becomes Homelawn St. It’s named for a real estate development that never panned out. The Utopia Land Company planned to construct an expansive cooperative community for Jewish residents of the Lower East Side on 50 acres of land east of 164th St. between Jamaica and Flushing. The land was obtained in 1905, at which time the company acquired a $9000 mortgage to grade streets and divide the land into lots. When the Utopia Land Company found itself unable to secure additional funding, the project was abandoned. While the dream of the development faded, the project’s name was remembered, providing a name for Utopia Parkway. The community, in turn, took its name from an ideal island in a 1516 fictional work by Sir Thomas More.

Kissena Park’s main entrance is at Oak Ave. and 160th St. The park’s situated on the former plant nursery grounds of Samuel Bowne Parsons, and contains the last remnants of their plant businesses. Parsons Blvd. is the road built in the 1870s that connected Parsons’ farm with that of Robert Bowne. A natural body of water fed by springs connecting to the Flushing River was named Kissena by Parsons, and is likely the only Chippewa (a Michigan tribe) place name in New York State. Parsons, a Native-American enthusiast, used the Chippewa term for “cool water” or “it is cold.” After Samuel Parsons died in 1906 the family sold part of the plant nursery to NYC, which then developed Kissena Park, and the other part to developers Paris-MacDougal, which developed the area north of the park. Kissena Park attained its present size in 1927. Much of its southern end remains wilderness, with hiking trails running through it. They formerly were bridle paths, but Kissena Park’s stables closed about a decade ago.

Though I’d lived a few blocks away for 14 years and visited Kissena Park frequently I never noticed this World War I tribute called Memorial Knoll, a boulder inscribed with the words “to those who gave their lives for their country in the world war.”

According to NYC Parks, the six-ton granite boulder, Flushing’s first memorial to what was then known as the Great War, was dedicated June 5, 1921, and unveiled by Boy Scouts in front of a crowd estimated at several hundred and a delegation that included a band from Fort Totten and representatives from American Legion posts and religious organizations. The boulder itself was unearthed during the construction of the golf house at the Flushing Country Club on Jamaica Ave. and its inscription was carved by local stoneworkers Prowse & Sugden. Most of the $275 cost of the memorial by the Flushing United Association was spent on moving the boulder.

The Korean War, in which US forces defended South Korea against invasion from North Korean Communist forces from 1950 to 1953, is known in some quarters as “the Forgotten War,” perhaps because Americans were understandably war-weary in the early-1950s, just a few years after World war II ended and were loath to celebrate a conflict that ended in stalemate. Still, the Korean War never produced the fevered opposition to the USA’s involvement that the Vietnam and the later Gulf Wars have. It has also produced relatively few memorials.

The borough of Queens has tried to rectify this with the 2007 installation of a Korean War memorial in Kissena Park. The bronze memorial was sculpted by William Crozier and depicts a solitary soldier carrying a rifle, heavily coated in the cold Korean winter. The apex of the memorial pedestal shows five soldiers carrying a stretcher, scaling mountainous terrain.

On the rear of the pedestal are inscribed the names of all 172 Queens soldiers who died during the conflict, and the names of persons and groups supporting the project. The Korean War Veterans Memorial Association and then-City Councilman John Liu assisted in assembling the funds necessary for the plaza, while the South Korean government, New York State and private donations raised funds for the sculpture in 2007. The memorial is accessible by entering Kissena Park at Rose Ave. and Parsons Blvd. and walking about 100 yards straight ahead. It’s a solemn location in what’s largely a quiet oasis in eastern Flushing.

I mentioned that Kissena Park Corridor clashes diagonally through the street grid. The reason for that is the corridor runs on the right-of-way of a long-abandoned railroad, the Central Railroad of Long Island, built by Scottish immigrant and department store magnate Alexander T. Stewart in 1872 as a means to connect western Queens with a new development of his, Garden City. The railroad was a financial failure and survived just a few years, yet the railroad, built 140 years ago in 2012, remains as a park, which matches its fate with that of the High Line on the west side of Manhattan.

—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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