Some years ago, if I was told that I could travel 15-20 minutes out of Manhattan and find myself in a bucolic Tudor-revival village, I’d have dismissed the idea as a greatly distorted exaggeration. But there I indeed found myself on a grey, blustery mid-November evening. I was on the hunt for my first NYC apartment and, so stunned by the neighborhood, took a place in the “Forest Hills Inn” with barely a second thought.
The bricked facade of the Inn’s tower rises to a round knob, somewhat reminiscent of the dome of the Florence Cathedral, and the building is connected to its neighbors via breezeways perched atop arches. It’s across from a Long Island Railroad station, which is designed in the same Tudor style as the apartments that circle it. As the name suggests, my new home was once a hotel – the lobby is all dark-stained wood and conjures a rustic formality. Add a few animal-head trophies and Theodore Roosevelt might seem quite at home here. (In fact, in 1917 TR gave a speech across the square on the steps of the rail station, and may have indeed set foot in this lobby). There is a sealed door marked “Bar Room” in faint gilded letters, and the check-in counter has been converted into a real estate office. A modest wooden staircase curves up to the “guest floors”, or one can take the ancient two-doored elevator, in front of which, in a glass case, is displayed luggage supposedly belonging to Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. As a young musician and artist very much allured to the bohemian resonance of old New York hotels, I was immediately sold. That it was, by far, the best deal I’d found on the infamous NY rental market was all the more thrilling.
And so I checked in, semi-permanently, into the Forest Hills Inn. My modest studio was most certainly a converted hotel room – some household utility sheds are larger, and the kitchen was essentially installed inside a closet. But, the golden beige walls and deep purple curtains offset any chance of crampedness entering my head – especially when I could quickly escape to Manhattan or shop for basically anything within a five minute walk.
The three blocks that run from the subway station to the Inn cross through two entirely different ways of looking at urbanity. The contrast was always jarring, and often even baffling to my firsttime guests. The streets around the subway are a crossroads of hectic commerce – chain stores, fast food, restaurants, halal carts, delis, bagel shops, traffic… That condensation of suburban-esque commerce that you see sometimes in central Queens. But go past the McDonalds and Boston Market and under the train trestle, and you’re instantly in a different world. The gothic/Tudor tower of the Inn appears suddenly before you, and beyond, spread streets upon streets of what looks to be an English countryside village. “Like entering ‘Hobbitville'” is how one friend of mine aptly put it.
“The Gardens” was one of the first planned urban neighborhoods in America. With expanding population and more efficient transit, people began to move from the confines of Manhattan into the wide rural tracts of the outer boroughs. Around the turn of the 20th century, at the height of the Progressive era, there was a developing concept of urban planning, originating in Britain, called the “Garden city movement”. The idea was to alleviate the incredible overcrowding and filth of a city’s working-class districts by building attractive and uncongested low-cost housing in a sort of greenbelt along the urban fringes. In 1909, the Russell Sage Foundation, a group founded by wealthy Manhattan notables, began construction on the Forest Hills Gardens development; landscaping was handled by Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. – son of the famed designer of Central Park. The foundation’s mission was “the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States”, and the neighborhood, now home to 4,500 residents, was meant to be (and still is) a refuge from the city, a place where people could reconnect with a way of life lost in the grime of the Industrial era. As such, the Gardens was aimed to attract New York’s working and middle classes. While the mission was noble, over time the architectural splendor and impeccable landscaping of the neighborhood meant that property values quickly became cost-prohibitive to the target market.
Most of the neighborhood consists of single family houses, and a handful of apartment buildings, all impossibly attractive. Everything is privately owned, including the streets. Through-traffic is permitted, but by a quirk of NYC law, the streets must be closed at least 8 hours on one day of the year in order to remain privately owned. (Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan must also follow this odd procedure.) The “Forest Hills Gardens Corporation” maintains public areas, and architectural changes may only be carried out with the Corporation’s permission in order to preserve the neighborhood’s character.
As the suitcases of Sinatra and Marilyn displayed at the Inn attest, there was once a time when the area attracted much more outside attention. The now unused stadium at the exclusive West Side Tennis Club was, until 1977, the home of the U.S. Open; and was a major concert venue during the 1960’s, playing host to the likes of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Mathis, the Monkees, and of course, Simon and Garfunkel, who grew up mere blocks away in Forest Hills proper. The stadium appears in the 2001 film “The Royal Tannenbaums” as the place where Richie Tannenbaum’s illustrious tennis career comes to a painful end; and is where Don Draper attends a Rolling Stones concert in the third season of the mini-series”Mad Men” – (http://gothamist.com/2012/04/02/the_rolling_stones_at_forest_hills.php) (link includes photos of the real concert)
These golden years are gone, and the tea garden hidden behind the Inn that once hosted celebrities and weddings is now a crumbling patch of slate. But not much else has changed. Houses here have now been in the same families for generations, and residents (rightfully) possess a gushing pride. The only reason I moved out was because I was getting married and a bigger place was out of my price range. However, I still visit from time to time, and though I’d walked the same streets time and time again, I am always taken with its beauty, and marvel at its closeness to Manhattan, and the hectic commerce of central Queens.
The New York City Landmarks Commission, which has done a lot of good for the preservation of important sites across the city, is woefully negligent of Queens. Despite its architectural uniqueness and innovation in city planning, the neighborhood, including the magnificent Forest Hills Inn, has yet to come under its protection. Even more glaringly, the disused stadium which once drew international sporting and musical attention has also failed to be protected. But this is an issue for another article…..
In the meantime, for more about the Gardens, including some great old photos, visit: http://regoforestpreservation.blogspot.com/
My camera leaves home everytime I do – Which makes for a lot of pictures to sift through. Here are 6 of my favorites from September, 2012:
Hidden away only 5 miles or so from the I-95 artery of the East Coast, the small town of New Castle, Delaware (pop. ~ 5000) has more colonial buildings packed into it than any other American town I know of. Not a single structure within the historic center seems to have been put up after the 19th century, and never have I seen so many pre-Revolution buildings so immaculately intact in one area. The only things in town that look of this century are the cars and the people. Most of the streets retain their original paving stones, and especially since it’s such a quiet place, it really is easy to forget Modernity..
What is best about New Castle, though, is that it’s an actual town and not a museum piece as many other colonial areas have become. Regular families inhabit the centuries-old houses, and people still frequent pubs that have remained largely unchanged since the 18th century. One can still visit the house where, in around 1680, William Penn supposedly spent his first night in America, the homes of two signers of the Declaration of Independence, a house where the Marquis de Lafayette attended a wedding, and the modest 1832 ticket booth for the New Castle-Frenchtown Railroad, which was the 2nd railroad built in the United States.
Founded by the Dutch West India Company’s Peter Stuyvesant (whose more famous post was that of governor of New Amsterdam), its strategic location on the Delaware River meant that it changed hands a number of times in its early days- the main players, of course, were the Dutch and the English, but surprisingly it was also controlled for some time by the Swedish, who once held a bit of sway in this region. In fact, the Old Courthouse, built in 1732 (and one of the oldest still standing in the country) still flies the Swedish flag. Its situation and initial influence had New Castle poised to become a city of some significance. However, despite having one of the first railroads, sometime around the mid 19th century, the main freight routes shifted to Wilmington and the town stopped completely in its tracks. It failed to keep up with industrialization and missed the train, so to speak-
And this is where the town just froze in time. A more upward moving town would have destroyed its old buildings as it marched into the modern age. A town with less initial influence and history would have receded into poverty. New Castle, however, just stayed right where it was, and largely remains there today, even as millions of travelers on the highways bypass it by with only miles to spare, completely unaware.
Looming over Lower Manhattan on Broadway, near Wall St., 1915’s Equitable Building symbolizes a turning-point in high-rise construction and urban zoning.
Incredibly, the New York skyscraper was born on the narrow 17th century streets of Lower Manhattan. As each new tower went up around the turn of last century, more and more sunlight became obscured from the ground- much to the horror of citizens who were grappling with this type of architectural scale for the first time in history. To this day, in fact, some streets here have not seen direct sun in a century.
The Equitable Building so obscured Broadway that a public outcry resulted in changes in zoning law which required tall buildings to have setbacks. This helped usher in the sleek, “pointy tower” Art Deco era of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings.
Incidentally, the Equitable Building contained more office space than any other building in the world until the opening of the Empire State in 1931.
Today, June 24, is La Fête nationale du Québec . This is for a place and culture I love very much:
Old Montréal is a glorious architectural melange. Ruins of the 17th century Ville-Marie colony mingle with the stone walls, baroque churches and houses of the 18th century mingle with the warehouses and pantheonic bankhouses of the early industrial era. Punctuated throughout, especially further from the river, are the Art Deco office blocks and modernist towers of the 20th century.
Much like in Lower Manhattan, Old San Juan, Boston, New Orleans, and other colonial centers, the streets here still adhere to their original narrow, meandering, and twisted natures.
Every colony of the new world was unique- isolated outposts on the fringes of the European world- each adapting in their own ways to these alien lands. Today, they remain unique.
If Boston and Baltimore are red brick and New Orleans and San Juan are bright pastel color, Montreal is grey stone. And if New England and Philadelphia could be said on basic levels to have been founded on Puritanism and its relatives, and New York and New Orleans on commerce and trade, Montreal might be said to have, at its very basic roots, a mixture of Catholicism and business.
Like any other city, it grew up and took on many different shades and forms in its course, while always feeling the echos of its origins.
History in Montréal is felt strongly and with pride – and I always love that in a place.
Bruges (Brugge in Dutch) is a gem of a museum piece- almost miraculously so. It rose early enough to create its own prosperity and identity before most other cities in Northern Europe, and it faded soon enough to escape the cataclysms of the Reformation and Industrial eras.
– Bruges built its fortune upon the trade and processing of wool products from England and Scotland, and upon goods from the continental interior. By the late 1100’s, ships began arriving in the city’s Zwin River from as far as the Hanseatic League and Venice with goods from as far as the Middle East and Russia. Trade was conducted along the canals, and Bruges quickly became arguably the most important port in Europe. This complex trade led to the development of more sophisticated financial systems, and in 1309, Bruges opened what was possibly the world’s first stock exchange.
Such was the city’s prosperity that when the queen of France visited in 1301 she is quoted as saying: “I thought I alone was queen, but I see that I have 600 rivals here”. Bruges’ richness also helped develop the earliest artists of the Northern Renaissance, most notably Jan van Eyck.
Only a year later, the French garrisoned an army in the city to settle a dispute among the ruling and merchant classes, and on the night of May 18 a revolt against French rule began with the “Bruges Matins”, in which a mob filled the streets killing anyone who could not properly pronounce the Dutch phrase: “schild en vriend” (supposedly difficult to pronounce for a French speaker). Almost the entire French population (estimated at 2,000) was massacred. Over the next few years, local militias throughout Flanders drove the French out, thus permanently cementing the city in Dutch/Flemish culture.
At its peak, Bruges had a population of 200,000, and by many accounts was the second largest city in Europe after Paris. The miraculousness of Brugge as a “museum piece”, however, comes from its precipitous decline. Around 1500, by one of the many whims of the North Sea, the Zwin River began to silt up. Lacking its lifeblood, the city fell into obscurity as business moved to Brussels, Ghent, and Antwerp.
It became a forgotten city, Die tote Stadt of Korngold’s 20th century opera. Its dormancy, however, was its preservation. Hardly, if any, Baroque, Classical, or 19th century developments ever touched this town. In the past century, however, Bruges has picked up speed again, this time due to tourism.
The result- a pretty much intact medieval city, not terribly different from its original state. As such, it draws its requisite tourists, and can be seen at times a sort of historical theme park (but thankfully without much of the commercialization).
To walk its streets is surreal. A fever dream of sorts. The real magic is at night, when the daytrippers disappear, and the few tourists that are left hole up with locals at the bar or sit in the Grote Markt listening to the ethereal and ornate rings from the bell tower. The ancient streets then are dead quiet, the canals still, and one can feel the ghosts rising.
Heilig-Bloedbasiliek/Basilica of the Holy Blod
This is a place of wonder. In 1150, Thierry of Alsace returned from the 2nd Crusade with what is supposed to be the blood of Christ. This church was completed in 1157 to house the relic which has been encased in the same glass cylinder ever since. At one point during the Middle Ages, the pope granted indulgences to those who made a pilgrimage here.
Within, there is a rainbow lit chapel. There is a line of people who have come to see the Holy Blood; all for various reasons. There are the sight-seers, and those with the utmost of reverence. At your turn, you walk up the red steps, make a small donation for the upkeep of the church, and then kiss or touch the glass, which is being watched over by a statuesque priest. Within the glass there appears to be a bloody wrapping of gauze.
This has been happening for 900 years. And that fact alone is a piece of awe.