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Unforgotten: The Landlord's Eagle, and Other Discoveries

It's not every day that Kevin Walsh, friend and intrepid author/webmaster of Forgotten New York, takes his band of urban-ephemera obsessives on a tour of one's own childhood stomping ground. So it was that, on a summer Sunday at sunset (sufferin' succotash!), we were traipsing along leafy streets on a Forgotten Tour of Little Neck.

Astute followers of the CrazyStable may recall that I have forgotten very little about my semi-idyllic upbringing in this most suburban corner of Queens. Awhile back, I recounted my Proustian home-renovation memories of life in this comfortable hilly enclave (along with my horrified discovery of mass McMansionizing) in "Return to the Ur-Stable" and "Ur-Stable II: There Goes the Neighborhood."    Last night, I had the uncanny experience of seeing my familiar-yet-utterly-changed byways through fresh eyes, and looking several centuries further back than the Kennedy Administration during which we moved there. Under Kevin's guidance, we visited the tomb of the Last Matinecock at Zion Episcopal Church, a solemn split rock upon which my Brownie troop and I disported ourselves most disrespectfully. In the same graveyard, as the setting sun gilded the 1830 white church, we visited the leaf-twined monument of the appallingly prolific Bloodgood Cutter, an indefatigable local poet who managed to incur the personal scorn of Mark Twain. (Good to know I am not the only obscure yet undeterred literary light to flicker from the swamps of Little Neck.) We found several tiny alleyways off Northern Boulevard, where ancient cottages are being turned into--yes--McMansions, bloated piles of brick glowering down lanes too narrow for sidewalks.

As we passed countless new businesses--Korean restaurants, meat markets, nail parlors, and other hallmarks of the area's whiplash-fast demographic change--I conducted my own internal "unforgotten" tour. Here, before the garish McDonald's on Marathon Parkway, stood the Revolutionary-War era steepled church that was razed without a peep of protest. (Not from me, certainly--I relished the novelty of these strange new fries and burgers.) There once stood Virginia Variety, a tiny store with scuffed old wooden bins full of plastic toys for a nickel, dime or quarter. Now a car dealership, there, opposite my old school, stood a Howard Johnson's, where my grade-schooler's notion of gourmet cuisine was the All-You-Can-Eat clam strips night. (Tuesdays, if memory served, and a rare treat in our cash-strapped household.) Gone, too, was the Carvel where the fast teenagers hung out in the parking lot, and the Irish gift store with its Connemara marble and lace, and the Bohack's where I pined for the canned snails in the "gourmet" section. (My wise mother said yes to clam strips but no to snails.)

The Forgotteners' mission, however, was to find the remnants of the past that have survived. One was the shingled corner real-estate office of our family's Daddy Warbucks-like landlord, Bryce Rea; LNbankLS.JPGbut what I never knew is that Rea co-founded Little Neck's first bank, along with the descendants of some of the area's original white settlers! It so figures. "His" bank, now a Chase Manhattan, still stands at the corner of Northern Blvd. and Little Neck Parkway, adorned with a suitably oppressive and wealthy-looking eagle. LNbankeagle.JPG

We parted from the tour before they penetrated deeper into the past in Douglaston Manor, the adjacent neighborhood on the bay where the rich kids lived.  The tour briefly skirted Browvale Lane, but not my block at the crest of the hill. Good thing, too--if I'd had to pass my old house, I would've been reduced to sputtering fits.

We checked up on the Ur-Stable before the tour. The house itself is in gorgeous condition, brought back to one-family gracious perfection from the shambles it was when we moved there as tenants in an illegal 5-family conversion.  LN5222.JPGBut all around it...my God! What a heartbreaking catalog of the worst transformations that can be wrought by affluence. Every single house across the street, a row of at least four, has been torn down and replaced by vulgar, gaudy bloaters. Below are two. LNbloater1.JPG


This was a fine old white colonial corner home that once belonged to the kiddie-TV host Sandy Becker.

And this was my friend Elizabeth's Tudor house, a tear-down site on my last visit and now an ill-proportioned brick fortress. LNbloater2.JPG

Saddest of all, on my last visit, was the utter absence of kids (or indeed, anyone except landscaping crews) from the tree-lined streets. But it was winter then, and I'd hoped that a summer twilight might coax out some of these poor hidden children of affluence from their air-conditioned, wide-screen-equipped cocoons (presuming such children even exist within the bloaters' vast walls and Palladian windows). My hopes were dashed; Browvale Lane stood empty in the shifting, tender emerald light of an August evening. No sound of bat meeting ball, of bike bell ringing, of ice cream truck jingling, pool splashing, Dad listening to a game, Mom calling in to a deliciously late vacation bedtime.  Just...silence, except for the wistful songs of a robin and a dove...because on Sundays, presumably, the day laborers who trim these tortured hedges get their day off.  Here is the empty street that, 40 years ago, was the playground to the blessed children of the Baby Boom. LNemptystreets.JPG

If only there were a Forgotteners Tour that could find traces of our very lives and souls, little shreds of holographic memory in the bend of a lane or the branch of a tree! A tour that would touch the way it felt to stay out with the fireflies until dark, or slam a screen door, or smell the grass your father just mowed or the grill he was lighting up. What will these new residents of Little Neck remember fondly from their time there, I wonder? Ah well...thanks be to Kevin for a wonderful evening back in time.

Posted on Monday, August 6, 2007 at 12:55PM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | Comments8 Comments

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Reader Comments (8)

Yup, I remember my boomer childhood (b.1951) in SI with the neighbors, all refugees from Bklyn but still with Bklyn habits, sitting on the stoops of one of the cookie cutter cape cods with the other dads and moms in lawn chairs, shooting the breeze while us kids ran up and down the block in and out of the shadows of trees cast by the streetlights. What fun. AC kinda put the kabosh on that. Like you, I feel sorry for the kids now.

Now I live in North Fresh Meadows and I'm very familiar with your old neighborhood. My sister-in-law is closing on a house in Douglaston Manor today, still with no sewers(septic tanks,), I guess to really make sure no apartments will ever be built. I don't think they trust that the zoning will be preserved. That bank bldg you mentioned meant to evoke confidence in the institution's fiscal sobriety always reminded me of what you'd see on a small town Main St.

Thanks for the idyllic reminiscences of a 50's childhood. One think you forgot--the old Patrick's Pub on Northern Blvd, seemingly there forever serving their great Sunday brunches and now gone.

August 8, 2007 at 06:51PM | Unregistered Commentercarolyn
Yeah, Patrick's Pub! I was sorry to learn it, too, was gone. That was a Sixties childhood, by the way--which segue'd into adolescence spent in Fresh Meadows! (199th St. and 73rd Aves.) Interesting point about Douglaston and the sewers!
August 8, 2007 at 10:25PM | Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn
Let me guess--High school at St Francis Prep or Francis Lewis?
August 9, 2007 at 09:19AM | Unregistered Commentercarolyn
No, Carolyn--'THE' Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica Estates. By then we'd moved to Fresh Meadows, so the commute was do-able. Besides, all my tormentors from St. Anastasia in Little Neck went to Reilly/Prep; Mary Louis was like entering the Witness Protection Program.
August 9, 2007 at 12:35PM | Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn
I found your site while researching for nostalgia on Little Neck, where I grew up in the 70s and this entry brought me to tears! I heard from a friend who still lives there about the McMansions. I can't bring myself to go back to see if my old house was torn down (we live in Huntington now). I winced hearing that Patricks' Pub, Virginia Variety, and so many other cherished places of my childhood are gone. My family went to Zion Church which thank goodness has not been torn down. On a (somewhat) lighter note, I seriously think that the sheer horribleness of those houses should win some type of Horrific Architecture award. What an ugly display of wealth!
September 17, 2007 at 03:54PM | Unregistered CommenterStacey
I enjoyed your walk down memory lane, Little Neck. I grew up in Nassau County but frequented Northern Blvd in Little Neck. My dad, Oscar (or "Dick" as most people knew him) was the proprietor of Virginia Variety....the mom and pop store across from Scobee Grill. He loved that town, Little Neck. And whenever I'm in NY, I visit Northern Blvd.....and remember Patrick's Pub, Drobbins clothing store, Scobee (I can't believe it closed 2 years ago), and Virginia Variety. My dad retired and moved to San Diego to be near his two sons in 1991. He died in 1999 at nearly 80 years old. "Little Neck" and "Virginia Variety" are written on his tomb stone.
October 10, 2012 at 11:32PM | Unregistered Commenterdoug levey
If I knew where his tombstone was I'd stop by and say thanks and leave a Pennsy Pinkie or a slingshot as a memento. I grew up going to your Dad's store and buying those and other treasures, and I remember him as being quite a nice guy.
March 12, 2013 at 07:54PM | Unregistered CommenterLaura
Thank you for an evocative post. I grew up in the same neighborhood at the same time. What a wonderful world it was for kids. I delivered the Long Island Press newspaper to Browvale Lane in 1962--64. Loved the view of the bridges twinkling on winter Sunday mornings at 4 a.m. from the heights of the hills in the area. My family still lives in Douglaston, and I come back to visit a few times a year. It is depressing to see so many homes demolished to build ugly brick mansions that have no aesthetic style, no grace, no soul, and no green space (we called them "yards") around them. Apparently, these monstrous houses are built to maximize interior space by building out to the absolute minimum setbacks required by zoning laws. That's why you don't see kids playing outside -- no room for them to play.
October 26, 2015 at 11:09PM | Unregistered CommenterDoug from Douglaston

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