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; but 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.
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. But 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.
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.
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.
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.