Essay: A Thumbnail View
F. Seyfried and Jon A. Peterson
History Department, Queens College/CUNY
of Queens is a massive urban complex with a population
of almost 1.9 million. It occupies a territory that has
passed through all the epochs of the American past. The
original inhabitants, the Native American Indians, gave
way to the Dutch and English in the early 17th century,
leaving little behind except place names and the trails
that became wagon roads, some of them now major streets.
who explored and founded the colony of New Netherland in
the years 1609-1624, initially occupied the southern tip
of Manhattan and developed farms in Brooklyn before settling
the northwestern shore of Long Island along the East River.
Thus, the first known settlement in what is today Queens
did not begin until after 1637 in the Astoria, Hunters
Point, and Dutch Kills area of Long Island City.
settlements began in the 1640s with the approval of the
Dutch government. Some English from New England took up
lands in Maspeth at the headwaters of Newtown Creek in
1642, only to be driven out by Indian attacks the following
year. A more enduring settlement dating from 1652 began
further inland at Newtown, now Elmhurst. Other English
started Flushing in 1645 and still others Jamaica in 1656.
Dutch authorities gave these places Dutch names and a Dutch
form of government. Because Dutch farmers from Brooklyn
settled among the English, Queens became a place of diverse
cultural traditions from its outset. In 1683, nineteen
years after the capture of New Netherland, the London government
divided the New York crown colony, including Long Island
and the Hudson Valley, into ten counties.
way Queens County first emerged as a geographical entity.
Then and for the next 215 years, it existed as a vast territory
embracing not only the present day area of Queens but also
present day Nassau County. The English divided the western
portion of this new county into three units or "towns" Newtown,
Flushing, and Jamaica.
was separated from the other by major terrain features:
Newtown from Flushing by a tidal marsh and estuary, and
both from Jamaica by the terminal moraine ridge that runs
the length of Long Island. Outside of the villages within
these towns, most occupants farmed the land and traveled
over dirt roads or by water. The nation's first census,
in 1790, recorded only 5,393 inhabitants in what is today
of the American Revolution, 1776-1783, disrupted the lives
of every villager and farmer, often dividing neighbors
against one another. Except in Newtown, majority sentiment
strongly favored the British, whose army defeated the American
forces under George Washington at the Battle of Long Island
(fought in Brooklyn) on August 27, 1776. This defeat made
the island, especially the area of present-day Queens,
an excellent, almost completely secure, base for quartering
Washington's defeat Queens endured a seven-year occupation,
leaving behind a ravaged countryside and long memories
of personal hardship. At the end of the occupation, many
pro-British Queens residents fled, fearing retribution
for having collaborated with the enemy. From the final
withdrawal of the British in November, 1783, until the
1830s, Queens continued as an essentially Long Island area
of farms and villages. The location of the county government
in Mineola (in present-day Nassau County) underscores the
island orientation of that era. Population grew hardly
at all, increasing only from 5,791 in 1800 to 7,806 in
1830, suggesting that many younger sons moved away, seeking
fortunes where land was not yet so fully taken up for farming.
But there was another lure.
opening decades of the nineteenth century, New York City
had begun to grow at the extraordinary pace that soon made
it the Empire City of the young Republic. Gradually, this
youthful metropolis and its crossriver rival, Brooklyn,
would exert increasing influence over Queens.
after decade, continuing down into the middle of the twentieth
century, Queens began to absorb an ever-increasing flood
of new settlers. The urbanizing forces that would eventually
overwhelm rural Queens first became apparent in the 1830s.
Population increased by 5,153 in that decade. In 1839 Astoria
became the first village to be officially founded within
Queens since the 17th century. In 1848 Ravenswood along
the East River began as a fashionable residential area,
helping to establish the Gold Coast tradition that would,
over time, move eastward along the north shore of Long
Island through parts of Flushing, Malba, Bayside, and Douglaston
and into Nassau County.
forces became especially conspicuous in the 1850s. In western
Queens, land speculators bought up farms for conversion
to village lots. Maspeth, Corona, Long Island City (Hunters
Point area), and Winfield all started between 1852 and
1854. Western Queens satisfied the leisure needs of both
local and visitor elements, especially at its then well
and Brooklynites also trekked to western Queens to visit
the immense cemeteries foisted upon the county by New York
and Brooklyn religious corporations in response to the
banning in 1848 of burial grounds from lower Manhattan
for health reasons. Manufacturers, seeking rural settings
within reach of New York City, scattered factories more
widely at --Whitestone, Woodhaven, and College Point. Meanwhile,
the Rockaway beaches had begun to attract affluent summer
waves of Irish and German immigration that swept into nearly
all the East Coast cities during the mid-nineteenth century
reached Queens as well. The Irish, displaced by the potato
famine and the acute rural distress of the late 1840s,
settled in Astoria and, to a lesser degree, in Jamaica
and Flushing. Many Germans entered Queens by way of Brooklyn
via Metropolitan and Myrtle Avenues. Middle Village, which
had been English in the 1840s, became almost wholly German
eve of the Civil War, Queens had a population of 30,429.
The Civil War only briefly interrupted this process of
growth. In the quarter century that followed, 1865-1890,
the initial urbanization of western Queens was largely
completed. Glendale in 1868-1869, Richmond Hill in 1869,
and Queens Village in 1871 all got their start. In the
early 1870s, William Steinway, the piano manufacturer,
began production in East Astoria. Creating a manufacturing
village out of farm lands that had survived until then
on either side of what is now upper Steinway Avenue.
the protracted economic depression of the mid-1870s, Ridgewood
boomed as a residential community after the Brooklyn City
Railroad built its car barns there in 1881. The continuing
flow of population out of Brooklyn via Richmond Hill and
Woodhaven led to the creation of Ozone Park in 1882 and
Morris Park in 1884.
of the Myrtle Avenue elevated in 1888 furthered this process,
especially enhancing Ridgewood's appeal as a residential
haven. Elsewhere in Queens, growth was more spotty. Some
large farms in Bayside were converted to building lots
in 1872. South Flushing, between the old village and Kissena
Park, was subdivided the following year. In 1885, Hollis
began as a remote suburb, served by a station stop along
the Long Island Rail Road. Overall population growth appeared
impressive when compared to the prior decades of the century,
expanding from 45,468 in 1870 to 56,559 in 1880, and 87,050
and subdivisions begun in the 1865-1890 years along with
the older centers accommodated the rapid growth of the
early 1890s, before the onset of the depression of 1893-1897.
At the close of the nineteenth century, 152,999 people
were counted for Queens, including Rockaway still a small
number by present standards. The critical development of
this decade was the action of the New York State legislature
establishing the Greater City of New York. By this enactment,
the state consolidated Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island,
the Bronx, and the present-day area of Queens into a single
city of five boroughs, as of January 1, 1898. In a nonbinding
referendum in 1894, the Towns of Jamaica and Newtown and
the City of Long Island City had favored this development,
but the Town of Flushing --along with Brooklyn had opposed
of Queens as a municipal borough did not create, out of
the blue, a Queens identity. As already suggested, the
area had many centers and diverse local traditions, and
much of it still existed as farmland and open terrain.
Furthermore, the new Queens County, which was made coterminous
with the borough, had been severed from its former eastern
territory, which had become Nassau County. The new Queens,
in short, was a political artifact without a real past
in the life of the people.
identities, which were rooted in both the remote as well
as the recent past, still shaped the feelings of place
among Queens residents. Only gradually during the course
of the twentieth century would some consciousness of Queens
as an entity in its own right arise, but never would it
displace the residents' sense of being, first and foremost,
from Maspeth or Howard Beach or some other place.
the people of Queens would become increasingly exposed
to citywide, metropolitan, regional, national, and international
events and population movements, all of which would tend
to mute the intensity of inherited forms of localism while
adding to the diversity and sophistication of the people.
The first decade of the new borough's history continued
the high rate of growth apparent since the Civil War. Much
of this was directly traceable to the sudden expansion
of rapid transit into Queens.
the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the Long Island Rail
Road in 1900, then electrified it through Queens in 1905-1908,
and opened the Penn Tunnels under the East River in 1910,
it brought virtually the whole of Queens within the suburban
commuting zone of Manhattan. Previously, only ferry connections
had made such movement possible. All these moves greatly
inflated land values and stimulated home building.
Queens numbered 284,041 people. Even more crucial to future
development was the opening of the Queensboro Bridge in
1909. This span ended the isolation of the borough's road
system at precisely the time when mass use of the automobile
was getting underway in the United States. Soon, an annually
increasing flood of cars, trolleys, wagons, trucks, and
trains poured over the new structure.
new road system grew up to accommodate the traffic, and
Queens Boulevard, 200 feet wide, was laid out as the main
arterial highway of the new borough. The borough government
also pledged itself to devise a uniform system of street
names and numbers throughout its vast territory but hesitated
to impose it in the face of local resistance.
1915 onward, much of northern and southwestern Queens came
within reach of the New York City subway system, itself
begun in Manhattan in 1904. Interborough service reached
Hunters Point in 1915, Bridge Plaza in 1916, and Astoria
in 1917. Another branch extended along Queens Boulevard
and the newly laid out Roosevelt Avenue, reaching Corona
in 1917 and Flushing in 1928.
Queens, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company built an elevated
line along Liberty Avenue through Ozone Park and Woodhaven
to Richmond Hill in 1915 and along Jamaica Avenue from
the Brooklyn border through Woodhaven and Richmond Hill
to Jamaica during 1917-1918. As all developers and realtors
knew, these massive improvements in transportation, especially
the opening of Queens to five-cent fare service, promised
rapid, indeed explosive growth.
began soon after World War I ended in November, 1918. During
the 1920s, Queens rocketed from 469,042 to 1,079,129, a
growth rate of 130 percent comparable to that experienced
by Nassau County after World War II. The greatest building
boom in the borough's history left behind as its enduring
mark mile after mile of brick and wood frame housing.
the Great Depression of the 1930s ended this boom, growth
of another kind got underway, namely, the buildup of those
facilities that now help to identify Queens as a place
and establish its metropolitan, national, and international
of the Triborough Bridge and Grand Central Parkway from
the Bridge to Kew Gardens in 1936, of Queens College in
1937, and of LaGuardia Airport in 1939 all pointed in these
directions. Even more critical was the World's Fair of
1939-1940, which put the new borough on the national map
for the first time. Massive preparations for the event
began in 1936 and brought about the elimination of the
stupendous Corona dumps -- dubbed the "valley of ashes" by
F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby -- the building
of the Whitestone Bridge, and the widening and boulevarding
of Astoria Boulevard.
the fair site became Flushing Meadows Park (later renamed
Flushing Meadows-Corona Park). After World War II, growth
surged again, leveling off in the early 1960s. Cityblocksize
garden apartments sprouted in many areas of the borough.
The remaining tracts of land in northeastern Queens, including
former golf courses, filled up with singlefamily and attached
housing. In Fresh Meadows, between Flushing and Jamaica,
a complex of highrise apartments built by the New York
Life Insurance Company housed 14,000.
late 1950s and early 1960s, much of central Flushing, once
celebrated for its country-squire atmosphere, was smothered
with four- and five-story apartment buildings, which extended
block after block along many streets. As late as the early
1960s, Queens residents and businessmen could subscribe
to the view that the borough was still booming. In fact,
the great cycle of urban development that had first become
apparent in western Queens in the 1830s had all but ended.
all of Queens today, only one farm survives -- and that
as an historical restoration. Henceforth, all further development
will necessarily involve infilling and upbuilding, deterioration
and replacement, rejuvenation and adaptation, and similar
processes. Queens today is a physically mature urban territory
but also one of intense social dynamism.
than ever, it has become a multiethnic place: the home
of Greeks, Italians, Blacks, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans,
Colombians, Asian Indians, Puerto Ricans, Israelis, Maltese,
and still other groups, many of whose arrivals have been
facilitated by the 1965 national immigration act.
their influx, the borough for the first time in its known
history declined in population between 1970 and 1980 and
then stabilized in the 1980s. This fundamental pattern
reflected deep-seated regional economic trends and was
sufficient confirmation that Queens, as throughout its
three-and-one-half centuries of recorded existence, was
still as anchored in the American experience as it was
in developments conducive to localism.