The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for August 17th, 2009

Astoria zen

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Astoria Matthews Model Flats, 30th avenue and 44th st by you.

Astoria Matthews Model Flats, 31st ave. and 44th street – photo by Mitch Waxman

31st avenue and 44th street is very close to being the apex of an enormous hill which is buried deep below the masonry of modern Astoria. 1 block from the ancient pavings of Newtown Road, which knew British and Hessian armies- and later carried an iron ribbon of Trolley Tracks, and is 2 blocks from Broadway.

31st avenue was, in gentler times, called Jamaica Avenue and 44th street was called 14th avenue. Broadway and 30th (Grand) avenue nearby are the main commercial strips. 

Now, I’m taking a shortcut today, and will refer you to Forgotten-NY’s page on the Street Name Necrology of Astoria rather than try to explain the whole affair, as it confuses me, and they are brilliant and own an encyclopedic collection of old maps. 

This is an interesting neighborhood, and it is where our Newtown Pentacle is headquartered. 44th street between 30th and 31st avenues is bookended by 1928 vintage Matthews Model flats– “model new law tenements” which fill nearly half of the block in an unbroken line of Kreischer yellow brick. There are 6 units in each building, with the 4 story bookends on each corner. It is a working class section of the ancient village, and it always has been. The surrounding blocks were farms as late as the early 20th century, and despite a long period of abuse and neglect beginning in the late 1950’s the current property owners are performing careful maintenance on these historic structures.

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44th street between Newtown Road and Broadway – photo by Mitch Waxman

As you walk down the hill toward Northern Blvd., which is actually a striking drop in elevation for so short a space, the building stock becomes typical of the early 20th century. Enormous, well designed apartment houses line 44th street beginning at Newtown Road- giving way on the Broadway intersection to 3 and then 2 family houses with garages. One or two relict examples of the federal style townhouse, so popular in Long Island City, incongruously continue to stand in centuried glory beneath the burning eye of the Newtown sun.

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LIC Turn Verein detail – photo by Mitch Waxman

After the civil war, Long Island City incorporated and became a haven for heavy industry and mechanized production in the Hunters Point, Dutch Kills, and Ravenswood neighborhoods. Astoria developed along the lines of a bedroom community, with the exception of the Steinway factory on the North side. 

The huge populations that teemed into New York from European origins in the 19th century, to serve as labor in the new factories, often arrived in tsunami waves of a single ethnicity- resulting in the classic perception of “the XXX’s are taking over!”, followed by the next generation of the “XXX’s” declaring “the YYY’s are taking over!”.

A teacher of mine at college was a genius named Will Eisner, and he did a novel on this phenomena called “Dropsie Avenue” about his old block in the Bronx. If you dig this blog, you will LOVE Dropsie Avenue, available at amazon and other places.

In 1875, Astoria was a German town. Deutche was spoken on the streets, taught in schools, and the population of the area read newspapers shipped in from Vienna and Berlin. They were very much in tune with a radical new political theorem called trade-unionism, which promised to unite the workers of the world against the decaying masters of the middle ages- the aristocracy- and a new menace to the working man called the Industrialist. They also believed that mankind could be bettered and brought into communion with god- by exercise and good diet and education and abstention from the sins of the industrial world. 

One must comment on what must have been going through the minds of these people- the whole world was at war, the greatest empire ever known was crumbling, and an antichrist (himself a Turner) had crowned himself emperor of France. And here they were, in post civil war New York City, safe as houses.

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LIC Turn Verein detail – photo by Mitch Waxman

So, these Germans built a Turn Verein in Long Island City, on the corner of Broadway and 14th avenue (44th street) near Schuetzen Park, to better mankind through the example of Physical Culture.

The structure currently serves as a catering hall for the Chian Federation, a local Greek ethnic society (island of chios). There are some surprising events here at times. Last winter, for instance, a high ranking member of either the Pakistani or Bangladeshi government held a rally here and was feted amongst the expatriate communities who emigrated into the neighborhood. Mostly, it just seems to do private parties and neighborhood events. This represents two more demographic shifts in Astoria, one finishing up and one just beginning

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LIC Turn Verein detail – photo by Mitch Waxman

The “Turners’, as they call themselves, are still around- here’s their website, and the Newtown Pentacle is pleased to let them tell their own story.

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LIC Turn Verein detail – photo by Mitch Waxman

These folks are the inheritors of a genteel middle class society, industrial workers who were considered skilled craftsmen. Known world wide for their skills in working metals and wood alike, the Germans of the 19th century were recruited in large numbers to come to New York, and they were glad to leave behind the catastrophic events which were in living memory of these new Americans. The concept of the coming “fin de siècle” was very much in their minds. It’s part of the reason behind the 19th century religious revival movement, suffrage (New York allowed women to vote in 1917), anti-slavery, and temperance movements all were at their apogee in the final years of the 1900’s. The 20th century is all “-ism’s” in the same way the 19th century is all “movements”, and the 21st seems to be about the “-ists”. 

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44th street between Northern Blvd. and 34th avenue- photo by Mitch Waxman

Leaving the 19th century, and heading south toward Northern Blvd. the neighborhood suddenly turns a bit seedy, and at night- queer groups of adolescent troublemakers congress with baser elements of Astoria’s underworld in the desolate shadows of sodium light. That’s the west side of the street, though, and on the east- you’ll find some lovely typography adorning the cavernous garage that serves Major Auto World.

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Northern Blvd, 44th st., 35th avenue intersection- photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking to your right, you’ll see the Citbank megalith, and Manhattan hidden behind that white sign on the right hand side. We’re not going this way, just reminding you- gentle reader- to look both ways before you cross. Northern Blvd. is more properly described as a six lane highway which is a primary artery connecting vehicle traffic in western Queens with Manhattan via the Queensborough Bridge and the highways leading eastward to Long Island which intersect it on the north shore of Queens. It also serves as a shortcut route to LaGuardia airport for knowledgeable taxi drivers.

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Northern Blvd at 44th street, south side- photo by Mitch Waxman

Directly in front of you will be the major world entrance. If you’re an automotive enthusiast, buy a hot dog and go shopping, they have a LOT of used cars.

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Northern Blvd at 44th street, looking east- photo by Mitch Waxman

From the appearance of the automobile, this section of Northern Blvd., formerly the Trolley car thoroughfare called Jackson Ave.– and before that the Jackson… oh no…

…alright, here we go-

John C. Jackson was president of the Hunters Point, Newtown and Flushing Turnpike Company, which built Jackson Avenue as a toll road. It allowed ships from Long Island Sound to drop their cargo on the North Shore of Queens, allowing them to avoid the dangerous and crowded East River and Hells Gate- and the infamously criminal controlled docks of Long Island City and Manhattan. Cargo traffic was first transported by mule barge, then wagon team, and eventually electrified Trolleys and automotive vehicles. It also connected the isolated villages of the north shore of Queens with the economic superpowers of the East River metroplex and the world beyond through the Port of New York. It is precisely the freight that the Long Island Railroad was originally sited to carry.

in 1921, Jackson ave. was renamed Northern Blvd., which fit the rational, progressive, and scientific spirit of a world recovering from the shattering horror of the Great War

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Northern Blvd at 45th street, looking east- photo by Mitch Waxman

I first noticed this place a few years ago. It is very well wrought, and has the appearance of a hollywood set piece. I’ve been looking around for quite a while, and scrounging through the usual sources, but I kept on coming up blank on the history of this place. Were I not such an awkward and contentious being, I would have considered calling the realtor advertising the edifice as available. You may have noted my preferences in referential hyperlinking to public information, as I subscribe to the Cory Doctorow theorem that “information WANTS to be free”, but in this case, I need to refer you to copyrighted materials.

Luckily, the footsteps I take around the Newtown Pentacle have been walked by others with an eye for the strange- the antiquarian- the hidden.

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Northern Blvd at 45th street, Packard building- photo by Mitch Waxman

A significant resource to the amateur antiquarian here in the Newtown Pentacle is the Greater Astoria Historical Society, the officers of which hold the key to vast archives of historical artifacts and esoteric knowledge. Close examination of their publications, and websites, revealed an identity for this enigmatic holdout from the early 20th century.

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Northern Blvd at 45th street, Packard building- photo by Mitch Waxman

This was a Packard dealership in 1929.

Packard Automobiles – from wikipedia

Packard was an American luxury automobile marque built by the Packard Motor Car Company of Detroit, Michigan, and later by the Studebaker-Packard Corporation of South Bend, Indiana. The first Packard automobiles were produced in 1899 and the last in 1958.

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Northern Blvd between 45th and 46th streets, Packard building- photo by Mitch Waxman

The building currently houses a series of shops and small offices, and is carved up into small spaces. The GAHS photo below shows the structure in its heyday of 1929, as a two level automotive showroom. Amazing- I love Astoria. 

Check out this link to the Greater Astoria Historical Society’s smugmug page– this is the same building, in 1923.

I cannot recommend highly enough the purchase of their excellent Long Island City book.

astoriahistory > Long Island City photo

We’re plunging into a new photowalk, Lords and Ladies of Newtown, from Astoria to Calvary. This has been part one.

Written by Mitch Waxman

August 17, 2009 at 4:16 pm

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