Fresh Meadows Revisited

by

03/04/2001

6506 Fresh Meadow LN, Fresh Meadows, NY

Neighborhood: Outer Boroughs, Queens

In 1949 I arrived, aged seven, at the threshold of P.S. 26 in Fresh Meadows (Queens), and saw there, graven in the imposing door frame above, the words: Rufus King Public School.

Who, I wondered, was Rufus King?

It was quite likely my first historical query, though I wouldn’t have been able to conceptualize what I was experiencing in that way. The question did not, however, keep me awake nights, and since (as I dimly recall) no one else knew or cared in the slightest, I let slip this first opportunity for plunging into historical research and thought no more about Rufus King, whoever he was.

Indeed, it was not until I got to graduate school that I actually got around to looking Rufus King up. His turned out to be rather a fascinating story, and not because of all the official things he did (and got schools named after him for): Signer of the Constitution, presidential candidate, and so forth. King arrived in New York City shortly after the Revolution, from Massachusetts (on whose behalf he had Signed), wedded Mary Alsop, daughter of a rich New York City merchant, and thanks to excellent connections to Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists, got himself appointed by the State Legislature (as was then the fashion) to the U.S. Senate. There was a good bit of harrumping at this carpetbagging presumption, but King argued that “the novelty of my inhabitancy could be no objection,” and in a city then rapidly filling up with immigrants from near and far, his assessment proved correct.

Rufus King

But King is interesting for weightier reasons, too. Such as his stout resistance to immigration, particularly to Irish immigration, and particularly to Irish rebel republican immigration – people whom he was convinced would, once allowed in, bloc vote on behalf of that raving republican (worse, democratic) demagogue Thomas Jefferson. And King was in a position to do something about it, having been plucked from the Senate by President John Adams and made minister to England in 1796, from which perch he persuaded the Adams administration to bar Thomas Addis Emmet and other Irish “Jacobins” on the grounds that “their Principles and Habits would be pernicious to the Order and Industry of our People.” It was only after 1800, when, in realization of King and Hamilton’s worst fears, Jefferson ascended to the Presidency, that rebels like Emmet (and worse, Tom Paine!) made their way to New York City and into local politics. This boded ill for Rufus King, who had bragged of winning the “cordial and distinguished Hatred” of the burgeoning numbers of Irish, and who now, in election after election, found his efforts at winning elective office stymied by, indeed, bloc voting by Irishmen enraged at the “British collaborator.” Nor did King endear himself to the generality of the overwhelmingly white electorate by his equally ardent opposition to slavery, both in New York itself, and in the country at large. He comforted himself by getting himself reappointed to both his former offices, in the Senate and the Court of St. James, and by retreating to the countryside – purchasing in 1805 a small farmhouse at present day Jamaica (not far from Fresh Meadows) that he proceeded to upscale, via alterations and additions, into a stately country manor. There the gentleman farmer and local patrician bred prize cattle, and a family that for several succeeding generations served as the county’s political leadership (his son rose to the Governorship).

There was something else that had puzzled me back in Fresh Meadows in the early ’50s. Fresh Meadows, the first postwar project built in Queens, was a self-contained 170 acre development of row houses, low- and high-rise apartment buildings, spacious greens, a movie theater, schools (including Rufus King), and its very own shopping center (anchored by a Bloomingdale’s branch, with novel front porches where postwar mothers could push their babyboomer-stuffed prams, one of which contained my sister, born in ‘49).

All this I took for granted: it was my childhood universe. What puzzled me was that just in back of our apartment, on the very eastern fringe of the great complex, separated from us by a chain link fence, sat a farm. A small farm, but a farm. I distinctly remember being nonplused, but fascinated by it, staring through the fence at the rows of verdant vegetables. The strangeness of the contrast was no doubt enhanced by the fact that although the farm sold fresh tomatoes, corn, peppers and eggplant, my thoroughly modern mother was suspicious of things unwrapped and uncanned, so we got our goods from the supermarket; and never visited the place, making it seem as mysterious as a haunted house.

At age eight or nine I wasn’t quite up to struggling with juxtaposition of city and country, or more precisely with the fact that our model suburb-in-the-city was cheek by jowl with what was, and more amazingly is still, the last working farm in Queens County. I was puzzled, but not quite capable of grasping that again I was being presented with a historical problem worthy of investigation, nor did anyone at PS 26 try to set our own community into some larger historical context, to demonstrate that a temporal/spatial analysis could illuminate and explain what otherwise seemed murky and muddling.

Had either they or I done some rooting about in the past we would soon enough have found out that our two adjacent terrains – residential development and working farm – had both once been but a small part of the marshlands and meadows stretching out east and south from Flushing Bay, a terrain which prompted the Dutch settlers to call it Vlissingen, after a town in Holland whose name means “salt meadow valley”. That settlement at Flushing (as subsequent British settlers soon renamed it) expanded slowly through the eighteenth century. Farmers moved outward into an area known as Black Stump, a name seemingly derived from rows of blackened stumps used to separate large farmsteads, or perhaps from the fact that during the Revolution, occupying Brits cut down vast numbers of trees for fuel (and spite).

In colonial days only two roads led out of these meadows: Black Stump Road, which ran northeast to Bayside, and Fresh Meadow Lane, which headed south toward Jamaica, where lay one of the new farmhouses, built between 1733 and 1755, which Rufus King would acquire in 1805. The area remained under cultivation through the nineteenth century, and the late 1800s found the eastern part of Black Stump occupied by the 100 acre Voorhis Farm, at 73rd Avenue and 193rd Street. In the early 1900s, it was sold to Adam Klein, and it is his grandson, John Klein, who today works the little one acre farm patch that remains.

Adjacent to Adam Klein’s farm on the east long sat the Black Stump School, which though it was taken over for a time by the Black Stump Hook, Ladder & Bucket Company, as a base from which to fight farm fires, would again become a school, my PS 26, when the Board of Education purchased a chunk of land from the Klein family to provide for the children of Fresh Meadows. Just to the west of Klein’s farm, at the intersection of Fresh Meadow Lane and Nassau Boulevard, lay another Black Stump farmstead whose potential one Benjamin C. Ribman recognized in 1921. He purchased the site and in 1923 opened the Fresh Meadows Country Club, whose golf course became the setting for the National and Professional Golf Association Opens. In 1946, the 141-acre club was sold to the New York Life Insurance Company for $1 million for a residential development, which opened in 1949 in time for our arrival. The development was intended to ease the postwar housing crisis by providing affordable apartments for lower middle class families, particularly veterans. Inaccessible by subway, it was perched alongside Union Turnpike, which Robert Moses led WPA construction crews had widened in the 30s, to the dismay of the Klein farm, and what would become the Long Island Expressway (whose construction I witnessed with zero sense of its larger implications: no Marshall Berman, I). Nor had I a clue that Fresh Meadows was in fact part of a larger battle over the nature of appropriate housing for the postwar city, nor that Lewis Mumford (of whom I of course knew nothing) had hailed my home as a counterweight to what he called Stuyvesant Town “gigantism,” nor that Mumford had praised Fresh Meadows as the closest thing yet to his ideal of a horizontal garden city, in his words “perhaps the most positive and exhilarating example of large-scale community planning in this country.” I was growing up in Utopia! But who knew!

Nor was I in any position to grasp something that Mumford had missed, that there was one way in which Fresh Meadows was deeply and unfortunately quite like Stuyvesant Town – both were virtually all white, though in our case not as result of the quite explicit exclusionary rules that made Stuyvesant Town one of first battlegrounds of the what was already, in my childhood, the burgeoning civil rights movement in New York City.

My sense of where Fresh Meadows fit in the larger metropolitan scheme of things did not improve later in life, for once I left the area in 1953, heading out to Valley Stream as part of the great postwar suburban trek, I quite lost track of what was going on there. Indeed it was only recently, that I did some quick historical rooting about on the internet, courtesy of that all-but-magical research tool inelegantly known as Google, and learned that the development had been bought in 1972 by Harry Helmsley for $53 million, that the development had begun to change demographically, at first slowly, then, in the 80s with dramatic speed, boosted by a successful anti-discrimination suit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1983, and that blacks, Hispanics and Asians now make up 40% of the population.

I was well aware that the third great wave of immigration had transformed many Queens communities around Flushing into dazzling multinational venues, but I hadn’t realized that the 1990 census reported that among the languages spoken by significant percentages of the Fresh Meadows population were – in addition to English – Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Korean, Greek, Indic, French, French Creole, German, Tagalog, Polish, Russian , South Slavic, Yiddish, Portuguese, Hungarian, and Japanese.

Mr. Helmsley, it seems, was not a popular landlord, and when ownership passed to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, “we all cheered,” recalled a Mrs. Kleinfeld. But they in turn recently sold off the development to two separate real estate investment operations – the Witkoff Group of Manhattan, and Federated Realty Investment Trust, with Lehman Brothers financing the transaction. Just last year, I learned in my quickie historical investigation, Fresh Meadows was rife with rumors that John Klein had sold his property, was closing the farm stand, and joining the rest of the family, which had long since decamped to a spacious farm in Riverhead. Not only would they miss his produce, but the area was zoned R-4 and could be developed for high rise apartments. As recently as the spring of 2000, Klein stated that the farm stand in his front yard would reopen on July 10th, and would sell fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the summer, with cider and honey to follow in the fall.

There’s one last piece of the puzzle that in fact I came to know something about in a quite roundabout way, and only in the last ten years or so. During the 1950s, not only did I not have the faintest idea who Rufus King was, I hadn’t the slightest idea that his house still stood, quite nearby, on Jamaica Avenue and 150th Street, nor that it was in parlous condition. The house had passed from heir to heir until 1896, and in 1898 was deeded to the city. In 1900 it was turned over to the King Manor Association, a group of civic minded club women out to “foster patriotism and good citizenship” (and find themselves a clubhouse).

In the early 20th century, however, Jamaica began to change from a comfortable white community admixed with descendants of former slaves, with an economy built around agricultural wholesalers, white collar firms, town hall, and a substantial shopping strip. Rapid transit transformed the area into a prosperous suburb, replete with department stores, movie theaters and, on the other side of the tracks, a growing black minority.

After the Second World War the black population accelerated rapidly. In the 1950s and 60s, whites scurried to the suburbs, transferring their custom from old downtown stores to immense new shopping malls. Their exodus further darkened the area’s complexion (by 1980, three-quarters of Jamaica would be African-American) and sapped its economic base. At the Manor, a dwindling corps of increasingly elderly white ladies struggled to keep the house open on a one afternoon per week basis. Frightened by social change and a growing crime rate, they refused to unlock the door for any but the clearly non-threatening. Would-be black or Hispanic visitors — apart from school groups — were prima facie threats.

Relations between the community and its genteel enclave degenerated rapidly. Drug users and pushers took over its park, the police occupied it for surveillance operations, and vandals scarred its exterior. By the 80s, battered and decrepit, it was all but abandoned. I became aware of with this state of affairs only when, with the building at the point of extinction, Jamaica business and civic leaders stepped in. Intent on revitalizing the downtown area, and aware of the value of an historic anchor, they got the borough and city to ante up several million dollars for an extensive physical renovation and a new professional staff, who consulted both my wife, Hope Cooke, and I on how to interpret the manor’s story, and reknit the building into its current community.

**

Why, you may ask, am I regaling you with trivia about farmsteads and forgotten statesmen? Partly to make clear that whatever latent dispositions toward historical research might have been stirred up in me, they remained thoroughly quiescent, and indeed I quite clearly managed to survive to adulthood knowing none of this. I didn’t need to know that when I bicycled along Utopia Parkway, Fresh Meadows’ far western boundary, I was traversing the only remaining sign (literally) of the defunct 1905 Utopia Land Company, which had planned to build a cooperative town there for Jews from the Lower East Side. Or that the white overpasses on the eastern frontier along Francis Lewis (another Signer) Boulevard were part of the former Vanderbilt Motor Parkway, built in 1906 as an automobile race track, and later a toll road, the prototype of expressways to come. Nor, similarly, does anyone in Manhattan need to know that Canal Street once drained the old polluted Fresh Water Pond into the Hudson (and, indeed, that conduit is still there beneath the surface of things).

You don’t need to know, you can get there from here if you know where Canal Street is, but you’ll be at least slightly the poorer for being deaf to the song the streets signs are singing to you, the stories they carry of the sites, sounds, functions, realities of the ground beneath your feet. And I’ve found as a teacher that alerting people to the multiple temporal realities within which they move can be illuminating, exciting, adding depth and dimension to the way one experiences the city.

I’ve been teaching at John Jay College of Criminal Justice since 1971, and for much of that time have run a course on New York City History (along with one on the History of Crime in New York City), and I send them out into the streets, using a tour guide cribbed from my wife’s book “Seeing New York.”

Invariably they report back the sense of wonderment they get, even those who have traversed those same streets on the way to work or home for many years, when they discover the residue of earlier cities that had been right in front of them but which their eyes, unattuned, had simply not seen. They feel – as did I when I finally figured out Fresh Meadows place in the city’s larger history – somehow more complete for having situated themselves in time. (This is an experience, I’m happy to report, that I’m having a lot these days, as I begin to move into my own lifetime as I work on the 1940s and 50s chapters for Volume Two of Gotham).

But in fact while history can be fun and fulfilling when understood in this way, it can offer student’s a great deal more. What’s at stake is not simply knowing one’s place, but in getting a grip on the dynamics that have, and are continuing to transform that place. Just consider what poking around in my schoolyard and the farm next door might have led me to think about way back then – a vast range of issues ranging from the slave-based economy of the colonial city (something that still boggles many people quite convinced that the institution lay strictly south of the Mason Dixon line) and what happened to that economy, including its consequences for the nature of race relations (and the racial geography) of the contemporary cityscape; of the transformation of the area’s ecology and terrain; of the impact of the railroad and the automobilization of the city; the nature of immigration and the interaction of old-timers with newcomers; the story of the civil rights movement, the saga of historic preservation, the ways of power; the fluctuations of the economy; the impact of war; and lots lots more.

Viewed this way historical analysis is a powerful critical tool, a way to get beneath the surface of things, to get a handle on the way things work, to innoculate oneself against glib and facile characterizations of the contemporary order. To some extent, this goes against the American grain. Americans in general, and New Yorkers in particular, have long been far less interested in the past than in the future. Already in the early 19th century some worried about this. “Overturn, overturn, overturn! is the maxim of New York,” declared former Mayor Hone in 1845. “The very bones of our ancestors are not permitted to lie quiet a quarter of a century, and one generation of men seem studious to remove all relics of those who precede them.” Putnam’s 1853 series “New York Daguerreotyped” fretted that the businesses spreading “with such astounding rapidity over the whole lower part of the city” were “prostrating and utterly obliterating every thing that is old and venerable, and leaving not a single land-mark, in token of the former position of the dwelling-places of our ancestors.” The result, said Harper’s Monthly in 1856, was that “New York is notoriously the largest and least loved of any of our great cities. Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew.”

One consequence of this has been a certain contempt for history. It seems dead and done with. History is a repository of names and dates students memorize, regurgitate, and forget. Or it’s a listing of prior achievements which, like those in the Guinness Book of Records, are certain to be soon surpassed. What’s the most cutting way to dismiss someone? We say: “He’s history”.

We prefer the present. We want to “be here now.” Or to focus on the future, and make today “the first day of the rest of our lives.”

This impatience with the past has its attractive qualities. It’s fostered innovation (Joseph Schumpeter hailed capitalism’s capacity for “creative destruction”). It gave Americans an exhilarating feeling of freedom, a sense they were exempt from the crushing weight of history under which Europeans seemed buried. Yet ultimately this feeling was and is illusory. It’s not, in fact, possible to step outside of time. A culture that adheres to such fantasies promotes an ahistorical temper, obscures the ways the past continues to shape the present, and leaves people marooned in the now, adrift on the temporal surface of things.

In fact, the world we’ve inherited has an immense momentum; actions taken in the past have bequeathed us the mix of constraints and possibilities within which we act today; the stage onto which each generation walks has already been set, key characters introduced, major plots set in motion; and while the next act has not been written, it’s likely to follow on, in undetermined ways, from the previous action. This is not to say that history repeats itself. Time is not a carousel on which we might, next time round, snatch the brass ring by being better prepared. Rather the past flows powerfully through the present, and charting historical currents can enhance our ability to navigate them.

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