Sunday, January 6, 2008

Map crap

Attached is a 1901 planning map of southern Queens, which shows an endless grid covering the entire borough.

In my opinion, this is where the crappification of our borough may have begun, when our city began to look at Queens as an endless suburb, rather than a collection of towns with their own unique grids and routes. On this map, wetlands and creeks are erased, there are no large parks, or diagonal roads.

The area is Idlewild, which remained largely undeveloped until 1948, then an airport covered almost everything south of the Belt Parkway between Howard Beach and the County Line. Had the airport not been built, this area would probably have resembled the rest of South Ozone Park, with long rectangular blocks and tract housing.

A second attached map shows a master plan for the future of Flushing in the early 1930s. Kissena Creek is wiped from the map, and the only exceptions to the endless grid are the Parental Home (future Queens College), cemeteries, and a number of golf clubs. I wonder why the mapmakers expected the farmers to sell their lands to the grid, but the golf clubs to remain. Flushing Meadows is labeled as the "World's Fair Site."

The third attachment shows northern Forest Hills, where Cord Meyer created an alphabetic grid from Atom to Zuni. Notice how the proposed grid marches over the meandering Flushing River. Thankfully, Robert Moses was able to save the river as part of the 1939 World's Fair plan.

The lesson here is clear, grids are ugly. Neigborhoods without grids, such as Waldheim, Jamaica Estates, Bayside Gables, Forest Hills Gardens, and Malba have a certain charm and sense of history, while places like Utopia and HIllcrest have the monotony of the numbered grid. I apologize in advance for offending your Hillcrest readers. Grid-defying such as Apex Place, Hawtree Creek Road, and Jackson Mill Road deserve to be preserved. Often, these streets are their neighborhoods' last link to a time before the ugly grid was imposed on our borough.

Also note that while a strict rectangular grid can be ugly, its polar opposite- a Levittown street maze can also be a problem.



Anonymous said...

I live near Hillcrest. No offense taken: indeed the narrow lot (25 ft?) tract houses just outside St. John's University on 170th Street are a very depressing and unimaginative piece of architecture. They should've built an apartment building instead of those comically narrow houses.

Anonymous said...

People who choose to live in Queens are choosing to live in an urban environment that is part of New York City, not in a collection of small towns.

westernqueensland said...

WOW. Nice post. Anonymous 2 has it wrong: Sunnyside is very different than its neighbor Woodside and both of them are way different than Rego Park.

mazeartist said...

Exactly. Before NYC annexed and discovered Queens- we were already a number of small towns and the Long Island City.

Again, I find it strange how turn-of-the-century mapmakers expected farms, streams, and country lanes to go away, but for country clubs to remain on the map of the future Queens. In other words, they understood that only the rich would remain on the map.

The other odd thing is how within a century, there are few if any Brinkerhoffs, Rapelyes, or Remsens left in Queens. These landowning last names appeared on the landscape of Queens for centuries. However, in the last century, their estates all disappeared in the monstrous grid. The only thing left of their once-sizable estates are tiny forgotten cemeteries, such as the Remsen Cemetery in Rego Park. Did these historic families all move out West when urbanization arrived?

Anonymous said...

Different neighborhoods have different attributes, but the point is that people who choose to live in Queens choose an urban environment, not a "small town."

Anonymous said...

Urban areas can be cities, towns or conurbations, but the term is not commonly extended to rural settlements such as villages and hamlets. Towns are urban. Queens is a collection of small towns.

Anonymous said...

People seldom "choose" to live in NYC as much as do so out of economic necessity. Would you choose to live in a filthy, polluted area that is full of ugly crap if there was no job attached to it?

JF said...

Speak for yourself, Anonymous. I moved away from a rural "filthy, polluted area that is full of ugly crap" in another state so that I could have a nice life in New York City.