By Katie Uva
In an essay first published in The New York Times in 2001, Colson Whitehead wrote, “You start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it.” I started building my private New York at the top of a hill, one of the several that gave my neighborhood, Forest Hills, its name. My apartment building was the first one in the area when it was built in 1931; photos of the time show it standing anomalously, surrounded by single-family homes and vacant lots. My family moved there in the mid-1980s and I was born in 1988, and by then the area had filled in with several generations of structures—six-story brick apartment buildings named after presidents and built in a colonial revival style, taller later-generation apartment buildings with cantilevered awnings and terraces, midcentury modernist reform temples, a strip of one-story shops we call “the Russian stores,” and a movie theater named after the Battle of Midway. The English garden that had taken up the rest of my building’s block had been turned into a city park in the late 1960s, and throughout my childhood a steady stream of bouncing basketballs, bicycle bells, Mr. Softee and Good Humor truck jingles, and the shouts and footfalls of kids at play drifted into my first-floor window.
I grew up in Queens, I study Queens, and much of my family continues to live in Queens, so I find myself there regularly. But it’s a place I’m appreciating more and more as time goes on. When I was growing up in the 1990s, my Queens was stable and safe, but not a place people really noticed or thought about. My parents had moved to Forest Hills somewhat grudgingly, having spent a decade living in emphatically more cool, more walkable, more dynamic Greenwich Village. The feeling in my family was that Forest Hills had some things going for it—good schools, affordability, safety—but didn’t have the art, the architecture, the edginess, the magnetism of Manhattan. It was static, incurious, a place where your relatives (at least in our family) were buried. It was caught between city and suburb, with all the contradictions that entailed.
But when I think about Queens now, and the place it occupies in the city, I marvel at how my impressions have changed. In the face of accelerating gentrification, I now realize that there is no such thing as a static part of New York, and that what I once dismissed as the mundane qualities of Queens are what have enabled it to be a home for millions of people—a place that’s more affordable than other parts of the city, a giant web of overlapping communities that give newly arrived migrants and immigrants a foothold and a springboard. As someone who now has worked in educational settings, I feel much more viscerally how lucky I was to go to school and be friends with kids who had either immigrated themselves or whose parents had come from India, Colombia, China, Japan, Korea, and Russia, although I am acutely aware that my Queens was not fully integrated.
I love Queens the way you love the people who raised you. When I was young, it was an easy affection based on an assumption of permanence. As an adult who has had that quintessential New York experience of becoming disoriented when you revisit a place and see that some of your landmarks are gone, I love Queens in a deeper way. It’s a special place, it’s fragile, and it shaped me. Thanks to the work of people like Frampton Tolbert and Rafael Herrin-Ferri, I have become more curious about the vernacular architecture of Queens and respectful of the intention behind the structures, knocked off the high horse from which I used to see just kitsch and chaos. As a historian, I now see how Queens’s history is a collage of different aspirations layered onto the landscape over time—the English-style village of Forest Hills Gardens, the garden city experiment of Sunnyside Gardens, the high-rise enclave of LeFrak City, to name a few among many—and that this borough is currently in a struggle for its identity and its future. My feelings toward Queens are my feelings toward New York City and urbanism more broadly: infinitely confounding, infinitely defiant of my assumptions, infinitely fascinating.
Katie Uva is a student at the CUNY Graduate Center, where her research focuses on the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs as a lens for understanding midcentury urbanism. She is an adjunct lecturer at Baruch College and hosts The Ultimate New York City Trivia Night at the Museum of the City of New York.
Featured Image (at top): Photo by author.