Rockaways’ Playland

Rockaways’ Playland in Queens started life as a resort area in 1876, developed by William Wainwright and James Remsen. This resort included the Seaside House, then the biggest hotel on the coast. Sadly, a fire on 21 September 1892 destroyed eight blocks of Rockaway Beach, among them the Seaside House. Undeterred, Mr. Wainwright rebuilt it at even grander proportions.

In 1901, he retired and left his son in charge. Then, on 1 June 1902, another fire broke out in Kasten’s Hotel, killing four people, injuring four more, and destroying many of the resort’s properties.

Concurrently, George Tilyou, owner of Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park, bought land in the nearby Seaside neighborhood in 1900. Very unoriginally, he also called it Steeplechase Park.

Mr. Tilyou offered two acres of his new property to roller coaster pioneer LaMarcus Adna Thompson, who’d almost gone bankrupt after being unable to exhibit his Switchback Railway coaster at the 1901 Pan–American Exposition. Mr. Thompson eagerly bought the land, and Thompson’s Amusement Park opened in 1901, 1902, or 1903.

In this era, there were many popular, successful amusement parks in Queens, particularly on Rockaway Beach. Patrons came from the other boroughs via a ferry added in 1903.

Mr. Thompson passed away in 1919, and his family continued operating the park for eight years. In December 1927, they sold it to Robert Katlin’s syndicate. Mr. Katlin proceeded to expand the park with new rides, a gymnasium, a pool, and a new arena.

In January 1928, local lawyer A. Joseph Geist bought the park and renamed it Rockaways’ Playland. Almost immediately, he set to work with even more expansions, including a dancehall and menagerie. Thanks to all these rides, attractions, and the beach, the park remained popular through the Depression.

Who else but the vile Robert Moses got involved in 1937! To build his precious Shore Front Parkway no one asked for, he shut down the park and destroyed many homes and businesses in the way. Mr. Geist lost half the park’s rides thanks to that evil megalomaniac obsessed with unnecessary roads. The bungalows many guests rented were also razed.

Thankfully, his selfish plans to shut down Rockaways’ Playland failed, and Mr. Geist was able to reopen in 1939 after much rebuilding.

Crowds were thinner during WWII, and the lights had to be shut off to avoid enemy detection. In August 1945, the blackout lifted.

Though many local amusement parks suffered in attendance during the postwar era, when people began driving to farther away places with flashier attractions, Rockaways’ Playland regained popularity with the addition of new rides and attractions, including kiddie park Joytown. New lighting systems were also added to modernize the park.

Visitors came not only from NYC itself, but nearby cities like Yonkers, New Rochelle, Jersey City, and White Plains. Boats to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn opened in 1954, and a ferry to Westchester County arrived in 1964.

During these postwar decades, Rockaways’ Playland stayed relevant and successful through many special events and contests, such as children’s contests each Saturday afternoon and a beauty pageant every Monday evening. In July 1953, 600 orphans were treated to a day at the park.

There was an understandable small dip in attendance during the 1964 World’s Fair at nearby Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, but the crowds picked back up as usual soon afterwards. By 1970, 175 million people had visited.

Attendance started shrinking in the late 1970s, since the rides and attractions were increasingly seen as dated. It was difficult to keep up with the new amusement parks, and as more people owned cars, they tended to choose destinations more than a brief distance away.

A. Joseph Geist’s son Richard, now the manager, didn’t want to close his park, but insurance premiums went through the roof and became impossible to pay. He made the difficult decision not to reopen the park for the 1986 season.

Though a housing development was planned in the park’s place, the land stood empty for years. Only in 2003 was it finally developed. The only thing remaining of Rockaways’ Playland today is the Beach 98th St. subway station sign.

Copyright Youngking11

Rides and attractions included:

An Olympic-sized pool used for Summer Olympic tryouts
Gravity Wonder (a roller coaster)
A Funhouse
A shooting gallery
A 1,000-foot-long bathhouse with 5,500 lockers
A Steeplechase roller coaster
A Noah’s Ark funhouse
Leaping Lena
The Pretzel
Cave O’Laffs
The Atom Smasher (a wooden roller coaster featured in 1952 film This Is Cinerama)
The Caterpillar

A number of my characters regularly visit Rockaways’ Playland and the nearby beach starting in the 1930s.

Queens College

Queens College opened 11 October 1937, on the site of the former one-room Jamaica Academy (where Walt Whitman once taught). Built in the early 19th century, Jamaica Academy was on Flushing–Jamaica Rd. (now Kissena Blvd.), and became a public school in 1844. In 1909, it became part of the New York Parental School for troubled boys.

In 1934, NYPS was rocked by rumors of abuse, and an investigation was launched. The school shut down, and students were sent to local public schools. Several months later, school grounds became city property, intended to house 500 mental patients from Randall’s Island Hospital who were temporarily homeless due to the building of the Triborough Bridge. (Unsurprisingly, the evil Robert Moses was involved!)

Concurrently, County Judge Charles S. Colden appointed and chaired a committee to investigate the possibility of a free college in his borough. In September 1935, the response was affirmative. Mayor LaGuardia also came on board in hearty support of such a proposal, and in March 1937, the Board of Education chose the NYPS land as the future location. Paul Klapper, former School of Education dean at City College, was chosen as president.

Though many schools in this era opened much later than they do today, QC didn’t deliberately start its inaugural semester in October by design. A painters’ strike precluded opening when the rest of the city’s colleges began.

Copyright Nkabouris

Happily, the inaugural class of 400 was roughly 50-50. Like Brooklyn College next door, QC too was co-ed from the jump. There were forty teachers and administrators, also about 50-50. Dedication Day was held on 26 October and attended by Mayor LaGuardia.

A special dinner for Dr. Klapper was held 30 October at the Hotel Astor and attended by over one thousand. Guests included Mayor LaGuardia and Gov. Herbert H. Lehman. Dr. Klapper insisted the funds raised go to a student aid fund for the new school.

The first school dance was held Wednesday, 24 November 1937, at which the school colors, blue and silver, were announced.

Rosenthal Library, Copyright Voidvector

In 1940, QC introduced a summer session, evening classes, and radio classes. That year also saw a visit from Roger Baldwin, one of the founders of the ACLU, at a Peace Day Rally.

In 1941, the school was fully accredited, just in time for the first class to graduate on 16 June. The ceremony had to be held in a tent, since it rained that day.

The day after Pearl Harbor, a false air-raid siren disrupted a civilian defense rally on campus, and everyone had to go home. During WWII, over 1,100 men and 22 women from QC served in the military, 59 of whom were KIA. The remaining stateside students held regular War Bond drives, observed Meatless Tuesdays, collected over a ton of scrap metal, and used their own papers for tests.

Façade of Remsen Hall

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at the first Spring Victory Lecture in 1943, and that August, the Army Specialized Training Program created a unit to study foreign languages and engineering. A Victory Fleet tanker was later named Queens Victory in gratitude for the school’s role in the war effort.

In 1948, a graduate division was added.

Mrs. Roosevelt visited again in 1951, speaking about the importance of education in the modern world.

Disgracefully, several professors were fired and blacklisted during the dark days of McCarthyism. In 1982, they finally received pension restitution.

In 1960, a dress code was forced on female students, forbidding trousers, shorts, and similar attire. It was lifted in ’67. Also in 1960, smoking was banned in classrooms.

Copyright Tdorante10

Many QC students and alumni were active in the Civil Rights Movement, most famously Andrew Goodman, one of the three slain Freedom Riders. In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the first speaker in the JFK Memorial Lecture Series.

Students were also active in protesting the Vietnam War. Some students and professors were arrested for taking part in demonstrations.

Residence hall, Copyright Nkabouris

CUNY schools were closed for two weeks in response to the financial crisis of 1976, when the city very narrowly escaped bankruptcy. Though the adoption of open admissions in 1970 hurt other CUNY schools, QC wasn’t affected as much as the others.

In theory, open admissions sound wonderful, guaranteeing higher education to anyone who graduates high school. However, in actual practice, this flooded schools with underprepared students.

CUNY schools were forced to start charging tuition, and QC lost 15% of its budget. Some faculty resigned in protest, and enrollment sharply dropped.

By 1986, the school had started recovering, and today QC is once again a highly-ranked academic institution.

Powdermaker Hall, Copyright Faisal0926 at English Wikipedia

My characters Patya Siyanchuk and Nikolay Kutuzov-Tvardovsky attend QC to respectively become an art and biology teacher for second careers.

Garden School and Gramercy Park Hotel

Sorry about the obnoxious URL! Some people don’t understand the meaning of public domain.

The Garden Country Day School was founded in Jackson Heights, Queens in 1923, by a group of parents who wanted a better school for their kids. Their institution was named for the new garden apartments. At the time, Jackson Heights was very rural, and so had ample space to create gardens.

As evidenced by the name, Jackson Heights was also intended to convey prestige equal to that of Brooklyn Heights. It was a planned community for bourgeois Manhattanites wanting a less congested living space. Shamefully and typically of the era, the apartments were restricted to WASPs.

The monolithic makeup thankfully began changing during the 1930s, and the legal restriction against Jewish residents ended in the 1940s. Bourgeois Columbians arrived in the 1950s, and then, following the nationwide pattern, the white bourgeoisie hightailed it to suburbia. Sadly, the remaining whites were very resistant to integration with African–Americans.

The first classes, K–3, met in the Laburnum Court Apartments. In 1925, upper elementary school was added, and in 1928, under headmaster Otto Flower, the school moved into its current location (the former Jackson Heights Tennis Club) on 79th St., between 35th Ave. and Northern Blvd. Mr. Flower also added more grades. In 1929, the first high school class of three students graduated.

A few years later, Garden Country School became an independent school. While all indie schools are private, they’re self-governing and financially independent instead of run by a religious organisation.

Indie schools aren’t prep schools, though academics are paramount. They’re also not always alternative schools (e.g., Montessori, Waldorf, Sudbury). From how I interpret it, indie schools are a nice middle ground of private schools, neither too preppy nor too freewheeling.

My characters Patya, Vladlena, Rodya, and Valentina send their kids to Garden School after they move to Queens Village in 1945. Patya and Vladlena’s daughter Karina, and Rodya and Valentina’s son Lev, started their education in a Russian Orthodox church school in Greenwich Village.

Patya feels strongly that real Americans don’t hide themselves away in parochial schools, but doesn’t want to lose the personal touch of private school in general.

When the two couples’ dear friends Tatyana and Nikolay move back to New York in 1952, to a house on their street, they likewise choose Garden School for their children.

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Copyright Eden, Janine, and Jim

The Gramercy Park Hotel was built from 1924–25 by Bing & Bing, one of the most prominent apartment development firms in early 20th century NYC, and designed by equally prominent architect Robert T. Lyons. It replaced the home of infamous architect Stanford White, and was done in Renaissance Revival style.

This hotel is adjacent to Gramercy Park, a private, fenced-in, two-acre park available only to fee-paying residents of the neighborhood by the same name. Its gates were first locked in 1844. Gramercy Park East also contains the city’s oldest continually-operating co-op apartment, built in 1883.

Copyright Tony

Over the decades, many famous people have stayed by the hotel, both as guests and longterm residents. Among their illustrious ranks are Humphrey Bogart (who married his first wife Helen Menken there), Joseph P. Kennedy’s family, writer Mary McCarthy, humorist S.J. Perelman, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Madonna, David Bowie, Debbie Harry, and David Mamet.

The hotel also boasts an art gallery, a bar, and several restaurants, including one on the roof. Babe Ruth frequented the bar during the Depression, and James Cagney and his wife Billie, who lived at 34 Gramercy Park, were frequent diners at the restaurant.

34 Gramercy, one of the city’s first apartments, Copyright Beyond My Ken

My characters Vasilisa and Dragomir go to the Gramercy Park Hotel’s restaurant for brunch on a very early double date with Vasilisa’s cousin Ilya and his girlfriend Milada. Despite being raised upper-middle-class, Milada is keenly aware they’re the most informally dressed people there, and hopes there’s normal food on the menu.

Shortly after Milada confesses her worries, Ilya reveals his secret senior art portfolio subject, Empress Aleksandra over the entire course of her life. He wants to gain a greater understanding of this much-hated woman, and thus stir sympathy in others as well.

Later, Ilya’s youngest sister Tamara and her husband Marek, a baker and chef, will work at the restaurant. I’m excitedly looking forward to a scene where they encounter frequent diner Cagney, my favoritest male actor of the sound era.

Queens Village and the qalam

Copyright Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York; Source

Queens Village is a very spacious, green, suburban neighborhood in eastern Queens. It started life as Little Plains in the 1640s, and then became known as Brushville in the 1820s, after prosperous resident Thomas Brush.

Mr. Brush put down roots in the neighborhood with a blacksmith shop in 1824, and after achieving great financial success, he built a factory and a few other shops.

The first railway came on 1 March 1837.

St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church

In 1856, residents voted to change the neighborhood’s name to Queens, but both the neighborhood and depot were called Inglewood and Queens during the 1860s and 1870s. The former name Brushville also continued to be used.

When the borough of Queens was incorporated into NYC in 1898, and Nassau County was created in 1899, the border between them was designated directly east of the neighborhood. By at least 1901, the name Queens Village had arisen.

The Long Island village of Lloyd Harbor, formerly in Queens County but now in Suffolk County, was called Queens Village from 1685–1883. In 1923, Long Island Railroad added “Village” to the Queens neighborhood’s station’s name to avoid confusion with Queens County as a whole.

193rd St. war memorial

Queens Village contains the sub-neighborhoods of Hollis Hills (a very wealthy area) and Bellaire (the largest section of the neighborhood).

Many people seeking a suburban lifestyle and fleeing the congestion of Manhattan came to Queens Village starting in the 1920s. A great many of the Tudor and Dutch Colonial homes built during this era still stand, and attract a new generation of people wanting a slower, less crowded lifestyle.

Queens Village LIRR Station, Copyright Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York; Source

Like many other NYC neighborhoods, Queens Village too once had a large, thriving Jewish community, but today the population mainly consists of African–Americans, Caribbeans, Guyanese, Filipinos, Asian Indians, Jamaicans, and Hispanics.

Recent demographic developments include an increased amount of Asian–Americans and Middle Eastern Jews.

Southbound view of LIRR bridge over Springfield Blvd. and the Hempstead-bound platform at Queens Village station, Copyright DanTD

Landmarks include American Martyrs Catholic Church, Chapel of the Redeemer Lutheran, Hollis Hills Jewish Center, and the Windsor Park Branch of the Queens Borough Public Library. Nearby are Alley Pond Park, Cunningham Park, and Long Island Motor Parkway.

Remnant of Long Island Motor Parkway, Copyright Nowa at English Wikipedia

My characters Rodya Duranichev, Valentina Kuchma, Patya Siyanchuk, and Vladlena Zyuganova move from Manhattan to Queens Village with their children in the late summer of 1945. Both Valentina and Vladlena are expecting again, and they want a fresh new life in a more spacious corner of the city, with detached houses and yards.

Their children are delighted to discover each house has a pool in the backyard, though Patya is less than delighted to discover a little girl next door, Ruth Blumstein, thinks he’s a monster on account of his missing arm.

Copyright Aieman Khimji

qalam is a dried reed pen used for Islamic calligraphy, particularly creating those beautiful Persian and Arabic letters. It’s also a symbol of wisdom and education in the Koran. Sura 68 is called “Al-Qalam,” and describes Allah’s justice and the judgment day.

The etymology comes from the Greek kalamos (reed). In modern Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, and Turkish, it means “pencil” or “pen.” In Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali, it just means “pen.”

Copyright Baba66

My character Inna Zhirinovskaya receives, among many other things, a qalam set in a leather case for her 31st birthday in October 1937, a present from her admirer Arkasha Orlov (a prince by birth). They met in Aden in June, and Arkasha has been hopelessly smitten since then.

Arkasha gave her a lesson in Persian writing with a normal fountain pen a few weeks earlier, and Inna was mortified when she involuntarily gasped at the sensation of his hand over hers. She knows both Arkasha and her little brother Vitya heard that.

That night on the Siosepel Bridge, Inna agrees to be his sweetheart.

Queens, U.S.A.


Newtown Creek, by Greenpoint Avenue Bridge, image by Postdlf.

Baisley Pond Park, image by Peter Greenberg.

Alley Pond Creek.

Not very original, but Queens is the only place I could think of having written about, and it’s not exactly the place most people think of when they think of New York City. It might not be as popular or well-known as Manhattan or Brooklyn, but it’s got a lot of beautiful sights and a lot of history, actually has a lot of houses instead of being almost completely gut-loaded with apartments, and is fairly affordable. A lot of people live in Queens because they can’t afford Manhattan, even if the commute is a bit longer.

Queens is the easternmost borough, the largest in size, and the next-most populated. Though the Native Americans had been there for thousands of years, the white man didn’t start settling till 1635. It became a borough in 1898, and today has many diverse neighbourhoods, such as Kew Garden Hills, Far Rockaway, Jamaica, Flushing, Utopia, Glen Oaks, Little Neck, Hamilton Beach, Howard Beach, Forest Hills, Astoria, Elmhurst, Floral Park, Fresh Meadows, Oakland Gardens, Woodhaven, Rockaway Beach, Breezy Point.

New York City is known for its ethnically diverse population and being a home for immigrants, and Queens is no exception. Some of its many peoples include Iranians, Peruvians, Columbians, Chinese, Irish, Italians, Greeks, Guyanese, Filipinos, Tibetans, Koreans, Romanians, Ecuadorians, and Salvadorans.

Alley Pond Environmental Center, image by gailf548, source Oakland Lake.

Trinity Lutheran Church, image by MrShah2012.

Fort Totten Officers’ Club.

Queens appears in a few chapters of my WIP, Journey Through a Dark Forest, and is the home of Masha Ozerova, one of the troublesome counselors Tatyana works with her first summer at Father Spiridon’s camp. Tatyana works with two Mashas and two Katyas, and one of each eventually turns out to be so fanatical, self-righteous, and impudent that Father Spiridon fires them and sends them home before camp is over.

For July Fourth 1938, Tatyana, Nikolay, and their friends go to Rockaway Beach and Rockaways’ Playland. Tatyana, who’s spent the past year thoroughly distancing herself from her family, is furious that her visiting younger brother Fedya and his girlfriend Novomira tag along and are immediately accepted by her friends. On Novomira’s insistence, they see a parade before heading to the beach and amusement park.

A fair bit of Chapter 51, “The World of Tomorrow,” which concludes Part II, is set in Queens, as Tatyana and Nikolay honeymoon by the World’s Fair. They spend some time at nearby Rockaway Beach in between touring the massive fairgrounds every day for eight days. I had so much fun researching and writing the World’s Fair sections of this chapter. I had to resist temptation to write about every single exhibit, ride, restaurant, show, et al.

Commanding Officer’s House in Fort Totten.

Rikers Island.

Queens has a lot of historic districts and landmarks, old churches, former mansions, historic buildings, and museums. They also have a botanical garden, theatres, art galleries, and the 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center, Inc., a large outdoor graffiti showcase. Many famous jazz singers and musicians hailed from or lived in Queens, including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Charlie Parker.

Graffiti by Queensboro Plaza in the Long Island City neighbourhood.

Since Queens is on the Eastern edge of Long Island, it’s got a lot of beaches. Rockaway Beach is the most famous, but Queens also has Breezy Point Tip, Fort Tilden Beach, and Jacob Riis Beach. From 1902-85, Queens had the Rockaways’ Playland amusement park. It was nothing compared to nearby Coney Island, but it had a lot of great rides while it lasted.

Gantry Plaza State Park, image by Joe Mabel (Jmabel), source Gantry Plaza State Park Long Island City 01.

St. Irene Chrysovalantou Greek Orthodox Monastery.

Some of the characters in my WIP may be moving to Queens after the War, for the chance to have real houses and yards for their children. It’s so much less congested than Manhattan, and it’s nice to have your own home instead of living in a high-rise or small apartment. Queens also has one of the most élite colleges of the CUNY system, and a venerable library with the highest circulation of any U.S. library.

Rockaway Beach.

Hell Gate Bridge and Triborough Bridge, image by Sfoskett.

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