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.

Parsons School of Design

Copyright Beyond My Ken

Parsons School of Design was founded as The Chase School by Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase in 1896. He was part of a group of artists from the Art Students League of New York who longed for a more individual and dramatic form of art, something different from the traditional, formal art in vogue.

Two years later, their new institution changed its name to The New York School of Art.

William Merritt Chase, 1849–1916

Prof. Frank Alvah Parsons came on board in 1904 and concurrently studied with artist Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia. In 1905, he received an art degree from Columbia Teachers College. Within a few years, he became president of the New York School of Art.

Under his tenure, the curriculum took on an innovative direction. Though art schools were nothing new, none had departments for interior, graphic, or fashion design (then called costume design), or advertising. To reflect this new mission, the school was renamed The New York School of Fine and Applied Art in 1909.

Mr. Parsons became sole director in 1911, and continued going from strength to strength. In 1921, he and William Odom established a Parisian branch of the school (pictured above), making Parsons the very first U.S. art and design school with a foreign campus. Outposts in Italy and England were also established.

In 1927, France awarded him the Légion d’Honneur, their highest merit, for his work in advancing Franco–American relations. Expectedly, the Paris Atelier at 9 Place de Vosges was forced to close due to WWII and didn’t reopen till 1948. Only summer courses were offered for many years, but Parsons Paris finally came back into full-time business in 1980.

The school was renamed again in 1936, in honor of Mr. Parsons. However, this name change wasn’t official till 1942.

Frank Alvah Parsons, 1866–1930

The curriculum took on a new direction in response to the upheavals of the 1960s; e.g., the interior design program’s focus went from bourgeois and wealthy homes to prisons, housing projects, and hospitals.

In 1970, Parsons merged with The New School for Social Research, now simply known as The New School. Founded in 1919, that school served as a haven to many refugees from Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and other totalitarian countries. It also took in professors fired by Columbia for refusing to swear a jingoistic loyalty oath.

The University Center for The New School, Copyright Ajay Suresh

Parsons has had many locations over the years, starting at 57 West 57th St. from 1896–1904. In 1905, they opened studios at 76 West 55th St. and 49 Court St. in Brooklyn. In 1906, they opened another campus on 2237-2239 Broadway at the corner of 80th St., which eventually became their main address.

During these early years, Parsons offered summer classes in Chester, Massachusetts; Long Island’s Belle Terre and Bayport; Booth Bay, Maine; and several other locales.

From 1939–54, they moved to 136 East 57th St., and then relocated to 136 East 54th St. from 1954–72. During the latter era, they had studios at other Midtown locations and in Queens.

In 1972, the school moved downtown to 2 West 13th St. and 66 Fifth Avenue. Through the 1990s, Parsons expanded to other downtown addresses, including 25 East 13th St. A Midtown Fashion Center was also opened in 1977 at 560 Seventh Avenue at 40th St.

Since 2014, the University Center is at 63 Fifth Avenue, and the Midtown Fashion Center is downtown.

Today, Parsons offers degrees in fields including architecture, urban design, photography, communication design, fashion design, fine arts, interior design, textiles, lighting design, illustration, design history and practice, data visualization, art media and technology, and industrial design.

My characters Irina Koneva (later Tsvetkova), Panya Ugolnikov, Klarisa Tsvetkova, and Nova Yezhova-Blinova study fashion at Parsons during the 1950s and go into business together.

Irina designs quirky women’s clothes, Panya does unique menswear, Klarisa does accessories, and Nova does shoes. They’re joined by Kristina Chernomyrdina-Yurkova (later Tsvetkova), a jewelry designer.

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Orchard Street

Orchard St. runs for eight blocks on the Lower East Side, from Chinatown’s Division St. to East Houston St. (It’s pronounced HOUSE-ton, not like the city in Texas, and part of Chinatown is inside the LES.) It’s a one-way street going from south to north, and often considered the heart of the LES.

Orchard St. takes its name from an orchard on James De Lancey, Jr.’s farm, back in the days when Manhattan was rural farmland with low population density. Though he fled to England in 1775, due to his unpopular political views, he continued making money from tenants renting his property.

In 1780, his brother and lawyers sold his New York properties. His farm was declared forfeit when the British evacuated the city in 1783. Later, he was paid £29,842 in compensation for losing his property, the next-highest such award paid to a New Yorker but less than half of what he’d sued for.

By the mid-19th century, the LES was an immigrant enclave full of low-rise, stuffed tenements. At first it was called Kleindeutschland, Little Germany. Before long, though, it was a much more heavily Jewish neighborhood.

Because of its well-known history, many people, myself included once upon a time, believe that was the ONLY place immigrants lived. Despite the well-documented existence of many other immigrant enclaves in NYC, and in countless cities in other states, the LES remains a de facto setting in a lot of historical fiction about immigrants.

Copyright Crazyrachie

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Orchard St. was the main shopping thoroughfare. Peddlers of all types lined the streets with their pushcarts and kiosks, and many small business owners had stores. It was the proletarian version of Fifth Avenue, Unter den Linden, Champs-Élysées, and Nevskiy Prospekt.

Orchard St. was also known for its crowded tenements, many of which contained businesses on the lower levels. Upstairs, scores of people were packed onto each floor, and many families lived in single rooms. This was no genteel poverty, but true, abject poverty.

Two of these buildings are now the Tenement Museum, abandoned by the landlord in 1935 and unchanged till 1988. The one at 97 Orchard showcases the lives of its residents from 1869–1935, and the tenement at 103 Orchard tells the story of tenants from the 1950s to the 1980s. They also have many historical archives and educational programs.

Despite restorations, parts of the upper floors are unstable and closed to the public.

Copyright Jay Manday

Of course, thanks to gentrifying hipsters pricing longtime residents out of their neighborhood, the old stores and kiosks have been replaced by upscale boutiques, fancy restaurants, and brand-name shops, and real estate prices are through the roof. Even the discount stores aren’t the kinds of stores that existed decades ago.

While in no way do I believe it’s great to be poor and live in a squalid tenement, there needs to be a happy medium. Cities need people of all classes to be a richly diverse ballet of life, as the great urbanist Jane Jacobs famously said.

These hipsters were also sitting pretty in their cushy bourgeois suburbs while poor and proletarian residents held down the fort in so many cities for several decades, when most people didn’t dare to go anywhere near there. Now that the crime rates are way down and it’s cool to live there again, hipsters and millionaires have taken over.

How about making the cost of living better for lower-income people, raising their wages, and renovating existing housing instead of pricing them out of their own neighborhood, knocking down historic housing to build ugly high-rise luxury condos and upscale stores, and turning multi-family rowhouses and townhouses into single-family homes?

If you’re going to move to a new city, you need to show respect for longtime residents instead of remaking their home according to your standards!

Copyright Jazz Guy

Copyright Jim.henderson

Copyright Sheynhertz-Unbayg

Though none of my characters live on Orchard St., they sometimes mention it as a street full of run-down old tenements they’re glad they don’t live on. It’s also referenced in Little Ragdoll as the location of a florist’s where Adicia and Justine get a 75% off get-well bouquet for their sister-in-law Lenore.

Perhaps it’s the same florist’s referenced as Mrs. Troy’s latest job du jour in Green Sunrise, the long-hiatused sequel. Predictably, she’s fired when she’s caught putting bruised flowers in a full-price bouquet, and gets into a fight with the boss in front of customers, rips apart bouquets, and throws them into everyone’s faces.

New Lincoln School and New York Institute for the Education of the Blind

The New Lincoln School began in 1917 as the Lincoln School, under the aegis of Columbia Teachers College, created by the Rockefeller-funded General Education Board, as “a pioneer experimental school for newer educational methods.” Tuition was $200–$300 ($4,041.84–$6,062.77 today).

The school rejected the formalism and tradition prevalent in education of the era. Greek, Latin, formal grammar, and algebra went out the window, replaced by hands-on learning, field trips, community service, and abstract thinking in fields like industry, civics, science, aesthetics, finance, government, agriculture.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. sent his kids to this co-ed school.

In 1941, this hugely popular school, visited by thousands of teachers around the world every year, merged with the Horace Mann School for Girls. Teachers and parents were quite upset by this turn of events, so much so they went to court. Their case eventually went to the Court of Appeals.

This new combined school closed in 1946, and parents created the New Lincoln School in response. They didn’t want their kids to lose the benefits of individualised instruction, experimental education, and progressive pedagogy.

The New Lincoln School set up shop at 31 West 110th St., formerly the 110th St. Community Center, an eight-story building with a swimming pool in the cellar. Though it recently underwent renovations, more were necessary to improve the library, labs, classrooms, and cafeteria. Today it houses the soon-to-be-closed Lincoln Correctional Facility.

The Lower School, K–2, moved to the former Boardman School at East 82nd St. in 1956. Then, in 1974, the entire school moved to 210 East 77th St. Finally, in autumn 1988, New Lincoln merged with Walden School (more about that on the W day) at West 88th St. and Central Park West to become the New Walden Lincoln School.

The East 77th St. building has been used by Birch Wathen Lenox School since 1989. They’re a co-ed college prep school serving K–12.

Teachers were called by their forenames, and seating was informal. Small groups and individual research were highly encouraged, and the arts predominated. Students were treated as individuals, not monolithic cogs who had to learn a certain way on a certain schedule. Math and science were taught more traditionally than liberal arts, though there were still small groups according to skill level.

In 1991, the school closed and gave the building to The Day School, formerly The Day School of the Church of the Heavenly Rest, now the Trevor Day School.

My characters Tarmo and Meri Lindmaa transfer to New Lincoln from a Russian Orthodox church school after their English improves. Their father wants them to have a progressive education with a semblance of traditional structure and curriculum.

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Copyright Jim.henderson

The New York Institute for the Education of the Blind was founded in 1831 by Dr. Samuel Akerly, Dr. John Dennison Russ, and Quaker philanthropist Samuel Wood. It originally was on Manhattan’s Canal St.

Mr. Wood was a rich schoolbook publisher who worked as a teacher till age forty. In his sixties, he was moved to create a school for blind children. He’d seen blind children in poorhouses thirsty to learn but with bleak futures, and he wanted to rectify that. Mr. Wood also must’ve known of Boston’s famous Perkins School for the Blind, founded in 1829.

Dr. Akerly, superintendant and attending physician of the New York Institution for the Deaf, had actively developed teaching methods for Deaf students, and wanted to do the same for the blind. Towards this end, he joined up with Mr. Wood and fifteen others to petition the State Legislature to create a blind school.

The school was granted, but only permitted for children. Dr. Akerly wanted all ages to benefit.

The school began in a private home on Canal St., with three orphan boys from a poorhouse. Two months later, the school added three more boys and moved to Mercer St. By 1833, there were ten more students, including four girls. The next year, there were 26 students, some from New Jersey.

Eventually Dr. Akerly got his wish of enrolling adults. When future Pres. Grover Cleveland worked there with his brother William in 1853–54, there were students up to age 25. Neither were trained teachers, and remembered their time there as the bleakest of their lives. 

Though the school continued attracting students, pay and food were poor and the buildings damp and cold. A sadistic superintendant also make life miserable for everyone.

The school later moved to 34th St. and Ninth Avenue, which was quite remote in that era. Most people lived far downtown, and Midtown and Upper Manhattan were rural and undeveloped. In 1924, the school moved to Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, where it remains to this day.

Over the years, the school expanded its focus to children with other kinds of disabilities, and in 1986, it was renamed the New York Institute for Special Education.

My character Dea Vodnik attends this school. She was named for the blind leading lady of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs.

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