Goodbye to Rosie, the Queen of Corona
Seein’ me and Julio down by the schoolyard.
– Paul Simon
When I think of Corona, Queens, four things come immediately to mind: 1) this Paul Simon song; 2) the home of Louis Armstrong, now a museum; 3) the Lemon Ice King as seen in the opening credits the TV show “King of Queens“; and 4) Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
I grew up in neighboring Elmhurst (formerly named “Newtown” during the British colonial period) just as Paul Simon grew up in neighboring Forest Hills. And like Simon, as evidenced by his song, I know Corona today as a neighborhood predominantly comprised of Latin American immigrants. This week’s challenge instructed me to take a walking tour so I sought out the person I believed could best guide me: Jack Eichenbaum, urban geographer. After hearing him featured in this great NPR story just after he was appointed the Queens Borough Historian, I knew he was the man for the job.
Jack and I met on a cold spring morning at Corona Plaza, near the #7 train entrance at 103rd Street. Before we began, Jack started by explaining how the arrival of different forms of transportation affected not only the landscape of Corona but also how people came to interact with it. “No wonder Corona Avenue winds through the neighborhood like a snake!” I exclaimed after Jack described how this street was once the colonial route from Brooklyn to Flushing, and followed the contours of the land. Anglos arrived in the 1800s after the building of the railroad (now the present day Port Washington branch of the Long Island Rail Road) and by the 1890s, Jewish, German, and Italian immigrants arrived as trolleys traveled down the streets.
By 1917, the elevated #7 train was built above an available area — now known as Roosevelt Avenue, a highly commercial area — which at the time was the least desirable part of town. The neighboring business district of Flushing resisted the intrusion of an elevated train but in 10 years the subway line was extended to terminate at Main Street, the current last stop. Flushing’s resistance resulted in the underground building of the Main Street station, which required more money and engineering finesse. (Jack claimed the reason for the subway line’s continuing signal problems today relates to the elevation change from about three stories above ground to going underground into Main Street. Hmmm… I thought this whole time “delays due to signal problems” was a NYC MTA euphemism for “we’re taking a coffee break.”)
Immediately, Jack impressed me with his incredible knowledge. More importantly, he seamlessly connected economic factors to the emergence of transportation advancements that brought about the neighborhood’s changes. He was also able to contextualize the historical events in Corona to what was happening in neighboring parts of Queens, the city of New York, and even the United States.
By the mid- to late 20th century, an influx of Latin Americans arrived in Corona. In the photo above, you can see a storefront sign in the upper left called “Tulcingo Deli”, one of a number of Mexican restaurants in NYC with this name. In fact, my favorite Mexican restaurant in my former neighborhood of Astoria was Tulcingo on Broadway! In Mexico, Tulcingo is a city in the state of Puebla from where many of the Mexicans living in NYC hail.
Pollo Campero, a Guatemalan fast food restaurant, has a location in Corona while Rincon Criollo, one of the oldest Cuban restaurants in the city still remains. Jack tipped me off that any business signs with the words “Quisqueyano” or “Cibao” catered to the Dominican population because the island that is now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic was once called Quisqueya by its native people, the Taino. Cibao, also a Taino word, refers to the northern region of the DR. A geography lesson from a geographer, I expected nothing less.
It was clear that Jack and I were kindred spirits thanks to our mutual interest in the inhabitants who create the culture of a place. I also discovered that Jack likes to travel to the homelands of the immigrants who live in the NYC neighborhoods he explores. Out of all the countries he visited, he claimed Vietnam to be his favorite because the country was nothing like the negative messages he heard about as a young adult.
The tour included a stop at the former Tiffany glass factory and furnaces, which now houses several business including a halal live poultry corporation. How perfect to finally visit the building since I learning about its existence just a few weeks ago during a visit to the nearby Queens Museum of Art for the first week’s challenge!
Our final stop brought us to Silver Bell, a Lithuanian bakery from the 1920s that “is still family owned and dedicated to keeping alive the wholesome traditions of ‘Old World’ baking” according to its website. I wonder what it means to bake “old word” style? Nevertheless, I’m amazed that Silver Bell has managed to remain and succeed in a neighborhood whose demographics have changed so dramatically since it opened.
As an anthropologist, I learned that a place is where politics, economics, and ecology intersect. Jack taught me that technology can also be included in this mix. Akin to an anthropologist doing work in the field, Jack sees the street as a “lab” where observations of the residents’ social behaviors can be made and its effects on a place.
His passion of exploring cities on foot started as a child when his father and grandfather took him on long walks. As a college professor, he took his students to the streets. He organized his first walking tour in 1982 of Long Island City, which was sponsored by the Queens Historical Society. It was in response to the few walking tours offered at the time, which were typically focused on architecture in Manhattan. He wanted to guide tours that focused on the vitality of a place – its people – in a borough that he loves: Queens.
I learned so much from the mere hour I spent with Jack, and I am certain it won’t be the last tour I take with him. Jack sees himself not as a tour guide but as an educator so if you are curious or interested in history, culture, demographics, transportation and New York City in general, go on a walk with Jack! You won’t be disappointed.
Be sure to check out his upcoming signature tour highlighting “The World of the #7 Train”, held on one day only — April 30, 2011 — as detailed below. For additional tour schedules, check his website.
Saturday, April 30, 2011
10:00am to 5:30 pm (with lunch break)
THE WORLD OF THE #7 TRAIN
Long Island City – Sunnyside – Woodside – Elmhurst –
Jackson Heights – Corona – Flushing
Your tour leader, Jack Eichenbaum, maintains a storehouse of researched facts and biased memories of bygone eras. Eichenbaum holds a Ph.D in urban geography, teaches Geography of NYC at CUNY and has been riding the #7 for six decades. His expertise lies in historical geography and ethnic and technological change. His tour will focus on what the #7 train has done to and for the surrounding neighborhoods since it opened in 1914. The #7 has been designated a “National Millennium Trail” for its pioneering role in transporting people in what is probably the most demographically diverse cityscape in the world.
Tour fee is $39 and you need to preregister by check to:
Jack Eichenbaum, 36-20 Bowne St. #6C, Flushing, NY 11354
(include name, phone and email address).
The tour is limited to 25 people.
For further information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.