Category Archives: History

A Tradition from Ponza, Italy Continues: The Feast of San Silverio

Religion. Politics. Power. Plots. Exile. Death.

Tile Rendering of Ponza's Main Port

All these ingredients create a perfect recipe for a dramatic plot.  But residents of Ponza, the largest of the Pontine Islands off the Italian coast in the Tyrrehenian Sea, celebrate a man whose life experienced them all.  The Ponzese annually celebrate the feast day of their patron saint on June 20 with a Roman Catholic Mass, a street procession with the statue, and abundant food.  Accused of treason for another’s political gain, Pope Silverius was deposed in the early 6th century.  Despite numerous attempts to prove his innocence, he was exiled to Palmarola, a harsh and rugged island 8 miles from Ponza, where he died.

The Ponzese were among the surge of Italian immigrants arriving in the United States between the 1880s and the 1920s.  Many arrived in New York City and eventually settled in the Bronx.  Like most immigrants, they continued their cultural traditions, one of which was the feast day celebration of their patron saint.  A fraternal society organized the Bronx celebration, which would mimic the one in Ponza.  After Mass at Our Lady of Pity Roman Catholic Church (now a closed parish on 151st Street near Morris Avenue), the faithful would process behind the statue throughout the neighborhood.

Hymn to San Silverio

By the mid 20th century, irreverent onlookers would throw eggs and bottles from building windows onto the processors.  In response, society member Ercito Mazzella offered to donate 81 acres of land in Dover Plains, NY that he recently purchased.  Located approximately 70 miles north of the Bronx, Mazzella originally intended to develop the land but instead, urged the society to raise funds to build a shrine that would serve as a permanent site for future processions to be held in peace.  In 2012, the San Silverio Shrine in Dover Plains will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

A Mass celebration and a small procession continues to be held every June 20 in the Morris Park section of the Bronx.  A week later, on Sunday morning, the shrine in Dover Plains hosts another celebration attracting hundreds of families, all of whom are descended from or somehow connected to the island of Ponza.

Fr. Ciro Iodice, OFM, sailed to the United States from Ponza on the Andrea Dorea in 1956, the ship’s penultimate voyage before it sank.  For the last 30 years, he has celebrated Mass at the shrine, driving several hours from Massachusetts to do so. He explained that many people participate in a procession because the saint is invoked for a specific intention or thanked for an answered prayer.  “A procession is a solemn, spiritual dialogue where a person can be in communion with the saint, with other members processing, and with the earth…the surrounding elements, both visible and invisible.”

The procession snaked along a forested path, led by a marching band and Rev. Iodice followed by men who carried the statues of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and San Silverio with the rest of the participants behind them.  The procession lasted 30 minutes with a pause in the middle for prayer. Red carnations on San Silverio’s boat were distributed to the crowd and several people pinned money to the ribbons adorning the saint’s statue at the conclusion of the ceremony. These donations were visible signs of requests or thanks.

Guido Rivieccio carried the statue of San Silverio this year as he has done for many previous years.  “As a kid, I was involved with the feast in Morris Park and I’ve been carrying the statue for about 10-15 years,” said Rivieccio.  He does it to honor his parents pointing especially to his father who was standing a few feet away.  The elder Rivieccio carried the statue in New York and in Ponza as a young man.  Rivieccio tries to remain connected to his roots by attending this annual celebration and by traveling back to Ponza.  Four years ago, he tattooed an image of San Silverio on his entire right deltoid and bicep!

Over time, most societies formed by newly arrived immigrants whither away as the connection to the homeland becomes more distant.  Yet for generations, these American descendants of Ponza have gathered with their families to celebrate this annual tradition in Dover Plains for almost 50 years.  Their devotion to San Silverio and their connection to their roots have not died. Let’s hope they never do.

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A Weekend in Queens in Pursuit of the American Dream

This post is my entry into the TBEX Blog Carnival Contest sponsored by Choice Hotels International Services Corporation.  UPDATE:  On July 18, TBEX tweeted this announcement that I was one of the three winners!  Thank you to TBEX and Choice Hotels! 

In honor of Independence Day (July 4th) in the United States, I want to celebrate one of the many things that makes this nation great:  its people.  All of us who have ever lived in this country can trace our histories back–even the Native Americans, who crossed on land over what is now the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia–to that first arrival in America from a different shore.  Some came of their own volition while others by force.

For centuries, New York City has been the destination of choice for explorers, traders, immigrants, and tourists.  But a visit to New York City today is too often limited to the borough of Manhattan.  Even people who live here are hard pressed to explore the vast city they live in!  So hop on the subway, bus, or ferry and cross the East River to visit Queens, the most ethnically diverse county in the United States!  Below I have tailored a special weekend itinerary in Queens that celebrates New York City’s past and present, and honors the people who have settled here in search of the American dream.

Strap on your walking shoes, prepare your senses, and come on an empty stomach!  Queens will enthrall you.

SATURDAY:  WESTERN QUEENS
Ride the N or Q train to the first stop and walk to the remaining destinations.  Travel time is built into the itinerary.

8:00 am – Breakfast at Artopolis Bakery (Greek)
[23-18 31st Street, Astoria]

As a teenager, all my high school Greek friends hailed from Astoria.  Before the Greeks arrived in the mid-20th century, the area had previously been settled by the Dutch, Germans, Irish, and Italians.  Since those high school days nearly 20 years ago, people from the Middle East (particularly Egypt), Brazil, Japan, the newly formed Eastern European countries, plus whites escaping escalating rents in Manhattan and Brooklyn all flocked to Astoria, due to its close proximity & easy access to Manhattan.  Despite this diversification, Astoria is still synonymous with Greek immigrants.  For the 2004 Olympic Summer Games, the Olympic Flame first traveled all over the world before arriving in Athens.  As one of four US cities to host the Olympic Torch, it only made sense to commence the NYC relay in Astoria, in Athens Square Park.

Start your day off at what is arguably the best Greek pastry shop in the neighborhood!  Your eyes will be bigger than your stomach when you see the seemingly endless displays of cookies, pastries, bread, and delicacies.  Remember to order a coffee!  The bakery is located in a mall, just follow your nose.

Coffee at Artopolis - Photo Courtesy of Petit Hiboux (Flickr)

9:00 am – Steinway Piano Factory Tour (German)
[1 Steinway Place, Astoria]

Walk through a residential part of Astoria to get to the industrialized northern tip of the neighborhood.  The famous piano maker still creates and refurbishes Steinways in its original Queens factory.  Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (later anglicized to “Steinway”), emigrated from Germany with his family in the mid 19th century.  Shortly thereafter, Steinway started manufacturing pianos and by the 1880s, the Steinway family built its new factory and village in Astoria.  The Steinways were influential in the development of the neighborhood, hence a major thoroughfare is named after them.  The three-hour tour highlights the history of the family and the neighborhood, the one-of-a-kind quality of each instrument, and the craftsmanship of the workers past and present reminding you that historically, Western Queens was a major manufacturing area as a result of its close proximity to the East River.

1:00 pm – Lunch at the Bohemian Beer Garden (Czech & Slovak)
[29-19 24th Avenue, Astoria]

Established in 1910, the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden is the oldest beer garden in the City.  Munch on grilled kielbasa or bratwurst and wash it down with one of the Czech or Slovak beers on tap.  My personal favorite?  The Krušovice tmavé (dark) for its roasted, malty flavor.  The scene is always packed on weekends and it is not uncommon to see families enjoying themselves while they let their young children run round.  Many of the outdoor picnic tables are shaded by old trees, allowing for a relaxing and refreshing afternoon break from the summer heat.

Photo Courtesy of WallyG (Flickr)

3:30 pm – The Noguchi Museum (Japanese/American)
[9-01 33rd Road, Long Island City]

If you are not a lover of sculpture, a visit to the Noguchi Museum may just change your mind.  Born to a Japanese father and a white American mother in 1904, Isamu Noguchi lived in Japan as a child and moved to America as a teenager.  By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was in his late 30s living in NYC as a sculptor.  He created the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy in 1942, a group dedicated to raising awareness of Japanese-American patriotism.  He also asked to be interned as an act of solidarity with his brethren Japanese-Americans.  He spent 7 months in an internment camp and his work during this period clearly reflected his personal turmoil and sadness.  The gallery, which includes an outdoor garden, was created by Noguchi.  His primary studio was across the street, which he often biked to from his Manhattan residence; he also maintained a studio in Japan.  His pieces are strategically placed so that you sometimes feel like they belong in the “natural” landscape.  Somehow, serenity manages to envelop you during your visit.

Photo Courtesy of RocketLass (Flickr)

7:00 pm – Gantry State Park at Dusk
[Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue, Long Island City]

View the Manhattan skyline while strolling along the now refurbished waterfront piers of Long Island City, where the landscaped park offers you welcoming chairs to take in the scenery.  Watch as the sun sets behind the skyscrapers, feel the last rays of the day hit your face, and listen to the river lapping on the shore.  If you’re lucky, sometimes hammocks are there.  Snag one, close your eyes, and take in the silence.  Burn this memory into your brain:  you are swinging in a hammock, by the water, in NEW YORK CITY!

Manhattan Skyline from Gantry State Park

8:30 pm Dinner at Manducatis Rustica (Italian)
[13-27 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City]

On the outside, this squat Flatiron-shaped building looks like a residential house with a non-descript white door.  The only possible clue offered is its big bay window with curtains pulled shut and a sign.  Blink and you could miss it.  Once inside, you still feel like you are entering a residence, since in many ways, you are.  Couple Vincenzo and Ida Cerbone, have been feeding artists and working-class folks from the neighborhood for approximately 20 years, well before the arrival of the sleek luxury condos and chic, hip restaurants that now inhabit the area.  Let them and their staff welcome you and help you pair the right kind of wine with your Neapolitan meal.  Try to resist the urge to plant a kiss on each check when you say good-bye, but if you can’t, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.

If you still have some energy left and want an after-dinner drink, there are a bevy of bars within several blocks of each other, including Domaine Wine Bar, Dominie’s Hoek, Dutch Kills, and LIC Bar.  You could even stroll back to Gantry State Park to view the lights of the Manhattan skyline at night.

SUNDAY:  CENTRAL QUEENS
The second day, you’ll ride the 7 train and hop on and off in both directions.  Again, travel time is built into the itinerary.

8 am – Breakfast at Ihawan (Filipino)
[40-06 70th Street, Woodside]

Filipino food reflects the countries that have heavily influenced the culture,  usually China, Malaysia, Spain, and the United States.  It comes together clearly in a typical Filipino breakfast, consisting of a cured meat or fish (tapa), garlic-fried rice (sinangag), and eggs over easy (itlog).  Combine each underlined portion of the Tagalog words and you come up with its name: tapsilog.  Ihawan is run by the Bacani Family, who hail from the province of Pampanga in the Philippines, widely accepted amongst most Filipinos as the home of the best cooks in the country.  Fuel up now, because you’ll need it for your next stop.

Photo Courtesy of Kitakitts (Flickr)

9:30 am – Flushing Meadows Corona Park

Once the site of the “valley of ashes” as described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby, a rush of urban beautification measures in the early 20th century created this 1,255-acre park, and site of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.  Today, the park offers many outdoor activities.  Walk, or even better, rent a bike to cover more ground.  You’ll definitely want to see remnants from the World’s Fair such as the Unisphere and the New York State Pavilion observation towers, more recently made famous in the movie Men in Black as the place the aliens apparently hid their spaceships.  Be sure to stop by the Queens Museum of Art where you’ll see the Panorama of the City of New York, a 3D model of the city’s buildings and structures since 1992.  See also the memorabilia from both World’s Fairs and the exhibit on Tiffany glass, produced in neighboring Corona.  The park is also home to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, host of the US Open and Citi Field, home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets.

The Unisphere with Observation Towers in the Background

1:30 pm – Flushing (Chinese, Korean, Dutch, English)
[137-16 Northern Boulevard, Flushing]

Wander around the neighborhood that is home to Queens’ Chinatown and Koreatown.  If you are feeling peckish from your time at the park, you could get some cheap street food to tide you over to dinner.  You’ll find the majority of storefront signs here not in English, and perhaps you’ll start to wonder if you’re in another country.  Before your mind starts playing tricks on you, stop by the Flushing Quaker Meeting House, built near the end of the 17th century, and considered to be the oldest house of worship in New York State.  Even back when Flushing (then known by its original name, Vlissengen) was a Dutch colony, residents clamored for religious freedom in response to rampant discrimination by the colonial Dutch government.  This vocal protest resulted in the signing of the Flushing Remonstrance by local residents in the mid-17th century, a document that inspired the right to freedom of worship as enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution.

Signs along Union Street between Northern Boulevard & 37th Avenue

4pm – Louis Armstrong House Museum (African-American)
[34-56 107th Street, Corona]

Catch the last tour of the day at the home of jazz legend Louis Armstrong.  He and his wife, Daisy, lived in their modest Corona home for nearly 30 years, from 1943 to his death in 1971.  No one has resided in the house since then and the interior decorations have been preserved to show how the Armstrongs lived.  Listen to audio clips as you walk through the home and wander through their Japanese inspired garden.  See photographs and learn about the man whose career spanned a time in American history when racial discrimination blatantly segregated blacks and whites in society.

5:30 pm – Dinner at Rincon Criollo (Cuban)
[40-09 Junction Boulevard, Corona]

In recent decades, Corona became the home to people from all over Latin America.  And while you may have your pick of cuisines from Guatemalan fast food to Mexican chain restaurants, I recommend Rincon Criollo because it has been around for 30 years and the story of the family who owns and runs it exemplifies the American Dream realized.  The Acosta Brothers opened the original Rincon Criollo in Cuba in the 1950s as a modest room consisting of four wooden planks for its floor and palm branches as its roof.  Years of hard work led to the restaurant’s successful growth and expansion, while becoming a favorite of Cuban celebrities.  However, life changed dramatically in Cuba as the brothers had their restaurants seized following the Cuban revolution of 1962.  Fourteen years later, the brothers re-opened Rincon Criollo in Corona, Queens.  The restaurant walls are lined with photos from the old country, a reminder of their past and their roots.  Regular patrons of Rincon Criollo have been coming with their families for years, savoring the tastes of a home that exists today only in their memories or in the stories of their [grand]parents.

The Acosta Brothers and all the people and families who have been highlighted on this tour of Queens are living testaments to what we celebrate most visibly on July 4th:  the American spirit of innovation, creativity, hard-work, determination and hope.  Regardless of their backgrounds, immigrants have come to America with a dream for a better life for themselves and their families, and millions have started that dream right here in Queens.

Artopolis Bakery
23-18 31st Street
Astoria, NY 11105
(718) 728-8484
www.artopolis.net
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard

Steinway & Sons Factory
1 Steinway Place
Astoria, NY  11105
(718) 721-2600
http://steinway.com/
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard
Call in advance to schedule a tour.

Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden
29-19 24th Avenue
Astoria, NY  11102
(718) 274-4925
www.bohemianhall.com
N, Q train to Astoria Boulevard

The Noguchi Museum
9-01 33rd Road
Long Island City, NY  11106
(718) 204-7088
www.noguchi.org

Gantry Plaza State Park
Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11109
7 Train to Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue or
G Train to 21st Street/Jackson Avenue
http://nysparks.state.ny.us/parks/149/details.aspx

Manducatis Rustica
13-27 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 729-4602
7 train to Hunters Point Avenue or
G train to 21st Street

Domaine Wine Bar
50-04 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 784-2350
www.domainewinebar.com

Dominie’s Hoek
48-17 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 706-6531
www.dominieshoek.com

Dutch Kills
27-24 Jackson Ave
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 383-2724
www.dutchkillsbar.com

LIC Bar
45-58 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 786-5400
www.longislandcitybar.com

Ihawan
40-06 70th Street
Woodside, NY  11377
(718) 205-1480
7 train to 69th Street
www.ihawan2.com

Flushing Meadows Corona Park
7 train to Mets-Willets Point

Flushing Quaker Meeting House
137-16 Northern Boulevard
Flushing, NY  11354
718-358-9636
7 train to Main Street
http://www.nyym.org/flushing/hmh.html

Louis Armstrong House Museum
34-56 107th Street
Corona, NY  11368
718-478-8274
7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza
www.louisarmstronghouse.org

Rincon Criollo
40-09 Junction Boulevard
Corona, NY  11368
(718) 639-8158
7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza

The King of Queens?

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.

Park of the Americas (formerly Linden Park, which once contained a lake) was renamed as a tribute to the countless ethnic communities who lived and still live in Corona.

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.

Reading the signs & utilizing our Spanish skills

English translation: "Want to try our Fanesca? Then come here. We have the best and most delicious." Fanesca is an Ecuadorian stew made only around Easter.

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!

The former glass factory of Louis Comfort Tiffany

Sign in English, Chinese, Spanish and Hindi (?)

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.

Standing in front of freshly baked bread. I could not resist a treat!

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.

Jack Eichenbaum
www.geognyc.com
jaconet@aol.com
718-961-8406

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 jaconet@aol.com.

Fortified New York

Four out of the five New York City boroughs are either an island (Manhattan and Staten Island) or part of an island (Brooklyn and Queens are two of the four counties that make up Long Island).  The Bronx is the only borough that is part of the US mainland.  As a result, the waterways surrounding the city are an intrinsic part of its identity and served an important economic function in its history.  Yet the waterway system made the city vulnerable to attack so fortifications were built at strategic points along its harbors.  This week’s challenge instructed me to spend time in a city park and while Flushing Meadows Corona Park may have been an obvious choice, instead I chose Fort Totten Park to learn more about the city’s military history.

Located on 60 acres in Bayside, a neighborhood in the northeastern-most section of Queens, Fort Totten was built in the mid-19th century and along with Fort Schuyler in the Bronx, served to protect the eastern entrance into New York harbor via the East River through Long Island Sound.  It complemented the fortification of the harbor from the south at the mouth of the Narrows, with Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn and Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island.  Today, a small section of it still houses the US Army Reserves and the US Coast Guard.

One of the highlights of my visit was a self guided tour of the water battery, which was built in 1862 as one of the US government’s responses to the attack on Fort Sumter and the subsequent outbreak of Civil War in 1861.  After checking in at the refurbished Visitor’s Center, I accessed the battery at a nearby entrance that led me into a long transport tunnel lit by a single file of light bulbs along its ceiling.  Walking through the tunnel felt like going through an old-fashioned wormhole in slow motion because when I emerged on the other side, I came upon an eerily abandoned unfinished fort from the past.

Walking amidst the large granite blocks and bluestone floors was reminiscent of my exploration of the buildings at Machu Picchu in Peru.  Arched cannon rooms and walkways, numerous doors that led to hidden rooms and little crannies, stairwells that raised or lowered you to another level, and windows that peered out onto the water made it feel like a maze.  The blocks, although universally sized here, reminded me of the large boulders smoothed out and tightly fitted together by the Incas to create the buildings of Machu Picchu.  This place would be a photographer’s dream as light and shadow interplay well with the structure’s architecture. In all of my exploration, I did not encounter another visitor even though I saw a couple enter the tunnel just five minutes ahead of me.

Since the battery is adjacent to the water, it affords excellent views of Long Island Sound, Nassau County, and the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges that connect Queens and the Bronx.

Throgs Neck Bridge in Foreground & Whitestone Bridge in Background

View of Long Island Sound & Nassau County

Decades of neglect have left the battery and many of the buildings at Fort Totten in a state of decay.  In some parts, nature has taken over.

Batteries Built in 1885-1903 that Housed Disappearing Guns

To see incredible pictures on the state of a decaying building, check out this photo essay on Fort Totten’s Army Hospital.  There is hope for some of these buildings to return to their resplendent beauty.  Below is the former Commanding Officer’s house and today it is the Parks and Recreation Department’s northeast Queens headquarters.

The Gothic revival building below is known as “The Castle”.  It was once the Officer’s Club is now home to the Bayside Historical Society.

Replica of the Archaeological Site

Bayside Real Estate Brochure in the 1930s. A 2-story, 3 bed house on a 40x100 plot cost $5,890-$6,290.

I highly recommend a stop at “The Castle”. On the day of my visit, Margaret, a friendly employee offered me a quick and dirty “ten cent” tour. After showing me the lay of the land, I lingered to view the exhibits on display. Committed to remembering and explaining the history of the building and the neighboring area, permanent exhibitions inform visitors of the archeological digs of the area, the Native Americans who lived here, as well as the development of Bayside.  Special exhibitions such as “The Women of Bayside” currently on display, highlight the contemporary events and people of the neighborhood.  The society hosts lectures and events and the building is even available for rent by the public.

Union Soldier Uniform

Fort Totten was designated a NYC Historic District in 1999 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In 2003, it was transferred to the City of New York with the exception of the 77th Army Reserve. In addition to the army reserve, the park is also home to the NYC Parks and Recreation, Fire, and Police Departments as well as the US Coast Guard. The park accommodates all ages and interests. Park Rangers offer historical tours of the battery, architectural tours of the buildings, and even take children on birdwatching tours! You can walk, run, and bike throughout the grounds and in the summer, a public pool is available for use.

To learn more about events at Fort Totten Park or any of NYC’s public parks, pick up the free quarterly magazine by the Urban Park Rangers, “Outdoors in NYC”.  It is a useful guide that sorts information by borough, date/time, then activity.  You can also access a copy online.  I am struck by the incredible breadth of activities available to the public, the majority of which are free!

Fort Totten Park
Cross Island Parkway & Totten Avenue
Bayside, Queens
Visitors Center:  718-352-1769
FREE / Hours: Dawn to Dusk
www.nycgovparks.org/parks/forttotten

The Bayside Historical Society
Thu – Fri:  10 am – 2 pm
Sat:  12 – 4 pm
Sun:  11 am – 2 pm
$3 Suggested Donation
www.baysidehistorical.org

7 train to Main Street, Flushing,
followed by the Q13 or Q16 bus to the last stop
— OR —
LIRR Port Washington Line to Bayside,
followed by the Q13 bus to Fort Totten

Aerial View of NYC

Welcome to the first week in a 12-week travel series on Queens, New York City’s most ethnically diverse borough!  This first week starts off with a bang!  Charged with viewing my city from above, I headed straight to the Queens Museum of Art for the very first time in my life…and I’m a Queens native!  Inside, I bee-lined straight to the museum’s permanent and most popular exhibit.

Behold, the Panorama of the City of New York!!!

The boroughs are labeled in this picture for your easy reference.

Without rising more than 20 feet, I saw the entire city’s five boroughs spread before me.  And I didn’t have to worry about wind conditions, precipitation, cloud cover, crowds, and steep admission prices!

In 1939 and 1964, New York City hosted the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, where the museum is currently located.  Commissioned by the city’s most famous urban planner,  Robert Moses,  the panorama was built for the 1964 fair and the project was spearheaded by an architectural model making firm.  It took 100 people to build it in 3 years.  At present, the model is 9,335 square feet and contains every NYC building built before 1992 to total 895,000 individual structures.  Sure enough, I even managed to pinpoint my own house built in the 1920s!

Midtown Manhattan with Queens & the Bronx in the background,all connected by the Robert F. Kennedy (formerly, the Triboro) Bridge

Lower Manhattan with the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges& the World Trade Center (RIP)

Islands in the Harbor (clockwise starting at top right): Governors, Liberty, Ellis

View of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn & Staten Island& the Atlantic Ocean beyond

The panorama has remained open to the public ever since its debut in 1964.   If you are an architecture, history, or NYC buff, you’ll definitely love this exhibit.  As a native New Yorker, it was fun for me to point out the changes that have occurred in the city since 1992.  For example, the building construction of the AOL Time Warner Center, 4 Times Square/Condé Naste, and the glass addition to the Hearst building, the rezoning and subsequent development of the Queens and Brooklyn waterfronts particularly in the neighborhoods of  Long Island City, Williamsburg, DUMBO, and more recently Red Hook, and the gentrification of the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Meatpacking District was yet to happen.  Heck, even Battery Park City, created by filling in an area of the Hudson River with the rocks and soil excavated from the World Trade Center construction site, was in the panorama but without any buildings.  The panorama certainly cannot keep up with the constant, fast paced changes of NYC yet it still manages to capture the incredible vastness and diversity of the place.  To see more pictures of the panorama, click here.

Before you leave the museum, make sure to check out the other worthwhile exhibits.  The small Tiffany glass exhibit is worth a stop.  Artist, Louis Tiffany had his studio and furnace in neighboring Corona.  And the World’s Fair memorabilia from both 1939 and 1964 are telling indicators of life within the United States and the world during those periods.


Queens Museum of Art
New York City Building
Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Queens, NY 11368-3398
Wed – Sun: 12 – 6pm
Suggested Donation: Adults $5; Seniors & Children $2.50; Members & Children Under 5 FREE
7 Train to either 111th Street or Mets-Willets Point

www.queensmuseum.org

Evacuate, Escape!

As the protests in Egypt continue, my heart goes out to the people.  What must be going through the hearts of Egyptians as their country remains embroiled and embattled?  What will be the outcome?  Will a new Egypt emerge out of these demonstrations?

But there are other people to think about too.  Foreign journalists in the last several days have told audiences around the world that they have been harassed, attacked, and detained.  And of course, there are other foreigners:  the tourists, the expats, the students, the volunteer workers.  What has happened to them?  What happens when events within a place occur without a moment’s notice and the decision between staying or leaving becomes extremely urgent?

The New York Times recently wrote an article about stranded Americans in Egypt.  The United States State Department created a public service announcement (PSA) and tweeted evacuation instructions for American citizens wishing to leave the country.  I travel overseas at least once a year and as I prepare for my trip, I always pause to consider registering my name with the US Embassy in the country I am visiting.  Then I usually shake my head and shove the idea aside because really, what could possibly go wrong that the embassy would need to know my presence in country X?

Well, Egypt has reminded me of the reason why I should do so.  It is an extreme case of what is possible.  Highly unlikely, yes.  But possible nonetheless.  Besides political unrest, I can think of other instances when the need to escape while traveling becomes compelling.

Natural Disaster: In 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caught people completely by surprise along the coasts of several Asian and even African countries.  Devastating tsunamis struck and killed hundreds of thousands of people, most of them in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

Mechanical Difficulties: US Airways Flight #1549 departed from NYC’s La Guardia Airport and shortly after take-off collided with a flock of Canadian geese that resulted in a loss of thrust in both engines.  Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed the plane in the Hudson River.  All 155 passengers and crew survived.

Disease Outbreak: In 2003, an outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) began in mainland China and spread to other areas such as Hong Kong and Vietnam.

Acts of Terrorism: Sadly, this is the reality of the world we live in — the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the 2008 coordinated attacks in different parts of Mumbai,  and just last month a suicide attack in the Moscow airport.

I am so blessed and very grateful that I’ve not yet found myself in a situation where I’ve had to evacuate.  The closest I’ve come to civil unrest was in La Paz, Bolivia in 2003 when my bus was re-routed because a group of strikers blocked the roads.  Despite these possibilities, it has not deterred me from traveling.  In fact, it can be argued that these devastated places are precisely the ones we should travel to because they could benefit greatly from our tourism money.  I recall the Kenyan safari companies encouraging all Westerners to visit after ethnic violence erupted in 2008 due to the controversial outcome of the presidential election in December 2007.

In your travels, were you confronted with a circumstance that required you to decide whether to stay or leave?  What happened and where?  What factors led to making your decision?  Please share your story in the comment section below.  I look forward to hearing them.

People Power

The Tunisian people successfully toppled their president from power after mass protests in the streets, instigated by a humiliated fruit vendor who set himself on fire (and subsequently died) after a female police officer confiscated his wares and slapped him.  On the heels of these events, the Yemeni and Egyptian people are also taking to the streets to protest their dissatisfaction with their governments.  It is Day 6 of protests in Egypt and  I am transfixed by what I see on Al Jazeera TV.  These images bring my mind back to late February 1986, when a nation took to the streets of its capital Manila.

The People Power Revolution in the Philippines occurred on February 22-25 when masses of people publicly protested against the authoritarian Marcos regime.  Presidential snap elections occurred earlier in the month and declared the incumbent, Ferdinand Marcos, the winner despite widespread rumors of election tampering and corruption.   With members of his cabinet and the military turning against him and the archbishop of Manila calling the people to peaceful protest, Marcos eventually fled the country.  Corazon “Cory” Aquino, his opponent in the election and widow of Marcos-opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., assumed the presidency.

I see a lot of similarities between those protests 25 years ago in the Philippines and the ones today in Egypt.

  • People are fed up with a despotic regime led by someone in power for too long. Despite claiming to be purported democracies, these presidents have been in power for 20+ years (Mubarak for 30 and Marcos for 21)  with administrations full of rampant corruption, political repression, nepotism, and human rights violations.  The media is controlled by the government.

    The Phlippine Sunday Express Headline on September 21, 1972

  • The military fraternizes with protesters. The recent images I’ve seen from Egypt have been ones of a baby sitting on a tank and a woman or man kissing a soldier.  In the Philippines, people brought their families/children to the streets, young women handed flowers and food to the soldiers.
  • Religious prayer is observed despite the chaos. In Egypt, I am struck by a line of men on the floor, kneeling and bowing in prayer as soldiers surround them.  They remind me of the Filipino nuns and priests linking arms and joining the people to form  a human chain against an approaching army of soldiers and tanks.  They prayed the rosary out loud and raised up their hands which held rosary beads or the Bible.   Some protesters even cradled statues of the Virgin Mary.  They used prayer as a powerful tool of resistance. 
  • The United States finds itself in an awkward position. Historically, both Egypt and the Philippines were considered US friends and allies.  Both countries provided the US the anchor it needed to carry out its political interests within a region of instability (the prevention of the spread of communism in Asia and the spread of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East).  In fact, the US aided Marcos when he fled from the Philippines.  He was extracted from Malacañang Palace and eventually brought to Hawaii by US Armed Forces.  He stayed there until his death in 1989.

    Ferdinand & Imelda Marcos visit President Reagan in the US in September 1982

We do not know what the outcome will be in Egypt despite the similarities I just pointed out.  I do hope that the protests will end as peacefully as possible.  The Philippine people are proud that the revolution in 1986 was bloodless with no shots fired at the people.  To learn more about the People Power Revolution, click hereBoth black and white photos above & the photo immediately below were found on Francesca Cojuangco Guingona’s page.

Cory Aquino in 1997 with the ubiquitous "L" sign from the revolution. The hand sign stands for "laban" or "fight". She wears yellow, the color of the revolution. Picture courtesy of the GMA News Blog.

Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, son of Ninoy and Cory Aquino, flashes the L-sign during his presidential campaign. Sworn into office on June 30, 2010, he is the current president of the Philippines. Picture courtesy of The Philippine Star.