Growing Up in Queens

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The Queens of my childhood was different from the Queens of my youth and I saw it morph again long after I moved across the river into "the city." Among the the most important lessons I learned was that change is the only constant in New York City.

Southeast Queens was much like many places in America in the mid '60s. Lots of children tumbling out of small wood frame houses.  Although I didn't know their parents and we rarely went into each others homes, I knew every kid who lived on our block.

From childhood, what stays with me is the sound of the thwack of a stickball bat nailing a shot and the shouts as the runner raced around the makeshift bases trying to beat a pink Spalding as both headed for the chalked diamond designated home base. Another pleasant memory is the long hours spent jumping rope to the rhymes we'd sing as we skipped in and out -- 2 on time, don't be late, I've got a date at a quarter past 8, and if I'm late I'll miss that date, so 2 on time -- as the tick tick of a piece of clothesline hit the pavement.

We spent long summer hours on stoops--sometimes dancing to 45's coming from a record player set up near the window. The Jackson 5 were favorites. Sundays, after the many churches let out, there would be lines outside the German bakeries as we waited for the treat of creme-filled donuts.

This was still a time of tremendous innocence in the streets of Hollis/Queens Village. Or so I thought. I learned later that this part of Queens had been redlined by the local banks and realtors. This meant that these street grids were being segregated as white families were shown homes in certain sections and the new Caribbean immigrants and African Americans eager to buy into these family-friendly blocks were shown homes in other sections. The line in our neighborhood changed around 1968, and white flight was pushed along by a protracted and contentious teachers' strike that made the schools in the nearby suburbs even more appealing.

My family stayed to be part of a rapidly integrating neighborhood where basketball at the "little park" became the game of choice. Houses were quickly sold by the Irish and German American working class to the new Americans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians and African Americans who were eager to leave apartments just as an earlier generation seeking more space had done. Italian groceries were replaced by bodegas. My friends and I, like all teens, craved privacy and gravitated to empty parking lots and isolated places like "The Gulch," a strip along the Cross Island Parkway or "Green Grass," a field created by an on ramp to the Parkway. By 1970, rebellion against the Vietnam War, street drugs like marijuana and a growing sense of an emerging youth culture that was re-defining America gave us a somewhat distorted sense of reality.

It was when I discovered the map room at Jamaica Library, a bus ride away, that I began to realize my corner of the city had lots of stories to tell. As I began my research, I learned that the Jameco Indians had once once walked Jamaica Avenue, a path through tall sea grass. They traded it to the Dutch for some overcoats and guns and a promise not to to cut down any trees that had eagles' nests in them. The sea grass was replaced by farms and eagles were long gone when we arrived, but the search for home and meaning of place was still very much alive.