Save the 'Burbs!

Flushing homeowners lead the growing Queens quest for landmark status

Proof of that was in the number who attended last week's midday City Council hearing on landmarking in Queens. With a mere six districts in their borough to Manhattan's 53 (there are 16 in Brooklyn, nine in the Bronx, and three in Staten Island), residents of Kissena Park, the Maspeth plateau, and other areas said they are tired of yuppies' brownstones getting protected while the outer boroughs get the shaft. These are neighborhoods that people "flee to," that have "a sense of place," the advocates said. Their last hope is landmarking.

Robert Tierney, the landmarks commission chairman, says the disparity between Manhattan and the outer boroughs bothers him. But the commission is only one part of the story. The City Council also has a role, and in the past six months it has reversed the commission's designation of a 1960s bank in Elmhurst and a warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront. Councilmembers argued that the buildings were simply too ugly to save and might impede development.

Meanwhile, the current roster of historic districts includes outer-borough sites from Morris Avenue in the Bronx, where a block of impressive row houses sits amid a gritty neighborhood, to Douglaston, Queens, a place so tony that it's illegal for nonresidents to park on many streets, making it hard for most New Yorkers to tour this area that has been preserved for our common historical benefit.

Un-pretty in pink: Leaders of Flushing's bid saw ugly omens in this new cotton-candy mansion
photo: Staci Schwartz
Un-pretty in pink: Leaders of Flushing's bid saw ugly omens in this new cotton-candy mansion

In other words, landmark worthiness is in the eye of the beholder. So is what makes a nice house. The people who built the pink two-story on the corner of 159th Street and 33rd Avenue probably thought it was lovely, with its cotton candy stucco exterior, chrome fence gates, and miniature gazebo in the yard, but the neighbors didn't. "People flipped out," Graziano recalls. It all comes down to what you believe property rights entail. "People think when they buy a house they can stake out borders and in those borders they can do whatever they want," Graziano says. But they can't.

Can't they? Isn't that the whole appeal of the 'burbs—that it's a place where a man can set out a pink flamingo or a statue of the Blessed Virgin, drown the lawn in chemicals, and not care what anyone thinks? Isn't that the suburban America that Broadway- Flushing helped to create: the antithesis of the city? And is that something worth preserving as precious history?

"Throughout urban history there have been different models of community makeup. There's the model of the garden city, where you have lots of green. There is the model of the vertical city. There is the model of the sort of brownstone city," says Simeon Bankoff, head of the Historic Districts Council. "Different people have different needs."

Even if you hate the 'burbs, it's hard to deny that one beauty of New York is that everywhere from teeming Times Square to beachfront City Island is within the borders. And Broadway-Flushing and the like are part of it too; some 50 percent of the city is suburban in style.

But protecting those areas is tricky in a time of growing population. In the next 20 years, New York's population is projected to grow by more than 1 million residents, and they're going to have to live somewhere. Proponents of landmarking see that as a separate problem. "Not every neighborhood has remained as homogenous as this one has. Not every neighborhood has retained their unique character as this one has," says Tony Avella, the local councilman. "There are neighborhoods that need to be preserved, and at the same time, there are neighborhoods that are crying out for affordable housing and need greater density. We can do both."

But not in suburban Queens, if the nabes get their way. Graziano believes there are 25 other potential landmark districts in his borough. He smiles at the thought, and adds, "The sleeping giant of Queens has awoken."

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