Czeching Out a Mathews Home


Location: Long Island City, Queens

Rent: $451 (rent-stabilized)

Square feet: 900

Occupant: Debbie Van Cura (human resources consultant; president, Greater Astoria Historical Society)

Nice spoon collection! You have three wall displays in the dining room alone! These yellow brick Mathews row homes, like the one you live in, are so funny looking—25 on each side of the block and they’re all identical. They look like a photo of an accordion orchestra where 100 people are holding the same accordion. Anyway, in 1904, German immigrant Gustav X. Mathews had a dream—healthy, affordable housing for Everyman! With determination on his brow, he filled Queens with blocks of three-story six-family homes—some 2500. He was shooting for more but then there was the Depression. My grandparents bought this building in 1924 for $19,000. They brought their things over from Manhattan on horses. I grew up in the apartment downstairs. The one I’m in now was my grandmother’s. When she passed away in 1983, I moved back. I’ve always lived in this building, except for five years.

Five years? You must have been beside yourself not living in a Mathews home. I was in college. I moved into an apartment with a girlfriend. We said, Oh, let’s try something new. We wanted to live near Astoria Park. It was a basement apartment and it was damp. When it rained it would flood. Mathews homes don’t flood.

Of course! Mathews homes have a window in every room, a backyard for every building. Mr. Perfect apartment builder! You told me you heard Mathews was so committed to housing for the working class that it’s rumored he turned down Met Life’s offer to build middle-class Stuyvesant Town. And his love for quality housing was so strong, he reportedly couldn’t go through with attempts to build tract housing. Ah, you have Czechoslovakian piano rolls—Muziky Muziky! My family is Czechoslovakian on both sides. There are a lot of Czechoslovakians around 19th Street by Ditmars. This block of Mathews homes is very ethnically mixed today—old Irish families, Germans, Italians, some Chinese, now Mexicans, Guyanese, young kids from Manhattan.

There was a man sitting on the stoop in his shorts singing. I think he was Italian. You said rents are up to $800. Oh, your friend Bob just walked in.

[Bob] Like I say in our Astoria Historical Society slide lecture: New Yorkers may not have found gold on the streets, but we can thank G.X. Mathews for putting diamonds on our walls. See those diamond-shaped patterns on the bricks? This guy used every design imaginable! [Debbie] Growing up, my entire world was this block. At Halloween you could cover a half block and get three full bags of trick-or-treat. There wasn’t anything I longed for. I just have to round the corner and I get such a beautiful feeling. When I go down the block to the train, I see so many people I know, so I always have to leave a little early. If I ever needed anything, I’d never have to go further than my own backyard.

Doesn’t anything bad ever happen here? Even your dish towel with the apples looks happy as it flutters in the afternoon air. I have so much of a breeze, I have to keep relighting the pilot light on my stove.