Save the ‘Burbs!


The Tortorella residence does not look like the other houses on 158th Street. It’s bigger than the dignified brick colonials across the way and a little bolder than the wood-shingled Arts and Crafts homes up the block. It has multicolor brick on the terraced patio, a sweeping overhang on the front porch, and stucco on the exterior walls. Lupe Tortorella says a few locals have made it clear they are not fans of her husband’s renovations. Some just sneer, but “one neighbor said it to us,” she says. “They just don’t like the new look.”

No, they don’t, the Broadway-Flushing Homeowners Association and its allies. And that’s why the Tortorellas might soon be living in the middle of a 1,330-property, 74-block historic district. If that happens, changes like the ones the Tortorellas have made would be subject to approval by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which will aim to maintain or restore the historic character of the area.

The local community board recently OK’d the landmark proposal 33-0, the local councilman is on board, and the State Historic Preservation Office has given its imprimatur. About all that’s left is for the landmarks commission to grant approval. If it does, New York City will have at least its 88th historic district, and by far its largest suburban one. And other Queens communities—Richmond Hill, Kew Gardens, Parkway Village—will be clamoring to be next.

Broadway-Flushing traces its modern history to 1906, when the Rickert-Finlay real estate company chose it for one of the first planned communities in the country, aiming to create a lower-density living area still within easy commuting distance to Manhattan.

To achieve its vision, Rickert-Finlay attached to all its properties restrictive deeds that limited how the properties could be changed by successive owners, requiring certain lot sizes, peaked roofs, no fences, and minimum setbacks from the street to preserve a leafy, open feel. The project drew other realtors to the area, and they created similar developments promising lives of “City Conveniences, Country Benefits.”

Those Flushing developments soon inspired imitation suburbs around the country, and that’s why the backers of the historic-district proposal think they have a case for landmark recognition. But it’s a case, they say, that’s slowly being eroded behind construction scaffolds. The citywide development boom has deposited gaudy McMansions in the area—looming monsters laced with baroque fencing and putrid brickface. The Broadway-Flushing Historic District proposal is a bid to fend off this invasion of what one Queens preservationist calls “Home Depot moderne.”

Driving the streets of the proposed Broadway-Flushing district, one sees houses ranging from modest to stately, neatly trimmed lawns and hedges, SUVs, and kids bouncing basketballs. There are driveways and front gardens. In other words, one sees the ‘burbs. As national heritage goes, this ain’t exactly Lexington or Concord. But supporters don’t view the bid for a landmark district as an academic pursuit; they see it as a matter of survival against developers. It’s see history, or be history.

How many neighborhoods do you know in New York City that look like this?” says Paul Graziano as he drives around the district running roughly from 154th Street to 192nd Street and from 32nd Avenue down to Northern Boulevard and Crocheron Avenue. A Green Party candidate for City Council in 2001, Graziano is a leading advocate for defending suburban Queens from development. In Broadway-Flushing, what he says need protection are the tree-lined streets, Tudor- and colonial-style houses, generous front lawns, and the quiet, low-turnover community that the physical environment has fostered.

The landmark law would prevent local homeowners from making any changes to the exterior of their properties that don’t reflect or restore the historic character of the neighborhood. A 2003 study by the Independent Budget Office found that prices for homes in historic districts were higher and rose f
aster than for those outside. But this isn’t about property values, Graziano contends, “it’s maintaining a certain look for the community. It’s a way of retaining a certain way of life that comes with that.”

The local homeowners association has fought to preserve that way of life before, winning changes to zoning rules to prevent multi-family development, and convincing the Federal Aviation Administration to reroute LaGuardia-bound jets over parks and other neighborhoods. The veterans of those struggles are proud. “There is no place better than this anywhere in the world,” says 90-year-old Marjorie Ferrigno, one of the founders of the association. But when downtown Flushing began to build up, she says, “that’s when everything changed. The old houses were being torn down. Apartment houses were coming in. It was pretty scary.”

In all of this talk about “quality of life,” some critics of the historic-
district plan see ethnic and racial undertones. Caron Shapiro, one of the opponents, has accused the plan’s promoters of failing to reach out to the district’s Asian residents. “It’s the idea that the Asians don’t appreciate these fine old structures,so if we put in these restrictions they won’t want to buy in the neighborhood,” she says.

Most of the opposition, Graziano acknowledges, is Korean or Chinese. “But it shouldn’t be looked at in racial terms,” he says. “This is a neighborhood that welcomes everybody as long as you respect the neighborhood.” Councilman John Liu, whose district is nearby, says he detects only a natural resistance to newcomers in Broadway-Flushing, not racism. What this is about, say the supporters of landmarking in Flushing and elsewhere in Queens, is not race but class. These are middle-class areas, the backbone of the city’s tax base, and if people feel threatened by a way of life they dislike, they will simply leave.

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.

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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