What makes a neighborhood? Is it a shared sense of heritage, the way Little Italy used to be? A similar design, like Pomander Walk? Or, perhaps, the blessing of a higher authority, as with Bedwick? (Kidding!) There's no universally accepted definition; their alleged boundaries, nonetheless, are constantly in flux or in dispute. Because of this—and because some obscure name is sure to fly under one's radar, no matter how familiar one is with the city—we sought input from several sources in searching for the city's smallest neighborhood.
The Department of City Planning doesn't "do" neighborhoods, preferring to sort them into census tracts and Neighborhood Tabulation Areas; the only NTAs with populations smaller than 10,000 were parks, cemeteries(!?), and the airports. PropertyShark's picks weren't all that small—Tudor City was the tiniest—but StreetEasy pulled up the areas with the least amount of real estate per square foot, which seemed reasonable. Topping that list: a place called Ramblersville, in Queens. We'd never heard of it, but after a visit and a dive into the archives, we soon wished we could visit during its heyday at the turn of the 20th century.
"When you take a train for Rockaway Beach you will no doubt have noticed a little place on the bay side of the long trestle, just the other side of the railroad station, at Aqueduct. You have seen boats, fishing smacks, nets, sloops and rowboats a-plenty there, and you have put it down as a fisherman's settlement of the poorer class? That is just where you are wrong, for of all the interesting little places on Jamaica Bay, there is none as interesting as Ramblersville."
—Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 10, 1902For most people, the Howard Beach–JFK Airport station is little more than a transfer point between the subway and the AirTrain, but it's also a portal into Ramblersville. Over a century ago, long before the constant roar of jet engines marred the tranquil atmosphere, the station's predecessor shared its name with a unique settlement nearby.
In 1880, the New York, Woodhaven and Rockaway Railroad opened its 4-mile trestle over Jamaica Bay (then often called Grassy Bay), offering direct service to Far Rockaway. It also provided easier access to the farmland and swamps north of the bay. By the end of the decade, Oscar Rust had constructed "a small fishing station" on the swampland surrounding Hawtree Creek.
Several other intrepid builders quickly followed suit, placing their vacation homes on stilts, just high enough to let the tides lap their front doors twice a day. Chroniclers of those early days called it "a Venice on stilts" and "a bit of old Holland."
For centuries prior, the inlet had hosted temporary outposts for fishermen, both Dutch and native, who would arrive by boat; now, it was becoming a place to escape the din of the city on weekends and during the summer. To get to the outpost on foot, one would take the railroad (today's A train) to the Aqueduct station, then walk, perhaps through a foot of water during high tide, to a raised boardwalk connecting the homes.
In 1899, the line's new owner, the Long Island Rail Road, opened the Ramblersville station a bit closer to the settlement. On the way there, one had to tell the train crew in advance to stop; on the way back, one had to pull a chain to activate a signal for the conductor.
Its original moniker allegedly came from a visitor's comment in the 1890s: "This is the greatest place for a ramble that I ever struck!" This seemed to fit a place far from civilization, where time appeared inconsequential.
The community sandwiches Hawtree Creek, which feeds into Jamaica Bay. It might have been named in honor of a hawthorn tree at the headwaters; some sources refer to it as Hawk Tree Creek. (One from 1930 even calls it Hamtree.) Each household considered itself a yacht club, and residents spent much of their time on the water. Boating is still a popular pastime here: even in winter, vessels dot the landscape. Some have been dispossessed by their owners, a common sight in the southern reaches of the city.
Indeed, boats are not the only unwanted refuse left in this neighborhood. Because of its isolated location, empty lots and tall, reedy grasses, outsiders have used it as a dumping ground for decades. The Times covered residents' complaints in 2001, but the problem appears to continue today.
To address its trash problem, perhaps the neighborhood might return to its roots: goats.
The area's first real estate magnate was William J. Howard, who began purchasing property in 1897. A visionary, Howard knew that all waterfront property, even if it were swampy and 10 miles from Manhattan, would eventually be needed for housing. He built the Shellbank and East Hamilton Canals and dredged the Hawtree Creek, using the removed material for landfill.
Howard was also a manufacturer of leather products. To take advantage of the grazable swampland while it remained, he brought in a slew of Angora goats, the hides of which he intended to use for gloves and footballs. Howard had five years of feeding, breeding, and slaughtering, until a massive storm swept the goats out to sea.
While Howard was focusing on a park, a hotel and a model-home community just west of Hawtree Creek, competition came in the form of E.E. Meacham & Sons, which bought much of the marshland around Ramblersville. In an early example of forced renaming, they tried to rebrand the area "Marcella Park." It failed to catch on.
Today, the name varies depending on whom you ask. You might hear it as Old Howard Beach, or West Hamilton Beach, or Old Hamilton Beach. Before rushing inside to escape the bitter cold on a recent afternoon, one 30-year resident offered a few more alternatives. "We call it 'The Hole,'" she told me, perhaps unaware of the area two miles to the northwest with a better-established claim, "and some people still call it Crittersville, because of all of the rats running around." Whatever your preferred name, the neighborhood retains a laid-back maritime charm, even in the depths of winter.
While it was technically part of Queens and, starting in 1898, the consolidated New York City, the 300 citizens of the original Ramblersville thought themselves independent. It was "without government, politics, police, churches or regulations of any sort save good will to each other," wrote The New York Sun, "[a]nd it is probably one of the happiest and most harmonious communities in the greater city."
Like any good hamlet, it had its own "mayor," and any land-owning male was eligible to vote, provided he had caught at least 50 pounds of fish.
Fishing was held in high esteem for good reason: on Sunday evening, it was "either dinner or no dinner, all according to the luck which the male Ramblersvillers have had during the wee small hours of Sunday morning." The joy of eat-what-you-catch was not to last, however. Thanks to pollution from industry and sewage, in 1916 the city closed Jamaica Bay to recreation and fishing.
How (and why) this tiny village continued to exist without its main food source is unclear, but today, there are plenty of options near the AirTrain station, including pizza, Chinese, a deli and a bar called The Rail. In 1931, a north-south bridge over the Creek was completed, bringing more automobile traffic, but the streets have a mind of their own, preferring the path of the water to an unnatural grid.
There's Broadway and Bridge Street, waterlogged paths that look more like rural Vermont than New York City (note the jet fresh off the JFK tarmac).
There's Church Street, which cuts back north before you reach the Ramblersville-Hawtree Memorial Bridge, and features secluded driveways.
And then there's Bayview Avenue, far from a multi-lane thoroughfareor even paved.
Howard Beach has one of the highest concentrations of Italian-Americans in the city; and so it is with Ramblersville. The members of the community helped each other through superstorm Sandy; every single house was flooded, and the area was without power for three weeks. Needless to say, some residents decided to leave, and abandoned properties are scattered throughout the neighborhood.
Those who remain live on some of the most picturesque parcels in the city. They will carry the tradition of this tiny neighborhood to the next summer, one that, as always, can't come soon enough.