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Max Touhey

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Long Island City’s forgotten history

Amazon’s new home was once its own sprawling city

On the cold, rainy evening of December 31, 1897, a throng of well-wishers gathered outside City Hall in Lower Manhattan to mark one of the most momentous occasions in the city’s history: the consolidation of Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island into the Greater City of New York. Across the river, as the rain turned to snow, officials in Brooklyn were concluding a more somber ceremony—some called it a “wake”—to mark the end of Brooklyn’s life as an independent city.

While the merger of Brooklyn and Manhattan was the big news, a third city lost its sovereignty that night: Long Island City, Queens, soon to be home to one-half of Amazon’s new HQ2.

As midnight approached at the end of 1897, things in Long Island City were frantic. While the city’s Board of Aldermen desperately tried to pass a last-minute funding bill to cover some of the city’s mounting debt, someone pushed the arms on the clock in the council chamber back to give them more time. The city’s mayor, Patrick “Battle Axe” Gleason, issued a rebuke to the council, noting:

I heartily congratulate the people of Long Island City that the Board of Alderman will soon be a thing of the past and that our financial affairs will be under the control and supervision of an honest and capable public officer under the new city government.

Long Island City had not paid its police officers in five months or its schoolteachers for seven months. This was not unexpected; almost from the city’s founding a mere 28 years earlier, there had been accusations of graft and corruption. Outsiders knew the area mostly through the antics of Mayor Gleason, which ranged from colorful outbursts to acts of outright physical violence. As ceremonial cannons boomed and church bells tolled across the newly created five boroughs, there were probably many citizens of Long Island City who agreed with the mayor—an “honest and capable” government was going to be a nice change of pace.

Today’s Long Island City neighborhood is a sliver of the old city. When that municipality was incorporated in 1870, it comprised nearly everything west of 49th Street, from the Newtown Creek on the south (still the border with Brooklyn) to the East River on the north. Steinway, Astoria, and Hunter’s Point were part of the city, along with mostly forgotten areas such as Newtown, Ravenswood, Blissville, and Dutch Kills.

Like much of New York, the area was initially settled by Native Americans, probably members of the Mespat, a tribal group drawn to the area’s abundant wildlife. (The word Mespat, which itself may be a Dutch corruption of the original name, is also the origin of the neighborhood of Maspeth, which lies just outside the old borders of Long Island City.) Dutch colonists began farming the area in the 1640s; the two most prominent families were the Rikers, of Rikers Island fame, and the Bogardus/Jans family, whose Hunter’s Point land, known as the Dominie’s Bowery, was later caught up in one of the strangest and most protracted legal fights in New York history. This farm is included in the area that will be redeveloped by Amazon.

Even as the Dutch were occupying what would become Brooklyn and Queens, the English settled elsewhere on Long Island, laying claim to the entire island as early as 1636. The English ultimately took over completely in 1664, though there was little immediate change in Queens. By the time of the American Revolution, what was to become the 19th-century Long Island City was still just 10 farms.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that western Queens began to grow. In 1835, Union College in Schenectady purchased much of the former Dominie’s Bowery at Hunter’s Point as an investment property. In 1839, Astoria was incorporated as a village, named for John Jacob Astor, New York’s wealthiest real estate speculator and an early investor in the town. In 1854, the New York & Flushing Railroad built a terminus in Hunter’s Point on Union College land, which was sold to Long Island Railroad in 1867. Just as they can today, passengers from Long Island could then catch a ferry to 34th Street in Manhattan.

However, further development of the area languished. As J.S. Kelsey points out in his 1896 History of Long Island City, much of Hunter’s Point “had to be raised almost from the level of the sea, its marshes, lagoons and ‘killities’ [small inlets] filled, and the site of a city created at vast expenditure of time and capital….” As Kelsey also notes, the area was destined to remain a swampy backwater where “fever and ague, of the kind that made the bones to rattle and shake” would prevail until such capital could be raised.

To the trustees of Union College, the answer to improving Hunter’s Point was simple: annex the surrounding lands and become a city.

The first inklings that there would eventually be a Long Island City came in 1865, when the Long Island City Star and Newtown Advertiser newspaper was founded, putting the name of the future city into the minds of local residents. The paper campaigned for the unification of western Queens, with Union College as a primary backer of the scheme. The legislature passed a city charter in 1870. Gov. John T. Hoffman was initially reluctant to sign the bill—perhaps because he’d already expended significant political capital in approving his friend William “Boss” Tweed’s home-rule charter for New York City earlier that year—but on May 4, 1870, Hoffman approved the creation of Long Island City. Elections were held in early July, and on July 15, 1870, Abram Ditmars was sworn in as the city’s first mayor.

The new city faced immediate challenges. Queens did not yet have running water or paved streets, and Long Island City found itself caught in the paradox of needing immediate improvements to lure residents and industries without the tax base to pay for such upgrades.

Luckily, at least one company saw the potential for growth in the new city: Steinway & Sons, the piano manufacturer, which had been established in a loft on Varick Street in 1853. In 1870, William Steinway began acquiring land in the newly created city, ultimately purchasing:

over four hundred acres of land with a frontage upon the East River and canal of about a mile. [Steinway & Sons] built a steam saw mill, iron and brass foundries, boiler and engine houses, a large building for the finishing of metal frames, storage sheds, drying kilns, docks, bulkhead wharves, a lumber basin, and in 1879, an immense structure to serve as a piano case factory.

Even with an influx of workers—Steinway ultimately built or endowed a church, library, and housing in what came to be known as “Steinway Village”—much of Long Island City’s essential services didn’t materialize. A revised charter was passed in 1871 that called for a police force of 30 men, but the city did not have the revenue to hire them. No adequate fire department existed until 1893—five years before the city was subsumed into Greater New York City.

In the end, most of Long Island City’s woes involved its politics, which were dirty from the start.

In the second mayoral contest in 1872, Ditmars ran for reelection against the city clerk, Henry Debevoise, whose position put him in charge of overseeing elections. When Debevoise won, a group of citizens from Astoria sued for fraud; a hung jury meant that Debevoise retained his position. He served on and off until 1880, when a new opponent, George Petry, again accused him of fraud. This time the charges stuck: Debevoise was stripped of his office and later fined over $100,000 for “misappropriating” city funds.

A map of Long Island City in 1876.
Library of Congress

But those intrigues pale next to those of Patrick Gleason, who served as mayor from 1887 to 1892 and again as the city’s final mayor from 1896 to 1897. When Gleason died in 1901, the New York Times called him “one of the most picturesque of the striking characters” in America’s post-Civil War politics. He emigrated from County Tipperary, Ireland (where he’d been accused of murder), served in the Irish Brigade in the Civil War, and then owned a series of distilleries. He established the first successful streetcar company in Long Island City (later merged with a rival operation funded by the Steinways) and entered politics in 1881 by joining the Long Island City Board of Alderman.

After a losing bid for mayor in 1883, he ran for alderman again in 1885, won—and then ran for mayor in 1886, winning that race as well. Since there was no law that said you couldn’t serve as mayor and alderman at the same time, he held both positions, despite numerous entreaties for him to leave the board. His time in office was notable for “notorious corruption, crude vulgarity and flagrant use of patronage.”

Yet “Paddy” Gleason, as he was known, became ever more popular. When the Long Island Railroad blocked Front Street with a gate and illegally erected various other buildings on public property, Gleason led a contingent of policemen—all armed with axes—to destroy the railroad’s encumbrances. After that, the “battle axe” became Gleason’s symbol and new nickname. In 1890, he attacked a newspaper reporter, allegedly knocking him to the ground and kicking his teeth out. But no witnesses would testify against the popular Gleason, and he ultimately served only five days in jail and was fined $250.

When Gleason lost his 1892 reelection bid, he refused to accept the results, attempting to have the city clerk certify him the winner and get sworn in before anyone could contest it. Commenting on the debacle, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle called his administration “a rule of terrorism” that had tarnished the good name of Long Island City.

By the time Gleason eked out a narrow victory in the 1896 mayoral election, his city was already being inexorably drawn toward consolidation into the five boroughs. The city couldn’t pay its bills, and Gleason’s final term was spent in a constant battle with his “disloyal” Board of Aldermen. In a final act of hubris, in 1897, Gleason ran for mayor of the soon-to-be-consolidated New York City; he came in seventh place with a mere 1,023 votes. Famed economist Henry George—who was dead—garnered 21 times as many votes.

Gleason, like Long Island City, was finished.

Long Island City existed for less than three decades, so traces of it can be hard to come by, but a few significant buildings remain from 1870 to 1898.

The Hunter’s Point Historic District is the block of 45th Avenue between 21st and 23rd streets and contains a wealth of different townhouse styles. These homes were built in the 1870s, just after Long Island City’s incorporation, and came to be known as “white collar row.” Gleason lived here in the 1880s.

Max Touhey

Under the shadow of the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge sits the landmarked 1892 former offices of the New York Architectural Terra-Cotta Company, unsurprisingly outfitted in gorgeous terra-cotta moldings with Art Nouveau touches by architect Francis H. Kimball.

Perhaps the best place to see the former Long Island City’s heyday is in the Steinway area. After a hard-fought battle in the 1970s, Steinway had its landmark designation revoked, but many significant structures remain, including William Steinway’s home at 18-33 41st Street. Built in 1858, it actually predates the company’s move to Queens. Also still standing are parts of Steinway Village (1877-79) on 20th Avenue between Steinway and 42nd Street and on 41st Street between 20th Avenue and 20th Road. Steinway & Sons erected these brick townhouses to rent to workers at a subsidized rate, making this the only “company town” ever built inside the New York City borders.

The former city still also contains a few houses of worship from the late 19th century. In Hallet’s Point, the congregation at the Dutch Reformed Church at 27-26 12th Street dates back to 1836, though its Gothic Revival building was erected in 1888. St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church—a unique example of the Renaissance Revival—opened at 39-50 29th Street in 1898, just as Long Island City was losing its independence. In Hunter’s Point, another Catholic church, St. Mary’s, opened in 1887. This soaring brick edifice was designed by Patrick Keely, one of the most prolific ecclesiastical architects in America.

In Astoria, the modest stone Church of the Redeemer (Episcopal) at 30-14 Crescent Street opened its doors in 1868. A few doors down, at 30-40 Crescent, stands Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, which dates to the early 20th century. Good Shepherd’s 1886 church also remains in the neighborhood: to make room for the new Crescent Street building, the congregation loaded its old building onto log rollers and moved it five blocks to the corner of 31st Road and 21st Street, where it still serves as home to St. Paul’s Methodist Church.

Perhaps most importantly, townhouses dating from the former city’s heyday remain scattered throughout the neighborhoods. Since most have been significantly altered over time, it’s unlikely that any qualify for individual landmark status. Some—like the Remsen House on 27th Avenue in Hallet’s Point, built in the 1830s—have already been destroyed. When Amazon and its thousands of workers come in to remake Long Island City, will these remaining traces of its short-lived history be swept away?

James Nevius is an urban historian and author of a number of books about New York, including Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City and Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers. He is currently researching a book about American utopianism. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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