Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Other Side of Kissena Boulevard

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Since neither of my parents drove a car, they moved to a neighborhood in Flushing, Queens where it was easy to walk to stores to shop.   The two block strip of Kissena Boulevard near their apartment building was home to a vibrant melange of shops that catered to the needs of the lower and middle-class neighborhood that circled around it – two “five and ten cents” stores, a pizzeria, a Chinese restaurant, a kosher deli, a bakery, a butcher, a fish store, a stationery store selling newspapers and comic books, a supermarket, a clothing store, a shoe store, a pharmacy, a cleaners, a barber shop — all the basic staples that any family would need. Behind these stores was a large parking lot which catered to the shoppers visiting from other neighborhoods, but the action happened on Kissena Boulevard herself.

The street is where the teenage Fran Drescher would grab a slice of pizza, or Gene Simmons would leave his job at the butcher before practicing with his band “Kiss,” named, of course, after Kissena Boulevard.  On Sunday morning, I would stroll with my father to the Garden Bakery to buy their famed onion rolls, freshly baked, a Sunday morning staple as important as the New York Times. During the week, after school, I would head to Wainrite’s, checking out the latest K-tel records in their tiny “Record Section.” If not for the diversity of the neighborhood, black, white, Asian, and Puerto Rican, you would think you were visiting small town Main Street.

During the 1970s, crime and homelessness grew in the outer boroughs, and by the 1980s, the Golden Age of Kissena Boulevard had come to an end.  One by one, each store closed, until only the pizzeria, Valentino’s, Fran Drescher’s favorite hangout, was left thriving. The owner of the shopping area went from being local landlord to a company headquartered in Palm Beach, Florida. The rumor was that the owner wanted to demolish the whole complex and bring in a Target or Kmart. The ample parking lot behind the stores became the big selling point for the future development, not the needs of the neighborhood.

The big plans never blossomed, and the facade of the two block structure started to deteriorate. The awnings became havens for pigeons. Graffiti covered the locked metal shutters of forgotten enterprises, prisons of past commerce. I left the neighborhood and went to college, grad school, and California.

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The famous Garden Bakery in 2008, closed for thirty years.

“Any rumors about Kissena Boulevard?” I would ask my mother when I would speak to her on the phone from Los Angeles.

“Nope. Still waiting.”

By 2008, the Garden Bakery and many of the other stores had been empty shells for 30 years. A whole new generation grew up seeing the two blocks as nothing more than a corroding antiquity from ancient times. That year,  I wrote a blog  post titled, “The Slummification of Kissena Boulevard,” where I talked about the decline of the street’s shopping district. I couldn’t understand the logic behind all these stores left empty. The neighborhood wasn’t fancy, but it wasn’t impoverished. Surely a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise would do OK. Was it possible that a landlord could make more money NOT renting the property, under some sort of tax loophole reminiscent of “The Producers?”  To this day,  I still get comments on that post from people who used to live in the neighborhood.

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Kissena Boulevard, 2008.

I’m glad to say that a lot has changed since then. Not long after I wrote that post, there was movement on the street, and workmen began making repairs to the infrastructure. Rather than the structure being demolished, it was strengthened, and smaller storefronts were consolidated. While no Target or Kmart ever moved in, new stores DID arrive. Today, 95% of the original Kissena Boulevard shopping area is back in use, the centerpieces being a supermarket, a National Wholesale Liquidators, and an established electronics/computer store.  I enjoy each store and shop there often.

One aspect of this neighborhood revival disappoints me, and that is the suburban mentality that is foisted on our urban folk.   While the once empty parking lot is now busy with shoppers filling up the trunks with purchases,  Kissena Boulevard is still a ghost town.   All entrances that were once directly on Kissena Boulevard have been locked, boarded over, or bricked over.   The only way to enter the stores is through the parking lot.  It feels as if the stores have open arms to visitors driving in from other parts of Queens, while sending a message of distrust to the actual residents of the neighborhood.

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Liquidators from the parking lot, 2016.

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Liquidators from Kissena Boulevard, with locked entrance.

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Liquidators from Kissena Boulevard, with no entrance.

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Electronics Store from parking lot, 2016.

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Electronics store from Kissena Boulevard, with locked entrance.

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Supermarket from parking lot, 2016.

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Supermarket from Kissena Boulevard, with no entrance.

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Supermarket from Kissena Boulevard, with bricked in former entrance.

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Supermarket from Kissena Boulevard, with locked doors.  Dirty recycling bins are on the street.

Now to be fair to these establishments, I’m the only one I know who seems to care about this issue.   I mentioned it to my mother and a few of her friends and they supported the stores!

“If they had an entrance in the front AND the back, they would have to hire more security!” said one woman.

“There would be so much shoplifting, the stores would go out of business.”

“We should be happy that we have stores back!” said my mother.

Apparently no one trusts the neighborhood, even the people who live here.

I don’t buy it.   It is not our problem  to worry about a store hiring more security.   If a store is going to move into a neighborhood, they have an obligation to add beauty to the neighborhood, not throw up a two block wall to alienate those who live here.  The stores are a great addition to the local economy, but Kissena Boulevard remains as dark and uninviting as it has for the last thirty years.  Only Valentino’s pizzeria continues to face the street, catering to the locals, not those visiting by car.

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Valentino’s on Kissena Boulevard, the one constant since the 1950s.

Bernie Sanders talks a lot about income inequality, but wealth and lack of wealth also affect self-image.   The rich learn to expect more from their neighborhoods.  I’ve been in some upscale towns in California where a homeowner can’t change the color of his roof without it passing some local ordinance.  I’ll tell you one thing.  No one living in Beverly Hills would accept a two block wall on Wilshire Boulevard, and if they did, it would be a very pretty wall, with footprints of movie stars.

The reaction from my mother and her friends:  Eh.

I might not have won them over with aesthetics, but I’m hoping someone out there is thinking about the safety of the community. There are some days when there are hundreds of cars going back and forth into this parking lot.  There are no lights or stop signs.    These stores cater to thousands of locals who walk to their shopping, and without entrances on Kissena Boulevard, they are forced to cut through through a busy parking lot.  There is an accident waiting to happen.

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Walking through the parking lot to go shopping.

I am very grateful that these fabulous stores are now in the neighborhood.  I just wish the owners turned away from the parking lot every once in a while and said hello to the street.

7 Comments

  1. It’s quite a contrast to the other side of the street, that’s for sure!

  2. Great piece. I loved your memories of growing up, and on a serious note, why in 2016 are we taking a pedestrian-friendly area and making it less so? Meanwhile, in the suburbs, the upscale neighborhoods are insisting on more sidewalks, businesses, and public areas for pedestrians.

  3. The stores have crunched the numbers and that’s all that matters to them. It is why we need zoning that privileges pedestrian life. We have similar things along Wilshire Blvd. here in L.A. Not only is it inconvenient to enter our local Smart & Final, but it is dangerous to approach the store by foot when you have to cross a parking lot that makes no allowance for pedestrians. And increasingly, I have noticed, I am invisible to distracted drivers.

  4. I wish there was a like button.

    I remembered so well your article back in 2008 (can’t believe it was so many years ago already! that’s how vivid it had stayed in my memory): at first, I was glad to read that the boulevard had revived, and then as I read your blog, I realized I agree with you and felt anger too.

  5. Tammy Levy Hochstein

    April 8, 2016 at 10:57 am

    I remember Kissena Blvd back in the 1970’s and early to mid 1980’s. I worked in Wainrite’s for a little while an then the Locksmith next to Valentino’s cutting keys (my sister and brother in law owned it). You could buy anything there growing up, You could go get a haircut, a slice of pizza after, and even a live gold fish at McCorys and clothes at Rainbow. I spent so many days hanging out with my friends on Kissena Blvd.

    I go to visit sometimes now and I complain all the time about the fact that there are not entrances in the front and that we always have to go thru the back. I wish they would change that. Also it is nice that Aarons, Micro Center and National Wholesale opened up but it would also be nice to have some smaller stores like a bakery and a card shop.

    At least I always have my memories and tell my kids what a great place it was growing up. The diversity was great, we were all friends and hung out together. I wish we had more of that these days.

  6. I agree with you, Neil, and I might be hard-pressed to shop there, since it so unfriendly to pedestrians. Surely the stores could benefit from a “front” entrance, and extra security would not cost too much, considering the good it might bring. A second thought: some artists should paint murals on the walls and make it look good like it did in the old days.

  7. So nicely written! I live in Brooklyn. Wish yours,Neil, and many other residents of Queens wishes on this issue come true!

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