This is where I grew up and where my mother still lives. It may not look like much, but it is one of the nicer apartment buildings in my Queens neighborhood. My grandmother lived a few blocks away, in a lower-income apartment. When I was in elementary school and my mother went back to work, I went to my grandparents after school. My grandmother made an excellent tuna fish sandwich, with chopped celery and dill.
My father was a physical therapist at a city hospital and my mother still works in publishing, so they never made that much money. They worked hard to put me through two very expensive private colleges, just so I could obtain two completely useless degrees — a B.A. in English and an M.F.A. in Film. I was totally spoiled by them.
I had an excellent childhood growing up in the Flushing/Kew Garden Hills area of Queens. The public school was good, the public library was two blocks away, and the neighborhood was incredibly diverse — blacks, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Indians, Chinese. I’m still good friends with guys from the neighborhood who I’ve known all my life. They’re the first people I see every time I fly into New York.
I am so diverse — here I am with my Jewish childhood friend Barry at the Blue Bay Diner in Bayside last week, which looks exactly the same inside as it did when I was in high school.
When I was a child, Queens felt isolated from the excitement of Manhattan, but it was close enough to travel to by subway. (…ok, first you take a bus to get to the subway) My parents took me to museums and concerts all the time, so I was able to participate in the “high culture” of the city. We also lived near Queens College, which had a symphony orchestra. I spent many weekends in the audience with my parents, falling asleep to Schubert.
Although the stores in my neighborhood weren’t very fancy (still no Starbucks!), you could get everything you needed just by walking down the block. There were grocers, a bakery, a Radio Shack, a cleaners, a pharmacy etc. This was perfect for my parents, who didn’t drive a car. It also created entertainment for me. After school, my friend, Rob, and I could pass several hours just stopping in the Kissena Boulevard shops, or reading the comic books in the stationary store.
I only felt embarrassed about “Queens” once I went to Columbia, and met rich kids from the Upper East Side, Beverly Hills, Boston, etc. They had actually gone skiing in Aspen and visited museums in Florence. All of a sudden, Kissena Boulevard was very small time. I began to feel ashamed of my background, like a Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, moving from the steelmill to the hoity-toity ballet studio. It felt as if the entire borough of Manhattan looked down on Queens. The only reason to visit Queens was to go to the airports or see a sporting event. There was even talk about building a new stadium in Manhattan, so there would even be less reason to travel to Queens. Queens was the home of misfits, from Archie Bunker to Ugly Betty. During snowstorms, Manhattan was quickly shoveled by the plows since it is the center of the business and tourism worlds. Queens was always plowed last. Queens had her big moment in 1963-64 when the World’s Fair was in Flushing Meadows Park, but then most of the fair buildings was just left behind to decay.
“Sorry, we don’t have enough money in the budget to fix the NYS Pavilion.” – Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Eventually, I learned to embrace my Queens neighborhood. There was a cool mix of people on the street, and it felt more “New York authentic” than many of the streets of Manhattan. Today, “Sesame Street” reminds me of Queens, not Manhattan. Big Bird could never afford Manhattan. Sadly, whenever Sophia comes with me to visit my mother, I’m always disappointed that she can’t see the area in the same positive way I do.
“It looks like a slum,” she said recently, as we walked down Kissena Boulevard. This hurt my feelings, especially because, in my heart, despite my romantic view of the neighborhood, I believed the same. At one time, the street was lively, with all sorts of shops and ethnic food. Gene Simmons, who grew up nearby, even named his group KISS, after Kissena Boulevard. Now, the neighborhood has deteriorated almost beyond recognition.
Half of the stores on the block are gated and closed — some stores have been empty for five years! Can’t the management company find any tenants? What happened to the bakery, the pharmacy, the seafood store, the stationery store, the women’s clothing store? Surely some business can make a profit here? People are afraid to walk outside at night because everything looks so abandoned. Why has this happened?
Perhaps the answer can be found on the website of the management company, Pelcorp. On the site, they advertise the entire block, not as available individual stores catering to a community, but only as a 240,000 sq. ft. shopping center. There had been rumors that the landlord isn’t renting out the stores because it’s interested in selling the entire block to a big-box entity like Kmart. This might explain why no stores never seem to be rented, despite having “For Rent” signs plastered on the gates of shuttered stores. Is the management company waiting for the opportunity to unload the entire property at once?
A view of Kissena Boulevard at noon, a far cry from what this busy street used to look like.
The management company has every right to sell the entire complex if they want to, but should they be allowed to thrust the entire neighborhood into a downward spiral? Who wants to live in an area where more than half the stores have been closed for years?
It is pretty sad state of affairs. I remember how The Garden Bakery made the best onion rolls I’ve ever tasted. There was “Sweet Donut,” a little coffee shop/donut store. Dr. Sakow, the friendly optometrist, fitted me with my first pair of dorky eyeglasses in the third grade. All of these stores are now gone, with no replacements.
Even if the management company does want to sell the entire property, shouldn’t they at least be responsible for its upkeep? What about all the garbage and graffiti everywhere? Why should I be embarrassed to show my wife the “old neighborhood?” Why should my mother have to walk past the junk in the parking lot? People still LIVE in the neighborhood.
At one time, the landlord/management company was a local one, headed by a New York builder. He was always seen around the area because he also created middle-income housing across the street. After his passing, his son took over the real estate property, and it didn’t surprise me at all that his management company is based in Palm Beach, Florida! Out of sight, out of mind.
From their website:
Our President, Prescott Lester, is the fourth generation of Builder Developers. He is responsible for building and developing nearly 3,000 residential units in Palm Beach County, Florida. Projects included Lakes of Laguna in West Palm Beach with 2,204 residential units and Cascade Lakes in Boynton Beach having 556 dwelling units.
Mr. Lester’s Greatgrandfather began building in Brooklyn, New York around the turn of the century. He was followed by his son David Minkin who became one of New York City’s Master Builders. Mr. Lester assisted and succeeds his great uncle, David Minkin, in running the family’s building, management and brokerage operations.
Here is a promotional photo of the late David Minkin, Prescott Lester, and former NY Mets (yeah, Queens!) pitching great Tom Seaver, who has apparently sold his New York baby boomer appeal for some hard cash.
Despite a history of New York building, the fourth generation of builders now “specializes in the marketing and sale of luxury properties in Palm Beach County. This includes waterfront, country club, and other estate properties.”
The Kissena Boulevard holdings, one of their four retail holdings still in New York, must be their least attractive holding, compared to their shiny new malls in Florida. No wonder they seem so disinterested in the upkeep of Kissena Boulevard!
I talked to a few people in my mother’s building and they are very unhappy with the way Kissena Boulevard looks. Some say they would even move away, if they could afford it. The shopping area is pretty disgraceful, and much of the blame must go to the management company. They have played a major role in making the area look like a slum. Of course, since Pelcorp is in Palm Beach, and the executives don’t get to come to Queens very often, I’ve included some photographs of Kissena Boulevard for Prescott Lester and his partners to see.
The Pharmacy, now closed, the letters falling from the sign
The graffiti along the “Wholesale Liquidators” wall
The garbage along the wall, opposite the closed shoe store
The Rainbow Women’s Clothing Store, closed
The pharmacy, closed, is now a haven for pigeons