the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: Kissena Boulevard

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.

Signs of the Times

I wasn’t lying when I said I bought a web-cam.  But maybe I shouldn’t tell you that I got it for 75% off at Radio Shack.   Hey, that’s a great bargain!  Even my mother said so.

OK, so now what do I do with it?   What?!  I’m just asking. 

In other news, my mother dumped me today to go out with her friends to see “Sex and the City,” and didn’t even invite me.  How do I become so co-dependent in my marriage when my mother so easily drops me like the British tea in Boston Harbor (please note the clever American history reference for Independence Day).  Well, whatever.  I’m not going to stick a feather in my cap and call it macaroni over the whole thing.

You know, I haven’t had macaroni and cheese for ages.  I need to buy a box of that Kraft stuff to see if I still like it.

So, how did I become so co-dependent?   It must have been my father.  Yeah, it was him.

So, today is July 4th.  Despite our country’s faults, America is a cool place.   I know July 4th is all about liberty, justice, pursuit of happiness, and other American values — but in my opinion, our greatest gift to the world is free speech. 

May we always protect our right to free speech.

In honor of this important American value, I’d like to bring up the Pelcorp Management Company again.   On my last trip back to my old Queens neighborhood, I reported on how Kissena Boulevard, the street down the block, looked like a slum because 75% of the stores were shuttered, with graffiti everywhere.  Many of the stores have been closed for TEN years, despite a thriving community.  Why?  The plan seems to be to slowly force everyone out when the leases are up, so the management company  could bring in a K-Mart, or something similar.  While this is promising for the future, the entire block has been an eyesore for a decade. 

As I wrote in the previous post —

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!

So, let me once again mention Prescott Lester and his Pelcorp Management Company (why did their website suddenly disappear?) on this July 4th.    Thank you, free speech!   Thank you, America.  Mr. Prescott, you are always welcome to comment here or write me – and give me your side of the story on how your company intends to enhance the community, and why shops like the bakery were left to rot for a decade. 

I wish the best to all the hard-working immigrants who owned these stores and now were forced to move, or give up their businesses.   Of course, I like to look on the positive side of things.   With some of these new Americans out of work —  they can spend more time taking spelling lessons.

The Slummification of Kissena Boulevard

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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?

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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.

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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.

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The Pharmacy, now closed, the letters falling from the sign

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The Laudromat, closed

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The shoe store, closed

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The graffiti along the “Wholesale Liquidators” wall

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The garbage along the wall, opposite the closed shoe store

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The kosher deli, closed

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The Rainbow Women’s Clothing Store, closed

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The pharmacy, closed, is now a haven for pigeons

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The Bakery, closed for years

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The fish market, closed

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Ugly graffiti and disrepair along the property walls

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