February is almost over. I’ve been measuring its passage by the changing angles of afternoon sunlight in my apartment. As the sun creeps every day a little higher in the sky, its rays reach new corners of the kitchen, the living room. The other evening I had a perfect streak right across the bottom of my bed. I think it was Pip in Great Expectations who talks about those March days when it is “summer in the sun, and winter in the shade.” So all right, we’re not there quite yet. But we’re damn close. And it still puts me in the mood to go exploring — my route dictated by whatever street the sun happens to be shining on. You keep inside that glow and you’ll stay warm enough.
I’ve always equated industrial landscapes with the summertime. But maybe it would be better to say that I equate them with strong sunlight, anything that brings their solid forms cut out in sharp relief. I took a ride the other day around the southern end of Newtown Creek, crossing over into Queens. These streets are public, but I can never shake the feeling that I’m trespassing when I’m on them. It doesn’t help that every other road dead-ends, or is suddenly and irrevocably stopped short by railroad tracks. While I ride I like to keep an eye out for the first sign of residential buildings. Borders between neighborhoods are always fascinating. One block on a map might not look like much, but on the ground it’s a different story. And which direction you approach something does a lot to help make up your first impression. You can’t help but think of streets as linear, as chronological almost, point A and then point B, when actually they’re all existing everywhere around each other all at once.
That point is hammered home by the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House, on the corner of Flushing Avenue and Onderdonk, in Ridgewood, Queens. This is perhaps the oldest Dutch Colonial stone house in NYC. It was built in 1709 on the site of what was once a large farm. Now it’s surrounded by cinder-block warehouses and sheet metal. Flushing Avenue is not a pretty street; it doesn’t put you in the frame of mind to expect a farm house, and at first glance you could almost mistake this one for a utility shed. It was only the few acres of green lawn and picnic benches around it that made me stop. But once I did my mind could start to construct a different picture. Ridgewood extends up the hill from Flushing Avenue, with some fine views of Manhattan, and for a moment I could picture it all swathed in grass, sown fields, and chopped down tree stumps. I can only think on something like that for a short time before I start muttering to myself with some combination of excitement and frustration. I want to know what this world looked like, when it was still this world, the planet Earth, and also something else entirely. And you can’t ever really do that. Oh well, alack the day, as some old dude once said. Here’s a picture of the house, from 1910.
The Onderdonk house and farm played a big role in the early border disputes between Brooklyn and Queens, when in 1769 a giant boulder on the property – there after known as Arbitration Rock – was established as the boundary marker between them. On one side was Kings County, and the old Dutch town of Bushwick, and on the other was Queens, and the newer English settlement of Newtown (what would become the current neighborhood of Elmhurst). The rock grew less important after both counties consolidated with the city of New York, and in 1925 the border was redrawn entirely, in a more scientific fashion. By the 1930s the rock had been completely buried under the newly graded Onderdonk Avenue. It stayed there until 2001, when it was excavated and moved next to the farmhouse. I guess even then the dispute wasn’t over, as Brooklyn officials claimed the rock was part of both counties shared heritage and should be placed somewhere they both agreed on. Queens wasn’t having it.
Because borders aside, this rock has been here about 10,000 years. And maps are just representations of reality; they change as knowledge and perception changes. But that’s also why I like them so much: maps are maps of what they’re maps of (huh?) but they’re also maps of knowledge, of the way we tell ourselves we see the world. You put it together, brick by brick, inside your mind.
(Originally posted Feb. 27th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)