I’ve always thought that the great thing about The Great Gatsby is how much of the story takes place on Long Island, just outside of New York City. It seems like such an unexciting locale for a book regarded as one of the best of the 20th century — all that time spent driving through Queens. Of course that was the whole point; these people were rich and they could have anything they wished for. Their surroundings weren’t the important thing. They created their own surroundings as they went, wherever they wanted to, with no regard to what came before or to what might come after. Someone else says Long Island’s fashionable, and so Long Island is where you go. Money follows money. Everybody follows money. Hell, that’s still what I get paid with, how bout you? So really, everybody follows everybody else. Someone throw me a dollar.
That’s especially the story of Queen’s development, which has always been more a collection of independent towns and villages than a comprehensive city. Each village had its own start, its nucleus, its separate grid system laid out, its growth of population and of infrastructure, before finally expanding outward at its borders till it touched upon the next town over. Just looking at a map makes it apparent. It’s all a patchwork, each town voting independently in 1898 for consolidation into the city of New York, at which point they became neighborhoods. Long Island City was one of the exceptions – having incorporated itself as a city already in 1870 from the merger of several smaller villages and hamlets, including Astoria to the north. But the idea of actually becoming a city, along the lines of New York or Brooklyn, never took off – the neighborhoods remained too separated, unable to find a common center. L.I.C. decided to join New York the same year as all the rest of Queens. Still, its neighborhoods are official referred to as Long Island City to this day.
But they have their own distinct realities. Astoria was founded in 1839 by Stephen Halsey, in a spot along the East River south of Hallet’s Cove. After a contentious debate it was named Astoria in honor of John Jacob Astor, the richest man in America at the time. Halsey was a friend of Astor’s and he hoped that having a village named after him might persuade John to invest some money in the property. Apparently he didn’t invest much, about $500 (he was worth about $20 million). And he never set foot in the neighborhood, although his summer home across the river, around present day 87th Street in Manhattan, afforded him some pretty nice views. Steinway Village (now called Ditmars Steinway), north of Astoria, although more or less considered a part of it today, was founded in 1880 as a company town for the newly built Steinway Piano Factory. The Steinway family developed the village with their own private finances, laying out a street plan, building houses, a post office, parks, and a streetcar line. William Steinway bought an existing house in the neighborhood, on what was a beautiful riverfront property. The Italianate stone villa had originally been built for William Pike, a manufacturer of scientific instruments, in 1850. Steinway used it as his summer home, spending his winters in the more fashionable Gramercy Park.
Gramercy Park is still pretty fashionable; 41st Street in Queens, not so much. The house now stands on the very edge of an absolutely gigantic Con Edison power plant. It sits on a hill, hidden by trees, rising above the warehouses and chain link fences that surround it. The whole set up put me in mind of that old children’s book, The Little House. Remember that one, how the house stands in a field in the country until the city slowly creeps closer and closer to engulf it? By the end the house is sandwiched between two skyscrapers, with an elevated train line running in front of it. I always loved that image. I liked seeing the little house get swallowed up, becoming a living remnant of the past. And when we visited the Steinway house the other day it did feel like going back a ways, or at least like taking a visit to the country. I’m talking just a lazy, quiet vibe out here. There was a tiny camper parked on the property next door, and a bunch of junked cars. And then best of all there was a chicken. He came right up as if to say hello to us. He was a tiny fella, and he even crowed a few times too. He doesn’t know he lives in Queens. He doesn’t know what the hell is going on. He’s a chicken. He’s the house chicken of an 1850s mansion in Steinway that’s in the middle of a power plant. You know what I’m saying? I’m saying the chicken is a metaphor! Or else, uh, no, just wait, just wait a minute here. Or else, you know what? He’s not a metaphor — he’s a chicken. The dude is just a little chicken. Little chicken. Hey, there’s a dog!
(Originally posted May 1st, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)