Where? Gale Avenue? Who’s ever heard of Gale Avenue?
Oh, it’s in Blissville. Well who’s ever heard of Blissville? I don’t know; it’s a pretty easy one to miss. We’re talking about a neighborhood that defines its boundaries by a cemetery, the Long Island Expressway, and one of the most polluted waterways in the entire world. Blissville.
Although it takes its name from its developer Neziah Bliss, not from any purported peace and happiness that might come from living there. Bliss owned most of the land that would make up this neighborhood, starting from the 1830s on. It lies in Queens, across the Newtown Creek from Greenpoint, where Bliss ran his own ship-building business along the East River.
Bliss was actually instrumental in the initial development of Greenpoint as well. After marrying into the Meserole family, he had the area surveyed and in 1839 opened the hood’s first public turnpike along what is now Franklin Avenue. Industrial business soon followed, and grew even faster after Bliss helped establish regular ferry service to Manhattan by 1850. He built the Blissville Bridge in 1855, around the same time he started developing the Blissville neighborhood, to carry Greenpoint Avenue over Newton Creek to Queens. The John J. Byrne Memorial Bridge which stands there today, is the fifth such to cross that spot. Greenpoint Avenue itself was created in 1852, as a means of getting New Yorkers out to Calvary Cemetery.
Because you know what, a lot of people were dying back then, cholera epidemics being one of the leading causes. By 1852 there were an average of 50 burials a day in Calvary. The cemetery was opened in 1848, on land purchased and run by Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. It was among the first cemeteries to open after passage of the Rural Cemetery Act by the New York State Legislature. The Rural Cemetery Act authorized the construction of commercial burial grounds in rural parts of New York (which back then still meant Queens). For the first time the burial of human remains would become a money making business. Churches and land speculators moved quickly to buy large tracts of rural land in Queens, with a number of cemeteries opening by 1852. Today Queens has 29 of them in all, with a combined buried population of 5 million people outnumbering the population of the living.
Once the burial grounds were established Manhattan started the process of closing down some of its old cemeteries, disinterring the bodies, and moving them out to Queens. This was partly from fear that improper burials had led to the cholera outbreaks, but even more importantly it was to remove what would be idle land out of the path of development. These people were dead already, why should they stand in the way of tomorrow?
And speaking of tomorrow, it would find its way to Blissville soon enough. In 1870 the tiny village would be incorporated into Long Island City, along with Astoria, Sunnyside, and a number of other towns. Massive industry moved in soon after, and still dominates the area today. The residential blocks of Blissville have shrunk down smaller over the years, as both warehouses and Calvary Cemetery expanded to push them out. It seems appropriate though, to see these gravestones standing side by side with industry, chain link fences and giant rectangular metal boxes. And then scattered amongst them these artifacts of the living, these houses that continue to exist. Both industry and cemeteries need space and so they’re pushed out here to the liminal edges of our city. Liminal as in “of or relating to a sensory threshold.” I feel that when I’m out here: that I’m on the edge of something, something sensory or almost extra-sensory. There’s something that I’m not quite getting past or picking up on. Did humans know what they were doing when they made these symbols, these gravestones and these factories, and actually just made them in the real world? Just built them like they were castles, like giants who just went and died and we’re sort of slowly using the things they left behind and making up stories about them, trying to get inside before it rains. I’m standing here right now people! What is this pocket of space we’ve created? But you know, we must have understood somewhat because we made a word for it, we made a word for “liminal,” and we made it thousands of years ago, when we were children still, just picking chalk up off the earth and drawing things. We knew it, we really did. It’s just going to swallow you back up. We knew it then. When did you first show up in this place?
(Originally posted June 19th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)