I live less than a mile from the ocean. That’s true for a lot of people that I know. I live on an island, and I work on a different island. But would you ever guess it? New York isn’t exactly what you would call “island living.” Hell, half the population doesn’t even wear shorts. And yet it’s summertime, and every little while you’ll catch that certain lull, that pause in forward momentum, as all the leaves heave up and sigh back down, the shadows shift a few inches to the right, and you’re left standing undeniably inside the present. Nothing seems to be happening — everything is precisely what it is. It’s a similar feeling to looking at old photographs – as if no body ever had to move.
So yeah, you find that thing from time to time, within the summer. I found it on Vernon Boulevard and 49th Avenue the other day, in Hunters Point in Queens. Hunters Point seems particularly conducive to the emotion. Maybe it’s just my own connotation of a neighborhood under a bridge, nestled down as if against some city wall or mountaintop. The houses on 49th Avenue are squat two-story brick. They look like 19th century single family homes that still remain as single family homes, the perfect size for living. They can’t be broken up because they were the right space to begin with. Something has passed them by here, and something else is coming, but these buildings stand. You look at them and are reminded that each moment is the moment, eternal before gone. Which is to say, this is right now, over and then over again.
Hunters Point takes its name from the British sea captain George Hunter, who owned an estate in the area by 1825. Before that the spit of land sticking out into the East River had been known as Dominie’s Hook, after Everardus Bogardus, who purchased it in 1643. Bogardus was the second minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Amsterdam; dominie is Dutch for minister. The community was rural farmland until a little after 1861. That was the year the Long Island Railroad moved its principal terminal into the neighborhood, after local protests had driven it off of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Rail travelers to Manhattan had to disembark at Hunters Point and catch the newly created 34th Street ferry across the East River to arrive at their destination. A number of inns and taverns sprang up to accommodate the crowds, and with easy access to the city now insured, urbanization followed soon after. The opening of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909, and an underground rail tunnel to Penn. Station in 1910, caused industry to grow significantly. Most of that is gone now, with large residential towers moving in behind them, or more aptly, over their remains.
It’s the newest development in Hunters Point in a long while. Due to the neighborhoods proximity to the East River the area was treated much more as the actual road to progress and prosperity than as the destination itself. The Queensboro Bridge above and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel below literally passed over (and under) Hunters Point, bringing populations and change to more inland parts of Queens. It’s what lends the neighborhood its particular feel of stillness. The new towers are up already, but nothing was stirring when I wandered down the empty streets surrounding them. The ocean is only two blocks away. Because I’m walking on an island. The East River is the ocean, it doesn’t matter what it looks like; it doesn’t matter what surrounds it. It’s salt water; it flows out to the Atlantic. There are points along it where tall grasses grows, their roots standing under water that moves back and forth with the tides. This is the ocean. Honestly. It makes you pause a moment. Here comes the breeze.
(Originally posted July 17th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)