Oy vey! Queens is going upscale? Tell it to the gang from Corona, the kids fishing lost rubber balls out of ditches or running away from Dominic, the watchman who chased us off the grass.
I, who fled Queens after graduating from high school, gasped when I read Ginia Bellafante’s New York Times article titled “The King Can No Longer Afford Queens.” My old neighborhood was not upscale then, and it still isn’t.
In “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”
But crossing in the other direction was moving to the dark side. While I could sniff the sweet scents of the Silvercup Bread and Chiclets factories in Long Island City, who would want to live there? But now, the rich folks are moving in, and the Silvercup factory is a film and television studio.
Forest Hills was what we wrote on our return address. Even on my Facebook page, I list Forest Hills as my hometown. But I never really lived there, although my brother and parents moved to a luxury building in Forest Hills after I left home. I grew up in Rego Park in a prewar complex called Queens Boulevard Gardens. Only the Queens Boulevard part was accurate.
However, Queens Boulevard — called the “boulevard of death” because of its staggering number of pedestrian fatalities — is no Rodeo Drive and never was. My bedroom window looked out on a funeral home, an auto showroom, a diner, a grocery and apartment houses: dozens of five- and six-story brick buildings grown shabby by the time I was in high school. Our fifth-floor living room and dining room windows looked out on “the playground,” a vast expanse of concrete with “No Ball Playing” signs and no play structures.
Rego Park was my personal Anatevka, a place I left, as did most of my friends. Rego Park had no parks, no cachet and no claim to fame until Art Spiegelman immortalized it in the graphic novel “Maus.” Even the name itself was a gimmicky contraction created in the 1920s by the Real Good Construction Company.
But in Rego Park, Jews felt safe because we were the majority. In the 1950s, the big playground fights were between Brooklyn Dodgers and Yankees fans during the World Series.
Today Rego Park is home to Jews who fled the former Soviet Union. When I grew up, many of our neighbors were refugees or Holocaust survivors. They never talked about their experiences, but you saw it in their morose expressions. We had Catholic neighbors — Italian, Irish and Polish — but they were a minority, particularly in the public schools. I had friends who thought everybody was either Jewish or Catholic and had no idea that Jews were a minority in America. They didn’t know any Protestants.
Ours was a neighborhood of ethnics, and we were about as upscale as Archie Bunker, with a couple of differences: We valued culture and education and saw them as tickets out of Queens.
Of course, there were Protestants in the upscale Forest Hills Gardens, which had covenants that kept Jews, African Americans and other “undesirables” out. Now the president of the neighborhood association there is Mitchell Cohen.
In Queens Boulevard Gardens a couple of miles away, we didn’t have three-bedroom apartments. Some of my friends’ parents slept on sofas in the living room. Some didn’t own a car. However, we could walk to school or to the movies, and Manhattan was a half-hour subway ride away. Moms weren’t indentured chauffeurs who organized our playtime. We had friends in the building, or we could look out the window and see who was in the playground.
Rego Park, unlike Long Island City, which has stellar views, may never grow chic, but it still has its plusses: fresh bagels, Chinese restaurants that deliver and Ben’s Best, rated excellent in Zagat’s. Not too shabby.
It’s not such a bad place to be from, but I’m not ready to change my hometown on Facebook.