The wildness of Queens

29 Nov

Entering the holiday season was, of course, a foolhardy time to start a blog. I’d been blogging less than a week when Thanksgiving preparations and celebrations kept me mostly offline for longer than that.

It was the English colonists of Massachusetts, not the Dutch colonists of New Netherlands, whom we credit with the first Thanksgiving, celebrating the harvest with the native Americans who’d helped them survive in the New World. But a little reading in the historically rich library of the Holland Society of New York, 20 West 44th Street in Manhattan, made vivid in my mind’s eye what the setting must have been like.

Holland Society library

The Library of the Holland Society of New York. Photo by Mary Collins.

That reading was possible thanks to an open house at the society’s library on Thursday, November 18, day two of 5 Dutch Days 5 Boroughs (not 5 Dutch Days in New York, as I’ve been calling it). Librarian and genealogist Mary Collins was the very cordial host. The society’s collection of 7,000 books is split mainly between regional histories (the New Netherlands area and beyond) and family histories. A few of the titles I noticed in the brief time I was able to spend there were Lives of the Clergy of New York and Brooklyn (1874), Old Taverns of New York (1915), and inventories of church archives.

One book that particularly caught my eye was The Annals of Newtown, in Queens County, New-York, by James Riker, Jr., originally published in 1852, republished in 1982 by Hunterdon House in Lambertville, NJ.

Newtown, as far as I know, is the neighborhood also called Elmhurst (the Grand Ave. / Newtown stop on the R and M subway lines, and home to Newtown High School). Although I can somewhat readily picture Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island in their wild and later colonial days—probably because that period has been publicized in each borough—western Queens is much harder for me to picture that way. True, the visualization should be somewhat easier because of the Queens Farm Museum, which has been billed as New York City’s only working farm. (That status is challenged by the city’s recent locavore trend, which has led in recent years to the establishment of several commercially successful rooftop farms.) But Queens, I learned quite a while ago, had a considerable amount of farmland all the way into the 1920s, and I have a hard time getting my head around that fact. Today, much of Queens is as heavily paved and commercially ugly as any part of New York City.

The Riker book speaks from the perspective of that time when Queens was farmland, looking back with some wonder to the even earlier time when it was still wild. With Thanksgiving in the offing as I read it, I felt wonder myself that Queens had seen either condition in a not-ancient past. Here’s the descriptive passage (from pages 2–3 of the book):

Those richly cultivated farms that now pay their annual tribute to the garner of the husbandman, then lay in all the wild grandeur of a primeval forest, whose lone recesses were only disturbed by the prowling beast, the peans of the bird of prey, or the stealthy tread of the Indian hunter. Where now graze the kino, the herd of graceful deer roved and fed in native pastures. Flocks of wild-fowl bathed in the streams across whose waters the timid beaver constructed its dams….

One Response to “The wildness of Queens”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. “Arguing in My Cornfield” dream « - November 30, 2010

    […] the once-agricultural, once-wild setting of New York City on November 18 worked its way into a dream on November 20. I titled this dream “Arguing in My Cornfield”: […]

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