Queens Borough President, Helen M. Marshall  


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A Brief History of Queens
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One of the ten original counties of New York, Queens County was created November 1, 1683. At that time it was three times its present size and included all of Nassau and extended to Suffolk.

This territory - part of New Netherland - was originally governed by the Dutch, who permitted English as well as Dutch colonists to settle and form towns (townships). Under this plan, Newtown (1st and 2nd Wards) was organized in 1642, Flushing (3rd Ward) in 1645, Jamaica (4th Ward) in 1656, Far Rockaway (5th Ward), then part of Hempstead, in 1644.

These colonists - for the most part Englishmen - found themselves again under English rule when Peter Stuyvesant surrendered in 1664 to an English force acting for the Duke of York.

The colony turned to English ways when Long Island, Westchester and Staten Island were formed into the county of Yorkshire. But Yorkshire passed out of existence in 1683 when the entire province was divided into counties. Long Island contained three of the original counties: Queens including the present Nassau, Kings and Suffolk.

Named for the English Queen, Catherine of Braganza, Queens and its people were divided against each other during the Revolutionary War - Whig against Tory. When the English captured Long Island in 1776, many patriots were forced to flee from the island to avoid capture. After the war, Queens residents resumed peaceful activities.

Queens - with its 118 square miles of land area - became one of the five boroughs incorporated in the City of New York on January 1, 1898.

Historical Essay:  A Thumbnail View
by Vincent F. Seyfried and Jon A. Peterson
History Department, Queens College/CUNY

The Borough of Queens is a massive urban complex with a population of almost 1.9 million. It occupies a territory that has passed through all the epochs of the American past. The original inhabitants, the Native American Indians, gave way to the Dutch and English in the early 17th century, leaving little behind except place names and the trails that became wagon roads, some of them now major streets.

The Dutch, who explored and founded the colony of New Netherland in the years 1609-1624, initially occupied the southern tip of Manhattan and developed farms in Brooklyn before settling the northwestern shore of Long Island along the East River. Thus, the first known settlement in what is today Queens did not begin until after 1637 in the Astoria, Hunters Point, and Dutch Kills area of Long Island City.

English settlements began in the 1640s with the approval of the Dutch government. Some English from New England took up lands in Maspeth at the headwaters of Newtown Creek in 1642, only to be driven out by Indian attacks the following year. A more enduring settlement dating from 1652 began further inland at Newtown, now Elmhurst. Other English started Flushing in 1645 and still others Jamaica in 1656. Dutch authorities gave these places Dutch names and a Dutch form of government. Because Dutch farmers from Brooklyn settled among the English, Queens became a place of diverse cultural traditions from its outset. In 1683, nineteen years after the capture of New Netherland, the London government divided the New York crown colony, including Long Island and the Hudson Valley, into ten counties.

In this way Queens County first emerged as a geographical entity. Then and for the next 215 years, it existed as a vast territory embracing not only the present day area of Queens but also present day Nassau County. The English divided the western portion of this new county into three units or "towns" Newtown, Flushing, and Jamaica.

Each was separated from the other by major terrain features: Newtown from Flushing by a tidal marsh and estuary, and both from Jamaica by the terminal moraine ridge that runs the length of Long Island. Outside of the villages within these towns, most occupants farmed the land and traveled over dirt roads or by water. The nation's first census, in 1790, recorded only 5,393 inhabitants in what is today Queens.

The era of the American Revolution, 1776-1783, disrupted the lives of every villager and farmer, often dividing neighbors against one another. Except in Newtown, majority sentiment strongly favored the British, whose army defeated the American forces under George Washington at the Battle of Long Island (fought in Brooklyn) on August 27, 1776. This defeat made the island, especially the area of present-day Queens, an excellent, almost completely secure, base for quartering British troops.

After Washington's defeat Queens endured a seven-year occupation, leaving behind a ravaged countryside and long memories of personal hardship. At the end of the occupation, many pro-British Queens residents fled, fearing retribution for having collaborated with the enemy. From the final withdrawal of the British in November, 1783, until the 1830s, Queens continued as an essentially Long Island area of farms and villages. The location of the county government in Mineola (in present-day Nassau County) underscores the island orientation of that era. Population grew hardly at all, increasing only from 5,791 in 1800 to 7,806 in 1830, suggesting that many younger sons moved away, seeking fortunes where land was not yet so fully taken up for farming. But there was another lure.

In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, New York City had begun to grow at the extraordinary pace that soon made it the Empire City of the young Republic. Gradually, this youthful metropolis and its crossriver rival, Brooklyn, would exert increasing influence over Queens.

Decade after decade, continuing down into the middle of the twentieth century, Queens began to absorb an ever-increasing flood of new settlers. The urbanizing forces that would eventually overwhelm rural Queens first became apparent in the 1830s. Population increased by 5,153 in that decade. In 1839 Astoria became the first village to be officially founded within Queens since the 17th century. In 1848 Ravenswood along the East River began as a fashionable residential area, helping to establish the Gold Coast tradition that would, over time, move eastward along the north shore of Long Island through parts of Flushing, Malba, Bayside, and Douglaston and into Nassau County.

Urbanizing forces became especially conspicuous in the 1850s. In western Queens, land speculators bought up farms for conversion to village lots. Maspeth, Corona, Long Island City (Hunters Point area), and Winfield all started between 1852 and 1854. Western Queens satisfied the leisure needs of both local and visitor elements, especially at its then well known racetracks.

New Yorkers and Brooklynites also trekked to western Queens to visit the immense cemeteries foisted upon the county by New York and Brooklyn religious corporations in response to the banning in 1848 of burial grounds from lower Manhattan for health reasons. Manufacturers, seeking rural settings within reach of New York City, scattered factories more widely at --Whitestone, Woodhaven, and College Point. Meanwhile, the Rockaway beaches had begun to attract affluent summer excursionists.

The great waves of Irish and German immigration that swept into nearly all the East Coast cities during the mid-nineteenth century reached Queens as well. The Irish, displaced by the potato famine and the acute rural distress of the late 1840s, settled in Astoria and, to a lesser degree, in Jamaica and Flushing. Many Germans entered Queens by way of Brooklyn via Metropolitan and Myrtle Avenues. Middle Village, which had been English in the 1840s, became almost wholly German by 1860.

On the eve of the Civil War, Queens had a population of 30,429. The Civil War only briefly interrupted this process of growth. In the quarter century that followed, 1865-1890, the initial urbanization of western Queens was largely completed. Glendale in 1868-1869, Richmond Hill in 1869, and Queens Village in 1871 all got their start. In the early 1870s, William Steinway, the piano manufacturer, began production in East Astoria. Creating a manufacturing village out of farm lands that had survived until then on either side of what is now upper Steinway Avenue.

Following the protracted economic depression of the mid-1870s, Ridgewood boomed as a residential community after the Brooklyn City Railroad built its car barns there in 1881. The continuing flow of population out of Brooklyn via Richmond Hill and Woodhaven led to the creation of Ozone Park in 1882 and Morris Park in 1884.

The coming of the Myrtle Avenue elevated in 1888 furthered this process, especially enhancing Ridgewood's appeal as a residential haven. Elsewhere in Queens, growth was more spotty. Some large farms in Bayside were converted to building lots in 1872. South Flushing, between the old village and Kissena Park, was subdivided the following year. In 1885, Hollis began as a remote suburb, served by a station stop along the Long Island Rail Road. Overall population growth appeared impressive when compared to the prior decades of the century, expanding from 45,468 in 1870 to 56,559 in 1880, and 87,050 in 1890.

The suburbs and subdivisions begun in the 1865-1890 years along with the older centers accommodated the rapid growth of the early 1890s, before the onset of the depression of 1893-1897. At the close of the nineteenth century, 152,999 people were counted for Queens, including Rockaway still a small number by present standards. The critical development of this decade was the action of the New York State legislature establishing the Greater City of New York. By this enactment, the state consolidated Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, and the present-day area of Queens into a single city of five boroughs, as of January 1, 1898. In a nonbinding referendum in 1894, the Towns of Jamaica and Newtown and the City of Long Island City had favored this development, but the Town of Flushing --along with Brooklyn had opposed it.

The establishment of Queens as a municipal borough did not create, out of the blue, a Queens identity. As already suggested, the area had many centers and diverse local traditions, and much of it still existed as farmland and open terrain. Furthermore, the new Queens County, which was made coterminous with the borough, had been severed from its former eastern territory, which had become Nassau County. The new Queens, in short, was a political artifact without a real past in the life of the people.

Local identities, which were rooted in both the remote as well as the recent past, still shaped the feelings of place among Queens residents. Only gradually during the course of the twentieth century would some consciousness of Queens as an entity in its own right arise, but never would it displace the residents' sense of being, first and foremost, from Maspeth or Howard Beach or some other place.

Meanwhile, the people of Queens would become increasingly exposed to citywide, metropolitan, regional, national, and international events and population movements, all of which would tend to mute the intensity of inherited forms of localism while adding to the diversity and sophistication of the people. The first decade of the new borough's history continued the high rate of growth apparent since the Civil War. Much of this was directly traceable to the sudden expansion of rapid transit into Queens.

When the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the Long Island Rail Road in 1900, then electrified it through Queens in 1905-1908, and opened the Penn Tunnels under the East River in 1910, it brought virtually the whole of Queens within the suburban commuting zone of Manhattan. Previously, only ferry connections had made such movement possible. All these moves greatly inflated land values and stimulated home building.

By 1910, Queens numbered 284,041 people. Even more crucial to future development was the opening of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909. This span ended the isolation of the borough's road system at precisely the time when mass use of the automobile was getting underway in the United States. Soon, an annually increasing flood of cars, trolleys, wagons, trucks, and trains poured over the new structure.

A whole new road system grew up to accommodate the traffic, and Queens Boulevard, 200 feet wide, was laid out as the main arterial highway of the new borough. The borough government also pledged itself to devise a uniform system of street names and numbers throughout its vast territory but hesitated to impose it in the face of local resistance.

From 1915 onward, much of northern and southwestern Queens came within reach of the New York City subway system, itself begun in Manhattan in 1904. Interborough service reached Hunters Point in 1915, Bridge Plaza in 1916, and Astoria in 1917. Another branch extended along Queens Boulevard and the newly laid out Roosevelt Avenue, reaching Corona in 1917 and Flushing in 1928.

In southern Queens, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company built an elevated line along Liberty Avenue through Ozone Park and Woodhaven to Richmond Hill in 1915 and along Jamaica Avenue from the Brooklyn border through Woodhaven and Richmond Hill to Jamaica during 1917-1918. As all developers and realtors knew, these massive improvements in transportation, especially the opening of Queens to five-cent fare service, promised rapid, indeed explosive growth.

This began soon after World War I ended in November, 1918. During the 1920s, Queens rocketed from 469,042 to 1,079,129, a growth rate of 130 percent comparable to that experienced by Nassau County after World War II. The greatest building boom in the borough's history left behind as its enduring mark mile after mile of brick and wood frame housing.

Although the Great Depression of the 1930s ended this boom, growth of another kind got underway, namely, the buildup of those facilities that now help to identify Queens as a place and establish its metropolitan, national, and international significance.

The opening of the Triborough Bridge and Grand Central Parkway from the Bridge to Kew Gardens in 1936, of Queens College in 1937, and of LaGuardia Airport in 1939 all pointed in these directions. Even more critical was the World's Fair of 1939-1940, which put the new borough on the national map for the first time. Massive preparations for the event began in 1936 and brought about the elimination of the stupendous Corona dumps -- dubbed the "valley of ashes" by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby -- the building of the Whitestone Bridge, and the widening and boulevarding of Astoria Boulevard.

Afterwards, the fair site became Flushing Meadows Park (later renamed Flushing Meadows-Corona Park). After World War II, growth surged again, leveling off in the early 1960s. Cityblocksize garden apartments sprouted in many areas of the borough. The remaining tracts of land in northeastern Queens, including former golf courses, filled up with singlefamily and attached housing. In Fresh Meadows, between Flushing and Jamaica, a complex of highrise apartments built by the New York Life Insurance Company housed 14,000.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, much of central Flushing, once celebrated for its country-squire atmosphere, was smothered with four- and five-story apartment buildings, which extended block after block along many streets. As late as the early 1960s, Queens residents and businessmen could subscribe to the view that the borough was still booming. In fact, the great cycle of urban development that had first become apparent in western Queens in the 1830s had all but ended.

Out of all of Queens today, only one farm survives -- and that as an historical restoration. Henceforth, all further development will necessarily involve infilling and upbuilding, deterioration and replacement, rejuvenation and adaptation, and similar processes. Queens today is a physically mature urban territory but also one of intense social dynamism.

More than ever, it has become a multiethnic place: the home of Greeks, Italians, Blacks, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Colombians, Asian Indians, Puerto Ricans, Israelis, Maltese, and still other groups, many of whose arrivals have been facilitated by the 1965 national immigration act.

Despite their influx, the borough for the first time in its known history declined in population between 1970 and 1980 and then stabilized in the 1980s. This fundamental pattern reflected deep-seated regional economic trends and was sufficient confirmation that Queens, as throughout its three-and-one-half centuries of recorded existence, was still as anchored in the American experience as it was in developments conducive to localism.


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