If there is a hidden stream in New York City that resonates the most in my life, it is Horse Brook, whose course runs directly below my mother’s house. No trace of this stream remains today as it was gradually covered in phases. On the map, the only hints of this stream are superblocks that defy the surrounding street grid. These blocks avoided development until technology enabled construction atop the high water table marking the former streambed.
The last entirely undeveloped superblock on the stream’s path is the Newtown High School athletic field. Recently, this site was proposed for a pre-kindergarten. In response, Newtown High School alum Libely Rivas Tejada started a petition to preserve the open space. So far, 570 individuals have signed on.
In the first four decades of the 20th century, the street grid of Queens gradually encroached on the wetlands lining Horse Brook, depriving it of its sources of water. By 1950, only the superblocks that later became Queens Place, Queens Center Mall, LeFrak City, Rego Park Center, Park City Estates, and Forest Hills Co-Op Houses remained empty. By 1973, all of them had been developed as either shopping centers or as high-rise residences. Except one.
That running track on a flat block is the athletic field of Newtown High School, the historic neighborhood school that memorializes Elmhurst’s former name.
According to Kevin Walsh of Forgotten-NY,
One of the most distinctive buildings in Queens is the 169-foot tall, five-spire-tower Newtown High School at Corona Avenue and 90th Street. It was designed in a Flemish Renaissance style by C.B. J. Snyder and completed in 1921. The front of the building is shrouded under a sidwalk canopy but recent tower renovations are complete. Newtown High’s first graduating class in 1894 was one student; today over 4000 students attend. –ForgottenTour 39
The field faces Queens Center Mall, which was also developed atop the buried stream bed in 1972. It is a major source of traffic congestion, but also one of the most profitable urban shopping malls in the country because of its location at the nexus of a dozen bus lines, a subway station, Queens Boulevard, Woodhaven Boulevard and the Long Island Expressway.
Across the street from the Newtown High School Athletic Field is 90-11 56th Avenue, the oldest residential dwelling in the neighborhood. The date of the home’s construction is unclear but it goes back to at least 1852, when the Suydam family owned it. This family is among the original Dutch settler families and kept their Queens properties until the early 20th century.
For the past few decades, retired Newtown High School teacher Vera McCarthy lived in the home and kept it in the same condition as 1852 while the neighborhood around the home was becoming ever denser. Not long after McCarthy’s death, her successors sold it to Brooklyn resident Kui Lin, who intends to raze the structure. On September 8, 2015, the house burned and as a result, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission refused to sign off on preserving the building, arguing:
The agency found that the property at 90-11 56th Ave. had been altered prior to the fire and that the fire damaged many of the remaining significant architectural features of the house, including the windows, dormers, and the door.
The half-hearted review of the petition and proposal filed by Newtown Civic Association means that one more rare link to Elmhurst’s history will soon be gone. Elmhurst, the neighborhood once known as Newtown, founded in 1652 as one of the earliest colonial settlements in Queens. Almost nothing remains of its past, save for a couple of churches. While my wife went shopping at Queens Center Mall, I took our baby daughter Rachel for some urban exploration to pay our last respects to the so-called Horse Brook House. Both of us noted the fire damage on the second story and the third story dormers, but most of the exterior appears intact and untouched by the flames.
Across the street from the doomed Victorian structure is a .03-acre traffic island dubbed by former Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern as Horsebrook Island. Good ol’ Starquest, keeping Horse Brook’s memory alive and putting it back on the map. Nevertheless, the development of Horse Brook continues. A block to the west of Horsebrook Island another longstanding holdout on the stream bed will soon be developed.
At 47,000 square feet and just a block from the subway, the Georgia Diner parking lot was listed for a whopping $24 million in March 2014. It was sold in November of that year for an even higher $26 million. A 197-unit apartment tower is expected to be built on the site.
But what if Horse Brook wasn’t developed and allowed to flow through Elmhurst, Rego Park and Corona, collecting storm water, serving as a linear park and cultural corridor? What would it have looked like? Thanks to Chris Whong’s recently-launched Urban Scratchoff, we can find out by peeling back to 1924. Considering the $55 million that Massey Knakal is listing for the nearby former St. John’s Elmhurst Hospital, the cost of razing everything atop Horse Brook could run in the billions.
I recognize that as the population of Queens continues to grow, there is a need to build new public schools, but why must schools take up what remains of the neighborhood’s past? Throughout Queens, civic associations are revolting against school construction, whether it’s in Flushing, Bayside, or here on the site of Horse Brook.
As apartments grow ever taller, perhaps the city should consider building high-rise schools. It’s something that my brother can speak about, having attended the 10-story Stuyvesant High School and the 14-story vertical campus of Baruch College. Schools should be designed to anticipate population growth. Consider this circa 1929 photo of my alma mater, P.S. 139 in Rego Park.
That’s quite a huge school for what looks like small town America. As the neighborhood grew in population, we recognize in hindsight that it was a smart investment. Indeed, schools should be built to anticipate population growth and at the same time keeping in mind the need for healthy bodies by preserving athletic fields.
As today is Wednesday, the day when I usually share my reading list for Hidden Waters, my leading source for Horse Brook was Vincent F. Seyfried’s Elmhurst: From Town Seat to Mega-Suburb and Old Queens, N.Y. in Early Photographs.
Seyfried (1918-2012) lived most of his life in Hollis and taught history at Martin Van Buren High School. To many Queens residents, Seyfried is best remembered as an authority on the borough’s history. Among his 12 books on Queens history, titles include:
- The Story of Queens Village (1974)
- Queens, A Pictorial History (1982)
- 300 Years of Long Island City 1630-1930 (1984)
- The Story of Woodhaven and Ozone Park (1985)
- The Story of Corona (Corona – from Farmland to City Suburb 1650-1935) (1986)
- Old Queens NY in Early Photographs (with William Asadorian) (1991)
- Elmhurst – from Town Seat to Mega Suburb (1995)
- Flushing in the Civil War Era 1837 to 1865 (2001)
- North Beach – Vanished Pleasureland of Queens (2010)
In addition to being a history teacher and author, Seyfried was also a combat veteran who flew 50 missions above southern Italy during the Second World War, revealing and eliminating fascist strongholds. Thanks to Seyfried’s research,we have a photo of the stream and its namesake, where students today play football. But for how much longer?
After students have drafted an evidence-based argument, ask them to choose an alternative claim or a counterclaim to be sure their original claim is argumentative.