Prior to its acquisition by New York City, the borough of Queens was a rural county with Flushing and Jamaica as its two oldest towns. Connecting them was an ancient route that corresponds to today’s Kissena Boulevard, Aguilar Avenue and Parsons Boulevard. That obscure avenue that connects the two boulevards has a history that relates to a buried stream, one that originated in an inland wetland known to planners as Gutman’s Swamp.
In the photo above from the Municipal Archives, Aguilar Avenue bends towards Parsons Boulevard, where they both intersect 73rd Avenue. The short blocks of stone indicate a bridge. This is where Gutman’s Swamp emptied into Kissena Creek, which then ran across Fresh Meadows and Kissena Park on its way to Flushing Creek.
Negotiating around the swamp, the road connecting Flushing and Jamaica made a turn that is visible today in the form of Aguilar Avenue. The 1873 F. W. Beers map shows the swamp as a peat harvesting site bound roughly by Union Turnpike on the south, Parsons Boulevard on the east, 70th Road on the north, and Vleigh Place on the west. The broken line separating the school districts that later became Kew Gardens Hills and Fresh Meadows is today’s 164th Street.
On the map above, two unnamed ponds mark turns in Vleigh Place at present-day 77th Road and at 70th Road. The creek flowing out of the swamp is Kissena Creek. For reference, Kissena-Aguilar-Parsons and Union Turnpike are highlighted. Moving ahead to the 1909 Bromley map below, the property lines of the swamp closely follow the division between wetland and dry land. Monitor Peat Company is gone and for the time being, and a Mrs. Gutman owns the swamp, lending her name to it. Aguilar Avenue is highlighted.
In 1911, Queens Borough President Maurice E. Connolly directed the borough’s Topographical Bureau to design a numbered grid system to connect road segments across Queens. Ignoring the actual property lines on the ground, officials spread the numbered grid across the landscape, predicting a monotonous future for the borough. Missing are the parks, golf courses, colleges, and other elements that exceed the size of a standard block. To achieve the harmonious blandness of endlessly repetitive streets, Gutman’s Swamp had to be eliminated. Besides, it was a breeding ground for mosquitoes at a time when malaria was a serious concern. It’s no surprise then that Queens Hospital Center retained its super-block property on the map as it treated contagious diseases.
The map above comes from the June 1917 copy of the City Record, published by the New York City Council. For reference, I highlighted north-south: Kissena-Aguilar-Parsons, and Main Street. East-west: Jewel Avenue and Union Turnpike.
Below, an article from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle archive from June 16, 1918 describes efforts to drain Gutman’s Swamp. It took 60 years to get the job done.
The Disappearing Swamp
The above aerial surveys clipped from the DoITT NYCity Map show the swamp in 1924 and 1951. A few observations on changes in the landscape:
- To the east of Main Street, the southern end of Flushing Meadows was developed into a nature preserve around Willow Lake.
- Instead of a boring grid, properties between Main Street and Flushing Meadows were built in a suburban-style maze of streets.
- Kissena Boulevard was extended atop the former swamp while its former curving path was retained as Aguilar Avenue.
- On the northern side of the swamp, the 1,270-unit Kew Gardens Hills Apartments were constructed in 1950. For much of the past half century, they were regarded as the cheapest option in the neighborhood. With a new owner and recent renovations, this could change.
- The site of Gutman’s Swamp was developed in a strict rectilinear grid, with a gap between 75th Road and 76th Road. That property remained a swamp for another half century, as it was much more difficult to develop.
Relying on a Google Earth aerial, we see the last remnant of Gutman Swamp as developed around its edges, with plenty of open space within. As Touro College continues to expand, it may develop the space in the future. Aguilar Avenue is highlighted, while the straightened path of Kissena Boulevard runs parallel to it.
One more thing
Let’s have another look at the title photo for this article and compare it to its present condition. The gas station from 1941 was a Shell. Today, motorists can still fill up at this location, which is now a BP franchise. The wooden lampposts still follow Parsons Boulevard carrying wires. As for Kissena Creek, it exists in segments further downstream inside Kissena Park and under the Queens Botanical Garden.
While traveling on Aguilar Avenue, be sure to visit Aron’s Kissena Farms, the largest kosher supermarket in Queens. You may also sample Bukharian food at Melody Restaurant on the corner of 72 Avenue and Aguilar. Further down the street behind the gas station is Kouchi Supermarket, an emporium of Afghan goods, including halal meat, desserts, literature, music, and prayer rugs. It’s like a museum where you can purchase anything on display.