As is often the case, parks are built atop buried waterways as such places are too costly to be developed. An example of such a park is Utopia Playground in the Fresh Meadows neighborhood of Queens, designated as a park in 1942.
Prior to the playground this three-acre site was a kettle pond with a stream that contributed to Kissena Creek.
The Landscape of Utopia
With the 1891 Julius Bien atlas as our guide, the Fresh Meadows of that time was a mostly undeveloped farmland of sloping hills covered with farms and a few forests. All the roads on the above map date to colonial times, predating the grid that was laid across the borough in 1911. At the junction of Black Stump Road and Fresh Meadow Lane was a lake, marked at the elevation of 34 feet above sea level. Kissena Creek flows in a northeast direction across the meadows, leaving its source at Gutman’s Swamp.
Black Stump Village
As its name suggests, Black Stump Road received its name from colored stumps installed throughout Fresh Meadows that delineated boundaries between farms. From the creation of Queens in 1683, the land remained in the hands of a few Dutch-descended interrelated families that worked the land into the 1930s, names such as Adriance, Brinckerhoff, Couwenhoven, and such. None of their farmhouses remain, victims of suburban developments. The only remnant of Black Stump Village is Brinckerhoff Cemetery, designated as a city landmark in 2012 after a hard-fought battle by local civic groups and elected officials.
The pond was located near a major crossroads. Black Stump Road took travelers east to the mill at Alley Pond and further to the Town of Hempstead. Fresh Meadow Lane enabled farmers to either travel south to Jamaica or north to Flushing. Nearby, the oddly-named Quarrelsome Lane connected to Jamaica Road (present-day Parsons Boulevard), another major Flushing-Jamaica connector. Over time, the crossroads became known as Black Stump Village. On the shore of the pond were the Black Stump School and the volunteer Black Stump fire company.
Amid the farms was Flushing Heights, a planned development by the Utopia Land Company that sought to attract Jews from the Lower East Side. Its street grid had names such as Hester, Houston, Delancey, and Broome, serving as reminders of the Manhattan neighborhood.
The photo above was shared by neighborhood resident Scott Aronofsky, who runs the Facebook group Fresh Meadows 360: Blue Bay To The Flagship, which collects old photographs and stories about the neighborhood. The school had a bell tower that signaled the start of the school day and dismissal.
On the January 16, 194o aerial survey, today’s 73rd Avenue Utopia Parkway / Fresh Meadow Lane, and Jewel Avenue are highlighted. It is a wintry scene, with plenty of snow cover. A ravine piercing the flat farmland is Kissena Creek. The pond has been filled, but old schoolhouse is still standing. It will be demolished in the following year. At the very top of the photo is the Pomonok Country Club, which in 1951 will be redeveloped as the Electchester co-ops, Pomonok Houses and Pomonok Playground.
In the postwar period, Fresh Meadows rapidly developed and there was a need for a new school for the neighborhood. In 1947, the city’s Board of Estimate proposed one on the site of the playground. Citing cost and the buried pond, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses opposed the idea and the playground was saved. Public School 173 was built a couple of blocks to the north with Fresh Meadows Playground as its schoolyard. Although Kissena Creek is gone, once in a while there is flooding along Utopia Parkway. Despite an album and pop song that shares the parkway’s name, the band hails from Wayne, New Jersey.
The end of Jewel Avenue
A rare named avenue in a neighborhood where most roadways have been assigned numbers, Jewel Avenue begins in Forest Hills and ends at Utopia Playground. It is the last reminder of a whimsical alphabetic grid designed for Forest Hills by the developer Cord Meyer in 1909.
Going west, street names included Atom (75th Avenue), DeKoven (72nd Road), Kelvin (69th Road), Pilgrim (67th Drive) and Zuni (63rd Drive). Jewel is the only one that was not assigned a number because it was designed to extend beyond Forest Hills. Forest Hills historian Michael Perlman tells this story.
At its eastern terminus, Jewel Avenue once merged with 73rd Avenue and 181st Street. The local Community Board noticed that motorists often used Jewel Avenue as a shortcut, buzzing past Utopia Playground at dangerous speeds. After residents of the block were polled, it was transformed into a dead end in 2008.
Utopia Playground Today
What was once an immense paved triangle with wooden seesaws and a tire swing was redesigned in 2009, with the introduction of garden spaces, additional benches, play equipment for different age groups, and a jungle gym.
Although there is no trace of the unnamed lake that preceded Utopia Playground, the redesign gave the playground something else that is visible throughout nature in the circular paths seen above, inspired by the nautilus-shaped golden spiral. Known to mathematicians as Φ (phi), numerically as 1.618033988… it is visible throughout nature.
Family Day at Utopia Playground
When it comes to an encyclopedic knowledge of things, one can learn a lot from Fresh Meadows resident Rory Lancman. I would know as I once worked for him. Since his election to the City Council in 2013, he’s devoted the summer portion of his budget towards Family Day events at parks in his district.
Here’s an event for your children at a playground with a unique history that relates to the city’s hidden waterways.
In the News:
Next City reports on how public parks benefit our health.
Planetizen reports on the redesign of Governors Island.
Times Free Press of Chattanooga reports on the restoration of that city’s East Lake Park.
CityLab reports on the rapid expansion of urban sprawl in the American West. Enjoy the frontier experience while you can.