Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Living In - Woodhaven, Queens - Diversity Under the El by Gregory Beyer -

Read original...

View Photo Slide-show...

Today Schmidt's glass cases, lined with chocolates set by hand upon pale wax paper trays, are the province of the founders' granddaughter, Margie Schmidt. She grew up in Woodhaven in a house on 94th Street, about a block south of the family shop.
Photos: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

ONE sweet strand in the story of Woodhaven, a neighborhood in southwestern Queens, stretches back to 1925, when Schmidt’s Candies opened on Jamaica Avenue near 94th Street. Today the shop’s glass cases, lined with chocolates set by hand upon pale wax paper trays, are the province of the founders’ granddaughter, Margie Schmidt, an abrupt, fast-talking single mother of three children, 9, 12 and 17.

One afternoon last month, at the peak of the holiday rush, Ms. Schmidt bounded behind counters to gift-wrap boxes of homemade ribbon candy, gabbed with customers about long-ago afternoons on front porches, and stole away in brief installments to the back room, where she dipped a plastic tub into a cardboard reservoir of melted chocolate and drizzled it onto miniature pretzels.

Ms. Schmidt grew up in Woodhaven in a house on 94th Street, about a block south of the family shop. In 1988, she bought the house next door to the shop, for $150,000. Behind the counter last month, wearing sweat pants and a baseball cap and T-shirt, both bearing the letters F.D.N.Y., Ms. Schmidt embodied the self-reliance and small town pride reflected in Woodhaven’s motto: “A Haven in the City.”

“Woodhaven has always been and continues to be a blue-collar, working-class immigrant neighborhood,” she said.

It occupies about a square mile, and of its 40,000 or so residents, 45 percent are Hispanic, 29 percent white, 14 percent Asian, and 5 percent black, with most of the rest multiracial, according to census estimates. It is bounded on the north by Park Lane South, on the south by Atlantic Avenue, on the west by Eldert Lane and the Brooklyn line, and on the east by 102nd Street.

There are some longtime residents who say that new forces and faces have taken a toll on the neighborhood’s hard-working ethic. But Joseph Ruggiere, for one, disagrees. The owner of Ohlert-Ruggiere Inc., a real estate and insurance company, Mr. Ruggiere, 80, sees new arrivals as carrying on the immigrant traditions, rather than debasing them.

“A lot of Latinos have moved into the community,” he said. “They buy houses and have this pride of ownership that is so great. They fix up their houses, and when I leave at night to go home from work, I see them sweeping their sidewalks and shoveling, sweeping up the leaves and the garbage.”

Jamaica Avenue divides the neighborhood into what brokers commonly call Woodhaven north and south. Here, shops line Woodhaven Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue.

Indeed, Jamaica Avenue is a testament to Woodhaven’s diversity. It is lined with delis, halal bodegas and Mexican bakeries, in addition to shops like M. M. Housewares, owned by Jack Moy, who came to Woodhaven from China 20 years ago. Near 77th Street is the supermarket (now a Met Food) built by Fred Christ Trump, identified as “Father of The Donald” on a sign posted by the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society.

At the neighborhood’s western edge, where a supermarket and housing development now stand, there was once a place called Dexter Park, which from 1911 to 1955 was a site for semiprofessional baseball games. Its field lights allowed for the first night game, in 1930, according to Leonora Lavan, the historical society president.

There are local groups that work to address neighborhood issues like graffiti on commercial properties along Jamaica Avenue.

Maria Thomson, executive director of both the Woodhaven Business Improvement District and the Greater Woodhaven Development Corporation, is setting her sights on the elevated J and Z subway rails, which loom above Jamaica Avenue, the area’s main thoroughfare, like a rusted spine. They are badly in need of cleaning, scraping and painting.

“Our avenue is clean and bright and very vibrant,” she said, “and then you look up and see all the peeling and the miserable damage to the el that has not been addressed in the last 25 years.”

Anthony Fernandez, an agent with Re/Max Liberty, says some of his clients opt for neighborhoods other than Woodhaven because they dislike the idea of the trains constantly rumbling over the main shopping district. “It sort of gives the neighborhood a dark side,” he said, while also acknowledging that others consider the subway’s proximity a strength.


During the holidays, the undersides of the J and Z rails are hung with colored lights and a sound system that blares Christmas music along Jamaica Avenue — which divides the neighborhood into what brokers commonly call Woodhaven north and south.

The northern portion is smaller, while its houses are generally larger. Proximity to Forest Park and the size and quality of the housing stock make this area pricier. It has detached and semidetached wood frame houses on wide lots — many with garages, wraparound porches, driveways and finished attics. Three- to six-story red brick co-op apartment buildings punctuate Park Lane South, steps from Forest Park. The land rises steeply to the park; full flights of stairs lead to front doors of houses perched along the incline.

The post office and the library can be found on a stretch of Forest Parkway in the north; on the block near 85th Street is the house where Betty Smith wrote her 1943 novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” according to Ms. Lavan.

Woodhaven south, which stretches from Jamaica Avenue to Atlantic Avenue, contains some similar houses, but many more of its streets are lined with attached row houses, which tend to fetch lower prices.

Ms. Lavan said the actress Mae West once lived on 88th Street near 98th Avenue and sang at the Union Course Tavern, several blocks away on 78th Street.


Since this time last year, house prices have dropped 10 to 15 percent, brokers say. Similarly, houses that averaged three to six months on the market a year ago now sit for eight months to a year.

Detached houses range from $450,000 to $520,000, according to Arturo Flores, an agent with Ohlert-Ruggiere.

Attached houses average $359,000, semidetached houses $450,000, according to Mr. Fernandez of Re/Max Liberty.

One-bedroom co-ops range from $110,000 to $130,000 and two-bedrooms from $180,000 to $210,000, according to Claude Marku, the owner of Century 21 Park Lane Realty.

Some rentals are available in private houses, he said.


The 543-acre Forest Park starts along Woodhaven’s northern border. Tennis courts, a golf course and bridle trails are among its recreational offerings. The George Seuffert Sr. Band Shell, built in 1920 and named for a local military band leader who played at a bandstand on the same site, features free concerts in the summer.

The park has one of the five carousels operating in New York City parks. Built in 1903 by the master wood carver Daniel Carl Muller, it features a lion, a tiger and a deer in addition to painted horses. “I call it the jewel of Forest Park,” Ms. Thomson said.

For one day each October, her group, the Woodhaven Economic Development Corporation, holds a street fair on Jamaica Avenue.

Richard Kaiser, a 64-year-old retired banker who has lived in Woodhaven since he was 7, said that with all of Jamaica Avenue’s offerings, one thing was conspicuously, and curiously, missing. “It’s probably one of the only neighborhoods that doesn’t have any major restaurants,” he said. There’s a diner here, a diner there, he continued. But it’s not the kind of place that has everything.


In addition to the J and Z subway lines, there are several buses, including the 11 and 53 along Woodhaven Boulevard, and the 56 along Jamaica Avenue.


One of the neighborhood’s two elementary schools is Public School 97, the Forest Park School, at 85th Street and 85th Road. Last year, 63 percent of its fourth graders met state standards in English and 85 in math, versus 61 and 80 citywide. The school received an A on a city progress report.

Middle School 210, the Elizabeth Blackwell School, for Grades 6 through 8, is on 101st Avenue near 93rd Street, below Jamaica Avenue in Ozone Park. The school got a B on a city progress report last year. Of eighth graders, 55 percent met state standards in English and 65 in math, versus 43 and 60 citywide.

Area high schools include Franklin K. Lane High School, on Jamaica Avenue just over the Brooklyn border. It has an enrollment of 1,781 in Grades 9 through 12. SAT averages last year were 375 in reading, 399 in math and 358 in writing, versus 438, 460, and 433 citywide.


Once called Woodville, the neighborhood became Woodhaven to avoid confusion with a Woodville in upstate New York. In 1899, the opening of the Lalance & Grosjean enamel factory helped populate the neighborhood. The factory’s clock tower still stands on Atlantic Avenue at 92nd Street.