Friday, April 16, 2010

Historic Stones Left Unturned in Plaza by Aarti N Maharaj - Queens Chronicle

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The LIC millstones are fenced off in a triangle in Queens Plaza. Photo BY MITCH WAXMAN/newtown pentacle

Hidden under a crate and surrounded by heavy construction material, the current condition of the already worn Colonial-era millstones in Queens Plaza has preservationists outraged. They say the lack of concern for these historic artifacts that have been part of the streetscape since the 1600s is shameful.

“The manner in which these historical artifacts are being handled and stored is ludicrous,” said Mitch Waxman, an Astoria resident and contributor to the Long Island City Millstones blog, which was formed by Dutch Kills community members.

In the past, millstones drove the economic wheel of Western Queens. In pairs, they were designed to be used in wind or watermills, to grind staple foods like corn or wheat into flour. According to the LIC blog, in the mid 1600s the millstones were part of the Jorrisen’s Mill. Some disagree and claim the stones arrived from Holland, acting as weight on a West Indies trading ship.

Now, the 400-year-old artifacts remain in the triangular intersection of Queens Plaza, behind fencing, trapped in the midst of the construction that is currently underway.

“Given the way they’re being stored and handled, they’ll either be crushed by a truck or just disappear,” Waxman said.“Ultimately, who will care? This seems to be the governing principle over their handling right now.”

According to Christina Wilkinson, president of the Newtown Historical Society, the millstones are believed to be the oldest man-made objects in the borough created by European settlers.

Wilkinson is one of the preservationists who have been actively seeking to have the millstones removed from the location at Queens Plaza and be placed in a museum gallery where they can be protected.

“The millstones should be carefully exhumed and stored at a location that is not in harm’s way,” she said.

In 2009, Robert Lieber, the deputy mayor of the city’s Economic Development Corp., announced a $76.4 million project to help improve Long Island City. About $52.7 million in federal funds were allocated for the renovation of Queens Plaza in an effort to help alleviate the traffic caused by the series of roads that meet there.

As it stands, the 250-foot-wide web of streets and ramps extends from the end of the Queensboro Bridge to the junction of Northern and Queens boulevards, which are slated for a makeover. The project is set to be completed in the fall of 2011.

Project managers said they intend to consider the stones during construction work. “The city and EDC are fully aware of the historical significance of the Colonial-era millstones at Queens Plaza,” said Libby Langsdorf, spokeswoman at EDC. “They are secured at the site, where there is little activity at this time.”

At this time, the EDC believes that due to the excessive weight of and fragility of the stones, it might be safer to avoid moving them.

“We are in the process of engaging an archeological resources consultant to help us develop a longer term plan to ensure their safety,” Langsdorf said. “Eventually, the millstones are to be incorporated into the new public plaza to be constructed in the area.”

However, Waxman said, the EDC’s plan is insufficient.“The eventual display calls for drilling a hole through the center of the stones and propping them up vertically in the ‘new’ Queens Plaza [and] they’ll make a great target for graffiti, and younger kids will love to climb on them,” he said.

Wilkinson also believes that the city’s plan would cause the millstones to deteriorate.

“[Placing] them on pedestals in the future park at the plaza, next to car traffic and a bike lane, would endanger them,” Wilkinson said. “The best solution would be to put them on display at the Quinn Building on Broadway where the Greater Astoria Historical Society has their gallery.”

Since last year, local antiquarians and preservationists have been trying to get the stones to a safer place where studies can be conducted to confirm their origin. Currently, the LIC blog is hosting a petition drive where concerned residents can sign up to save these relics of the past.

“There’s no way you can tell me that sitting in a crate in the middle of Queens Plaza guarantees the millstone’s safe passage to the future,” Waxman said.