A Passion For All Things Queens

Monday, July 19, 2010

They give lectures and tours and help New Yorkers learn about their neighborhoods. Their positions are mandated by state law...but they don't make a penny for the job. They're the five city historians, one for each borough. This summer, we'll be meeting them and finding out some of the secret knowledge about their respective 'hoods.

Queens Borough Historian Jack Eichenbaum is the new kid on the block. He got his job in June, promising not to hide behind books.

In the Flushing apartment he's lived in for decades, Eichenbaum looks tan and fit in a t-shirt, royal blue track shorts and running shoes. He's lived nearly all of his 67 years in Queens -- a place he believes is still undervalued by the rest of the city.

The people who act like Manhattan is the center of the known universe? Don't even get him started.

"I found too many people who were interesting people who would never come here," he says "'Why would I ever want to go there? To their crowded apartments, and their overpriced restaurants and their dirty air.'"

He isn't always this feisty, but he's a man on a mission.

That's why Queens Borough President Helen Marshall selected Eichenbaum, a retired city assessor with a Ph.D. in geography, over six other candidates.

She says his passion for all things Queens is one of the qualities that make him the right man for the job. His predecessor, Stanley  Cogan, held the position for 11 years before stepping down earlier this year because of health problems. Eichenbaum says the thing that most easily dazzles people about his borough is the rich diversity layered throughout the different neighborhoods.

"I mean people still wearing some version of clothing that looks different, smells that are different, music is blaring out of the shops -- and, you know, it’s all right out there."

He notes that Queens hasn't always been this diverse. One of the defining moments for the borough was the changing of the immigration laws beginning in the late '60s. The other was when the Queensborough Bridge and the No. 7 and N trains opened, transforming the mostly rural area into an urban spot in the early part of the 20th century. Although for some, the neighborhoods are still more relevant than the borough.

QUEENS BY THE NUMBERS
Population: 2,306,712
Area: 109.24 square miles (largest of any borough)
Number of languages spoken: About 170
Median household income: $55,599
Percent of population below poverty level: 12.3%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

"When I was growing up, we lived in Bayside," Eichenbaum says. "We never said we live in Queens. The fact that people live in Queens is a relatively late 20th century idea. Most people lived and grew up, from my era, in neighborhoods of Queens -- and you still write, neighborhood addresses say Bayside, NY; Jamaica, NY; Ozone Park, NY."

Guiding people through those neighborhoods is something he's been doing since the '80s -- and he'll continue to push an educational agenda via walking tours. One thing that often surprises visitors about Flushing is how green it is. Eichenbaum is even on a first name basis with one of the epic trees that line Bowne Street, calling it “Big Mama.”

Further along, there are more landmarks with roots.

"This is Weeping Beech Park," he says. "It’s named for a weeping beech tree planted by of one of the most famous nurserymen, Samuel Bowne Parsons."

His tour is peppered with offbeat facts and trivia.

Scrabble, for example, was invented in Jackson Heights by a man named Alfred Butts. "He invented the game and his wife tested it and they refined it I think in the '30s and '40s," Eichenbaum says.

Eichenbaum happens to a champion Scrabble player himself and has trophies from tournaments he's competed in from Boston to the Dead Sea.

He fondly reminisces about one of his of his most memorable moves, when he spelled out the word "syzygy," which employs 3 Y's and a Z.

What does the word mean? “It has something to do with eclipses or some kind of astronomical movements between bodies when certain alignments," he says, before admitting, "I don’t know exactly.”

What he does know is that he's the guy to school New Yorkers about a borough they still know too little about. That means you, Manhattan.

This week, the borough historian will be answering the burning questions you have about Queens. Follow the link below to post yours.

Photo by Kathleen Horan/WNYC
The historian at home.
Photo by Kathleen Horan/WNYC
Eichenbaum displays old family photos and seashells from his travels.
Photo by Kathleen Horan/WNYC
Eichenbaum holding one of his prized Scrabble trophies, won at a tournament by the Dead Sea.
Photo by Kathleen Horan/WNYC
Eichenbaum’s neighborhood of Flushing is green -- surprisingly so, to some.
Photos by Kathleen Horan/WNYC
Signs along Main Street speak to the diverse people who shop there.
Kathleen Horan/WNYC
A neighborhood game of Chinese checkers.

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