Listening to the History of Jackson Heights, America’s First Garden City

7565204288_c3bf5bd2dd_bOne of the greatest advantages to working as a historian in New York City is the vast archive that is the city itself: the people, the architecture, the social and cultural footprints that they leave behind. We recently reached out to Fordham History MA student Scott Brevda to learn about his oral history project concerning the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. This is what he told us:

As part of my graduate work with the Fordham University History Department, I developed the Jackson Heights Oral History Project. As a third generation and lifelong resident of Jackson Heights, I had spent my life immersed in the residents’ stories of this area its history, and the history of its preservation. I set out on this project to memorialize, in their words, their stories and the history of this neighborhood.

The project had two primary focuses. The first centered on the historic character and associated preservation of Jackson Heights. Mainly built between the Two World Wars, the planned community of Jackson Heights had been constructed as a city within a city intended for those commuting to work in Manhattan. Designed and built under the tenets of the Garden Movement, Jackson Heights’s commercial and residential buildings where structured to emphasize light, air, and space – things often lacking in a city. The sunrooms, terraces, and interior & exterior gardens found in the historic residential area were included providing its residents a place to escape the sounds and smells of the city. Containing some of the first and most preserved examples of garden apartments in the United States, Jackson Heights– at the behest of its residents – was granted the status of Historic District by the City of New York in 1993. This status creates common standards for residential and commercial structures and prevents developments or alterations which deviate from those criteria.

The interviewees are comprised, generally, of two different groups: the first being community leaders known to be involved in preservation; the second, an eclectic mix of current and former neighborhood residents. What quickly became apparent, after the first few interviews, was that most residents belonging to the second group were not familiar with their neighborhood’s exceptional history. Those of the first group, like Gloria Daini and Daniel Karatzas, are those who were and are actively involved in the preservation of Jackson Heights and understood its history. However, based on the interviews, the average Jackson Heights resident does not understand the historic character of Jackson Heights in preservationist terms and concepts. Never the less, the interviewees not familiar with the aforesaid preservationist terms posses an instinctual or intuitive understanding of the area’s “character.” They denote the area as different, special, something worthy of protection even though they cannot precisely identify what that something is.

This project’s second focus was a more general one: to record the resident’s personal stories of and within Jackson Height. These detailed recollections of the neighborhood proved truly enchanting. Their vivid retrospectives and narratives from decades past quickly came to dominate the interviews. They were engaging and enthralling to the point of distraction; I found myself mesmerized more times than I would care to admit. One of the more memorable interviews was conducted jointly with Fred Anderes and Ann Agranoff, who have lived together in Jackson Heights for decades. Having raised their daughter in one of the Historic District’s garden apartment – which they still inhabit – they recounted the trouble mixing children with many of the building’s residents. This conflict reached its zenith in the use of the building’s private interior garden when the other residents would only allow children to be in the garden as long as they did not run on the grass (the garden is nearly all grass), yell, play sports, or other activities which hallmark childhood. Such disputes are as old as Jackson Heights itself; as the New York Times just recently highlighted in the article “Co-op Wars: Do You Dare Walk on the Grass?”

Another was conducted with Daniel Dromm, Councilman for the 25th District comprising Jackson Heights and surrounding neighborhoods. His first-hand insights into the politics and legal mechanisms of city government which enforces landmarks protections were insightful. Councilman Dromm was delightfully candid about the political realities of historic preservation in his district and the City at large. Furthermore, his experiences in finding both acceptance and a home in Jackson Heights and in its LGBT community underscores both the neighborhood’s exceptional diversity and the continuing debate over LGBT issues that has only become relevant in the past few decades and recently.

With over 20 interviews comprising native, non-native, and previous Jackson Heights residents, the interviews provide an intimate look at the historic preservation and individual histories of one of the most diverse and historic communities in New York. Each interview contains a different facet of life in the neighborhood from the recent arrivals to the long term residents. I am happy to announce that the Project is now viewable online. For those who are interested in listening to the interviews, they may be found at www.jacksonheightsoralhistory.org I hope, time permitting, to expand the project.

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