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Queens Chronicle

You’re at home in College Point

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Posted: Thursday, November 12, 2009 12:00 am | Updated: 5:08 pm, Tue Jan 7, 2014.

George Farrington has lived his entire 81 years in College Point and wouldn’t have it any other way. “You couldn’t get me out of here with a team of horses,” he said.

His family has long ties to the community, having opened a farrier and blacksmith shop in 1868 at 15th Avenue and 126th Street. The business remains at the same location, although today cars have replaced horses. Farrington’s two nephews run the service station now.

“My dad said College Point was the garden spot of the world and I love it here,” Farrington said. “I feel comfortable.”

He is not alone. There are at least four other multi-generational businesses in town whose owners echo the same sentiment about the close-knit, small-town feeling of College Point.

Bill Johann’s family started a funeral home business in 1856. His ancestors were carpenters and cabinetmakers and like many others who moved to College Point, German immigrants. The business has only made one move in its 153-year-old history, to its current location on College Point Boulevard.

“I think the community remained strong because everyone knew one another and looked out for each other,” Johann said.

For him, growing up meant attending St. Fidelis School and making lots of lifelong friends. A reunion in 2002 brought back three-quarters of the classmates.

Philip Haas, another German immigrant, bought land in town to grow flowers and became a florist in College Point in 1882. The business still flourishes under Stephen Haas and members of his family. The greenhouses are long gone, replaced by housing, but the store remains on College Point Boulevard.

“It was sad when we sold the greenhouses in 1974, but it was also a relief because it was hard to find good workers,” Haas said.

He acknowledges the community has changed and traffic is just like anywhere else, but points to the beautiful views by the water and says it’s still a nice place to live.

Haas says he grew up in the business so it became second nature to him. He plans to retire soon with his daughter, Kristin Tudor, taking over. She now handles weddings and special events.

“I thought I’d be working at the shop for two years, but 37 years later I’m still here,” he said.

Wayne Rose is the fourth generation to run a local real estate firm, Century 21 Weber & Rose Realty. His great-grandfather started the business in 1911 and Rose says the community thrives because it’s off the beaten path. “Houses are more affordable than in Whitestone and Bayside and it’s less congested,” he added.

Another longtime business is the Empire Market, also on College Point Boulevard. The butcher shop has been there for 88 years, run by the Lepine family. Michael Lepine Jr., works with his parents and brother at the store.

“It still has that old-town feel,” Lepine said. “You meet your neighbors all the time.”

Empire Market is known for its smoked meats and is believed to have the last smokehouse — located behind the store — in the city. The shop also has a tradition of selling penny candy. It was started so children accompanying their mothers on shopping trips would have something to do. “Now kids come in by themselves after school for the candy that costs between 2 and 5 cents,” Lepine said.

It says something about the stability of a community when so many old family businesses have survived. Perhaps the unique location is a factor.

College Point is situated on Flushing Bay and the East River with the Whitestone Expressway as its southern border. It is considered mildly industrial, but mostly residential with primarily one- and two-family houses.

The population is a little over 20,000, with a diverse ethnic makeup. There are two public schools — P.S. 29 and P.S. 129 — which go up to the fifth grade and are well regarded by parents. Both schools rank high on citywide tests.

Although the community has no public middle or high schools, parents don’t seem to mind sending their older children to Whitestone or Flushing by bus, which is the only public transportation in town. College Point is also the home of St. Agnes High School, founded in 1908. Enrollment at the Catholic school for girls is around 380.

Other parochial schools include St. Fidelis with 320 students and St. John’s Lutheran with 108 students, both with classes through eighth grade.

Churches include St. Fidelis, St. John’s Lutheran, St. Paul’s Episcopal and the First Reformed Church of College Point, built 136 years ago on land donated by the town’s major benefactor, Conrad Poppenhusen.

History

College Point was first settled by the Matinecock Indians, who sold their land to the Dutch for axes, 50 acres per tool. Throughout its history, the community has had several names, including Tew’s Neck, Strattonport and Flammersburg.

Its current name is traced back to the Rev. William Muhlenberg, who bought 175 acres at what is now MacNeil Park in 1835 to build an Episcopal seminary overlooking the bay. The religious college opened in 1839 with 100 students and several buildings, including small dormitories, but lasted only nine years.

One of the students, William Chisholm, married Muhlenberg’s niece and for many years they lived on the property in a house built for them by a relative. The family sold the land to the city as a park in 1924 and in 1937 the dwelling was used as a summer residence by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

Without doubt, the person having the most influence on the development of College Point was Poppenhusen, a German immigrant who started a factory in 1854 to produce hard rubber merchandise. He expanded the operation two years later and in order to attract workers, put up houses, laid out streets, built a road to Flushing, drained the marshes and more. According to “A History of College Point, N.Y.,” by Robert Hecht, when College Point became part of greater New York in 1898, it was the only community in Queens with paved streets and a budget surplus.

Susan Brustmann, executive director of the Poppenhusen Institute, called Poppenhusen a visionary, who was way ahead of his time. He provided insurance for his workers and death benefits.

The five-story building that she manages and helped save at 114-04 14th Road, was paid for by Poppenhusen as a gift to the community in 1868. It operated as a type of vocational high school where boys could learn a trade and girls could learn homemaking and where English was taught to the German workers. The first free kindergarten in the United States and a daycare program for working mothers were also located there.

The facility also housed a library, village offices, a jail and a bank. Today a city and national landmark, it stands not far from four of the remaining workers’ houses built by Poppenhusen. The institute continues to be a community center with classes, theater productions, concerts and private events.

Another part of the philanthropist’s legacy is the Poppenhusen Library on 14th Avenue. Built in 1902 through a gift from Andrew Carnegie, it began with 3,250 books from the institute library. It remains a popular spot in the community and its interior has been updated over the years.

But more than anything, College Point was known for its many waterfront attractions prior to Prohibition that brought people by ferry from the Bronx and Manhattan and others by horse-drawn coaches, trolley cars and train. From the 1870s to 1919, the area was acclaimed for its picnic grounds, bars and weekend resorts.

Author Hecht reported that in one day in 1893 three steamers transported 10,000 visitors to spend the day at Witzel’s Point View Island resort. Today the 27-acre site is the home of one of the city’s water treatment plants at Tallman Island.

Those looking for recreation in town swam, fished and clammed, had rowing competitions and drank plenty of beer, some of it made in College Point. Many of the resorts had dance pavilions, bowling alleys and roller rinks. Witzel’s boasted a bicycle track, dining hall, a 75-foot-long bar and shooting range in addition to the other amenities.

One resort featured an amusement park and carousel, while another boasted a noisy calliope run by steam.

Next to Witzel’s in size and popularity, was Donnelly’s Grove, which sloped down to the East River. The 10-acre site had all the activities plus ballfields and was known for attracting outings from political groups. Theodore Roosevelt announced his candidacy for the Assembly there in the 1880s.

College Point was home to two famous sculptors, whose statues and monuments can be seen around the country. Hermon MacNeil had his studio and residence on Poppenhusen Avenue, near the park later named after him. His works include the statue at the base of the Washington Arch in Manhattan, the Justice statue outside the U.S. Supreme Court Building and the Flushing War Memorial. He is best known for designing the Standing Liberty quarter that was in circulation from 1916 to 1930.

His neighbor was Frederick Triebel, who moved to College Point in 1910. He designed busts of presidents and several monuments, including the Mississippi state memorial at Vicksburg National Military Park.

Future Plans

MacNeil Park, so beloved by residents, may have an even brighter future if Jim and Kathryn Cervino have anything to do with it. Both grew up in the community, left to pursue careers and returned to raise their 4-year-old son. “It always bothered me that people in this waterfront community have no access to it,” Kathryn Cervino said.

She and her husband, a marine biology professor at Pace University and researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, organized the nonprofit Coastal Preservation Network. Besides holding regular cleanups on the shoreline, the couple is working with the city to eventually provide a kayak launch and public boating from the park. They have purchased two kayaks for the venture.

Kathryn Cervino, who works at Stony Brook University’s Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, had a wonderful childhood in College Point and admits the community has changed a lot, but wants to make it a better place. She likes the historical character and that it’s still a small town in many ways.

Her favorite things are the annual Memorial Day Parade, which even has a K-9 float, the College Point Boulevard street fair and the Spa Castle for pampering.

The Cervino’s coastal network has gotten a few grants and a state permit to place oysters in the bay for filtering and cleaning the water, not for eating. “It’s a scientific experiment using electrical stimulus through low voltage impulse to grow oysters,” he said.

Although the project is only in its second of five years, the scientist says it seems to be working. The Cervinos’ group has also gotten permission to plant marsh grass at the shoreline because the state has no money to do it. It creates a habitat for wildlife and prevents erosion.

Jim Cervino, too, likes the ambience in the community. “I chose to come back here,” he said. “I love my town.”

Parks and More

Although the 29-acre MacNeil Park seems to be everyone’s favorite, the community also has the Poppenhusen Playground, College Point Park, Frank Golden Memorial Park and Powells Cove Park, a low-key environmental waterfront area overlooking the Whitestone Bridge.

The undeveloped Powells Cove parkland became ground zero for the 1999 outbreak of West Nile virus in the United States. Most of the Queens cases and fatalities were from locations near the park, which is around 11th Avenue and 138th Street.

Also run by the Parks Department is the College Point Sports Park, located on 22 acres on 130th and Ulmer Streets, between 23rd and 26th Avenues. There are baseball fields and a roller hockey rink.

Real estate broker Rose said there’s always a demand for housing in College Point. Houses are selling, although volume is down from several years ago. One-family houses range in price from $475,000 to $900,000, while popular new two-families start at $700,000 and up.

Rose indicated there are four major condominium complexes in the area and one being built, but most projects have their own sales teams. That market seems to be dead, according to the realtor, who does handle condo resales, although they are extremely slow too. Prices start at $390,000 for a two-bedroom and $449,000 for a three-bedroom and up to $700,000 if they are located on the water.

College Point has no co-ops and few apartment buildings. Rose believes area shopping is a big draw, from the smaller stores on College Point Boulevard to the 20th Avenue shopping mall with Target as its anchor. “It’s the largest grossing Target in the country,” he said.

Howard Haider, executive director of the College Point Board of Trade, said the boulevard has every kind of shop except a shoe store. “Otherwise, it has everything you need. You don’t have to leave,” Haider added.

Popular businesses on the boulevard include College Meat Center, family owned and operated since 1963, and Cascarino’s restaurant, which opened in 1989 and now also sells its pizza at Citi Field and is the official pizza of the Mets.

Near the 20th Avenue shopping center is the College Point Multiplex Cinemas for entertainment.

Community Concerns

Haider’s major concerns involve graffiti, the condition of roads and the future of the old Flushing Airport site.

Crime overall is down almost 9 percent from a year ago in the 109th Precinct, which includes College Point, and down 79 percent since 1993. Community leaders say if there were more programs for youth, it might prevent loitering in parks and other problems.

The private airport site has been closed since 1982. The city announced in 2004 it planned to put in a distribution center for Korean import businesses, but was met with such community opposition, fearing major traffic congestion, that Mayor Mike Bloomberg pulled the plug. College Point residents are hoping for some type of soft recreation such as miniature golf and ballfields. Part of the area is wetlands.

The 26-acre airport is the last undeveloped property in the College Point Corporate Park, a 550-acre site that abuts the Whitestone Expressway. The city developed it as part of an urban renewal plan in 1969 and now there are 200 businesses there. A new billion-dollar city police academy is scheduled to begin construction later this year in the corporate park.

Joe Femenia, president of the College Point Civic and Taxpayers Association, has lived in the community all his life and believes it’s a very safe place, despite the hate crime beating of a local gay man last month. “That could have happened anywhere,” Femenia said.

He is concerned about traffic and thinks an updated marine transfer station in the community will add to the congestion.

His civic meetings draw an average of 70 residents. Topics include traffic congestion, Willets Point businesses moving to the corporate park and future plans for the airport property.

College Point Today

Chris Legaz is president of the College Point Volunteer Ambulance Corps, a 33-member group that services 35,000 residents in an eight-square-mile area. It is the oldest VAC in the city.

Legaz said there was a special need in the community for a volunteer group because the closest hospitals were in Flushing and in 1941 people had to wait a day for an ambulance to come to the community.

Today, he says, “we couldn’t do it without the community’s involvement.”

A lifelong resident, who is a retired NYPD detective, Legaz pointed out that a local car wash and a restaurant have held several fundraisers for the CPVAC. That’s part of the close-knit atmosphere he likes about College Point.

Brustmann of Poppenhusen Institute, has also lived her entire life in College Point. “Because it’s a peninsula, College Point feels like a small town,” she said. “Everyone knows one another. It is changing a little, but has retained its small-town charm.”

Although she says it’s a challenge to find funding to keep the building open, Brustmann is not about to give up. In 1980, she led the fight to save the facility, which had been in disrepair and about to be sold. Now that government grants have been cut, she is renting out the parking lot and the building for special events and holding a community appeal.

Brustmann, who leads historic tours of the community twice a year, is grateful the city recently approved the Schleicher mansion on 123rd Street for landmarking. It was built in 1857 and later became the Grand View Hotel. The dwelling was broken up into apartments and neglected. Tenants still have disputes with the owner.

The city Landmarks Preservation Commission, in recommending the designation, said the house is located on an unusual circular site and is one of the earliest surviving buildings in the city with a mansard roof, a type that slopes inward.

If you look carefully in the area, there are several other structures remaining from other eras, reflecting times that were good and not so good. But College Point residents are realists and know that nothing ever stays the same. They’re just hoping to keep the small-town flavor alive that makes the community special to them.

Welcome to the discussion.