The modern supermarket got its start in Queens. The popular board game Scrabble was invented here. The only national park that can be reached by subway is located here.
These are but a few of the lesser-known facts about the borough that emerged, along with a historical perspective, as a lineup of the cognoscenti gathered on Friday to lead a celebration in honor of the most diversified place on Earth.
The event, dubbed Quintessential Queens, a day-long conference in tribute to the borough, was held at Queens College, which is basking in the occasion of its 75th anniversary.
Guest speakers honoring what would on its own be America’s fourth largest city included, in the words of the college’s soon-to-be-departing president, James Muyskens, “an exceptional group of scholars,” in addition to elected officials and the borough’s poet laureate.
In his opening comments, Muyskens lamented that “Queens is sometimes lost in the shadow of Manhattan,” but, by day’s end, it was likely that those in attendance, including college students and those from an area high school, came away with a renewed pride.
Keynote speaker Robert Sullivan tipped his cap to fellow author Jack Kerouac, a pioneer of the Beat Generation known for his spontaneous writing style, by delivering an extended verbal tour of the borough, which he wrote while driving from one neighborhood to another during a single day.
Kerouac, best known for his “On the Road” book, lived for 12 years in Richmond Hill and Ozone Park.
John Waldman, a professor of biology at the college, pointed out that Queens is “an accident of nature,” the result of glaciation in North America. Offering an environmental tour with an aquatic emphasis, he indicated that no fewer than 300 species of birds may be found at Jamaica Bay, part of Gateway National Recreational Area, making it “a world-famous birding attraction.” It also happens to be the national park that is accessible by subway.
Waldman said he takes his classes on walking tours of the Queens College campus, which is home to “a community of creatures” including lizards and red-tail hawks.
Jeffrey Kroessler, a preservation activist, presented “a history of histories” of Queens, suggesting that “most histories do not include Queens in the history of New York City.” At the same time, he said, it appears that “Queens doesn’t have an independent story line. Queens is a creature of New York.”
Known today as the most diverse place on the planet, Queens has seen its foreign-born population grow from 23 percent in 1950 to 48 percent in 2010, according to Kroessler.
Though not a Queens native, world-famous musician Louis Armstrong was a longtime resident of the borough, prompting another speaker, Michael Cogswell, director of the college-run Armstrong House Museum, to say, “He could have lived almost anywhere. He bought a modest house in Corona. He lived like a regular guy even though he was a superstar.”
Today, Armstrong’s home, on 107th Street, is a national historic landmark.
Among the other speakers was borough historian Jack Eichenbaum, a Flushing native best known for his walking tours.
Terming the revolutionary 17th-century Flushing Remonstrance “the most important thing that ever happened here,” he cited the writing of the document as “the first time the voice of the people was heard in declaring religious freedom.”
Written in 1657 by 29 Flushing residents, the document declares their refusal to comply with a city government order banning a minority sect, the Quakers, from meeting.
Eichenbaum also pointed out that America’s first supermarket, King Kullen, opened on Jamaica Avenue in Jamaica in 1930, complete with shopping carts and cash registers, beginning a trend that spread across the country.
A highlight of Eichenbaum’s presentation were slides demonstrating the “hybridization of our culture,” with kosher Mexican restaurants, Indian pizzerias and other fusion eateries opening in the borough.
Other scheduled speakers included Judith Sloan and Warren Lehrer, authors of Queens-based “Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America,” and the borough’s poet laureate, Paolo Javier.
Among those in attendance was Queens College graduate Cesar Bustamante, Jr., a freelance journalist who said during the lunchtime break, “I always thought Queens had a unique history, but I didn’t know what it was.”
A display featured exhibits from such organizations as the Alley Pond Environmental Center, Queens Historical Society, Parkway Village Historical Society, Queens Memory Project and Italian-American Women’s Center.