When it comes to combining the old and the new, it’s unlikely that any place does it better than Flushing.
Steeped in tradition, with more than a handful of historic locations in its downtown section alone, the area is also filled with recent arrivals to this country who are welcomed to their adoptive home and brand- new way of life.
Bounded by Flushing Meadows Park to the west, Utopia Parkway to the east, the Long Island Expressway to the south and Willets Point Boulevard to the north, Flushing was established by Dutch settlers in 1645.
By 2010, Asians, primarily Chinese and Koreans, comprised 44 percent of the population.
In between, the area made a name for itself for, among other reasons, becoming the birthplace of religious freedom in the New World, thanks to a document known as the Flushing Remonstrance, which protested religious persecution.
Among the early settlers was an English colonist named John Bowne, a farmer, who defied a prohibition on harboring Quakers by allowing them to meet secretly in his house, built around 1661.
The house stands at 37-01 Bowne St. and is one of the oldest in the city. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, it has served as a museum since 1947, two years after being deeded to the Bowne Historical Society. It is now part of the Historic House Trust and is closed for extensive renovations.
Nearby, the Old Quaker Meeting House at 137-16 Northern Blvd., a National Historic Landmark built in 1694, is the oldest known house of worship in New York City still in use as a religious institution and stands as a throwback to an earlier time in the midst of Flushing’s ever-growing business district. Visitors are welcome to tour the house and adjoining graveyard, where it is believed Bowne is buried, and to attend silent meetings for worship every Sunday at 11 a.m.
Across the street from the Old Quaker Meeting House is Flushing Town Hall, at 137-35 Northern Blvd., which dates to 1862. Built to serve as a recruitment center and to house troops during the Civil War, the building went on to serve as a courthouse and police station, complete with jail.
According to the hall’s deputy director, Sami Abu Shumays, the building was out of use for a while after that and then had brief incarnations as, among other things, a dinner theater.
In the 1980s, despite being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building, an example of Romanesque Revival, was on the verge of condemnation, when former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman came to its rescue.
Today, it is home to the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts, which is celebrating a 35-year-old tradition of offering a wide variety of performing and visual arts programs, with a particular emphasis on jazz. A current exhibit, “The Collage Aesthetic of Louis Armstrong — in the Cause of Happiness,” pays tribute to the legendary musician, a longtime Corona resident.
Shumays indicated that major demographic changes began to occur in the area after the second World’s Fair, in 1964-65, when a lot of Asian immigrants started moving into this area.
Not far from the hall is the Lewis H. Latimer House, built between 1887 and 1889, which today serves as a museum and tribute to the African-American inventor who lived in the house from 1903 until his death in 1928. The son of fugitive slaves, he played a vital role in the development of the telephone and the incandescent bulb.
Now located at 34-41 137 St., the house, according to Alfred Rankins, president of the Lewis H. Latimer Fund, which operates the house, had been threatened with demolition. It was eventuallly taken on a one-and-a-half mile journey from its original location on Holly Avenue in 1988. Seven years later, the house, constructed in the Queen Anne style and restored to appear as it did when Latimer lived in it, was designated a city landmark.
Today, the house serves as a science and math museum for children. “It fits right in. We reach out to all ethnic groups in Flushing,” Rankins said.
A few steps away may be found traces of the area’s colorful past in the form of the remains of the RKO Keith’s Theater, built in 1928, where vaudeville and movie stars performed. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the theater was illegally damaged and has changed hands repeatedly in recent years. Plans call for restoration of the lobby and ticket office, which were landmarked by the city and will be the entrance to a high-rise apartment building.
Other places of historical interest in the downtown Flushing area include Flushing High School at 35-01 Union St. which was founded in 1875 and is the oldest public high school in New York City, and the Kingsland Homestead at 143-35 37 Ave., built in 1785, originally the home of a wealthy merchant and today home to the Queens Historical Society. One of the few surviving 18th-century homes in the borough, it was declared a city landmark in 1965 and moved to its current location in 1968.
Flushing is one of the most religiously diverse communities in America, with an estimated 200 places of worship. These include the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was first erected at its present site at 37-22 Union St. in 1837.
One of the oldest churches is St. George’s Episcopal on Main Street between 38th and 39th avenues, which dates back to 1702. The first church at the present location was built in 1746, with the latest in 1854.
Founded in 1917, making it the oldest Reform synagogue in the borough, the Free Synagogue of Flushing, located at 41-60 Kissena Blvd., remains true to the ideals of its founders as an all-inclusive community. While the demographics around it have changed drastically since it opened, it continues to promote inclusiveness.
Today it finds itself in the middle of a bustling area that has come to be known as Flushing Chinatown, one of the fastest- growing Chinese enclaves outside of Asia.
It is here that businesses with names like Hang Sang Jewelry and Chang Jiang Supermarket live side by side with Burger King and Citi Bank.
On a typical day, the sidewalks are packed with people, creating a vibrancy that sets Flushing apart. The downtown is the second-largest transportation hub in the city.
It is the “grit and determination” that are most likely to impress anyone seeing it for the first time, according to Assemblyman Ron Kim, who represents the area.
“The character is what is great about the entire community. When you get on the 7 train, you will see hundreds of working families going to work with that spirit of striving to be better. That spirit is alive and well in Flushing. That is why people still come to this country.”
Sherrell Jordan, who has lived in Flushing for 37 years and organized Sistas in the Hood, an outreach ministry for low-income moms, is taken by the cultural diversity that she has seen spring up around her.
“When we were growing up, there were a lot of African Americans and Hispanics,” Jordan said. “Over the last 10 to 15 years, an Asian influx has taken over. I think the Flushing community has so much to offer. One of the great things is there is so much going on. It’s culturally diverse. That’s what makes Flushing Flushing.”
And she was just referring to the downtown area. Flushing extends beyond that, to include Flushing Meadows Park, home of two World’s Fairs and the iconic Unisphere, which served as the centerpiece for the 1964-65 incarnation. At 1,255 acres, the park is the largest in the borough. Other major parks in Flushing include Kissena Park, measuring 234 acres, and the Queens Botanical Garden, which covers 39 acres.
Other schools in Flushing include Townsend Harris High School, one of the most highly rated public schools in the nation, and Holy Cross High School.
Queens College, while having a Flushing mailing address, is actually considered to be located in Kew Gardens Hills.
Flushing has played a role in popular culture. The first series of Charmin toilet paper commercials featuring the now legendary Mr. Whipple were filmed at a Trade Rite Supermarket on Bowne Street. The rock band Kiss is rumored to have derived its name from the area’s Kissena Boulevard.
Famous residents who have lived in Flushing include TV sitcom star Fran Drescher, Boy Scout of America founder Daniel Carter Beard, illustrator Charles Dana Gibson and former First Lady Nancy Reagan.