Poet Walt Whitman may have summed it up best: “I have reason to bless the breeze that wafted me to Whitestone.”
Whitman taught school in the community in the winter of 1840 through the next spring, focusing on local history and journalism. And although he decried the “money-making spirit” in Whitestone, he loved the water views: “We are close on the sound. It is a beautiful thing to see the vessels, sometimes a hundred or more, all in sight at once, and moving so gracefully on the water.”
Whitestone — named after a limestone boulder once located on the shore — was at one time known as Cookie Hill and then Clintonville, after Gov. DeWitt Clinton, who built a summer home there. The town was settled by the Dutch in 1645 and became a successful farming community.
Years later, movie stars and celebrities found the bucolic area and bought residences there. Mary Pickford was making movies at Astoria Studios when she discovered Whitestone. Her home is still standing at Powells Cove Boulevard and 160th Street. It was built around 1900 and had a large front lawn that was used for celebrity parties.
Other celebrities who lived in the area include Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin and George Burns and Gracie Allen.
One of the early settlers was Francis Lewis, who retired from business and moved there in 1765, buying most of the land in the community. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and in 1776, British troops raided his property, burned his house and captured his wife. The site is now Francis Lewis Park.
Today, Whitestone has a population of 39,150 living in mostly single-family homes. They range from middle-class residences to upper-class estates overlooking the water.The ZIP Code also includes Malba and Beechhurst.
The community is bordered by the Whitestone Bridge on the west, constructed in 1939 to handle traffic for the World’s Fair, and the Throgs Neck Bridge on the east, completed in 1961.
Schools include PS 79, PS 193, JHS 194, St.te high school. There is no pubic high school in the community.
The area boasts a volunteer ambulance corps and three veterans groups, which organize a Memorial Day parade every year.
Engine 295 will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in a couple of months.
Houses of worship are numerous including the Whitestone Hebrew Centre, St. Luke’s and Holy Trinity Catholic churches, First Presbyterian, Covenant, Greek Orthodox, Immanuel Lutheran and the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas.
Grace Episcopal was first built on Clintonville Street in 1858 on land donated by patriot Lewis.
The community has some large businesses including the World Journal, a major Chinese-language newspaper, and the Glaceau Beverage Co., a privately owned subsidiary of Coca Cola.
The Whitestone Library is a big draw in the community, helped along by children’s librarian Susan Scatena. Every year since 2006 she has dreamed up a wacky challenge to encourage youngsters to read in the summer. She keeps happily losing.
She has been slimed, danced in a chicken costume and sat in a vat of Jell-O. Last year, she read to a live alligator.
The community boasts two civic organizations, the longtime Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Civic Association, with more than 1,000 members, and the Welcome to Whitestone Commercial and Residential Civic Association, organized in 2010.
Kim Cody, president of the GWTCA, said Whitestone is a great place to live because “people look out for each other.”
Cody, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1955, says it used to be called a hamlet. “That’s because it’s like the country and it’s a great place for children to grow up,” he added. “Neighbors care about each other. I wouldn’t want to grow up anywhere else.”
Cody remembers as a child the Hitching Post Tavern with an old hitching post out front for horses at 12th Avenue and 149th Street. It’s long gone.
He also recalls how the large boulder, which he climbed “carefully” in his youth, got its nickname, “Hell’s Bells.”
“People would climb on top of the rock and then lose track of time and when the tide would come in they couldn’t get down. So what they said was ‘Hell’s bells.’”
His organization sponsors the Whitestone Senior Center at the Whitestone Armory. The center is open three days a week and serves 300 seniors. There are evening karate classes for youngsters and a teen center on Saturday nights.
Devon O’Connor organized the Welcome to Whitesteone civic “to serve as a bridge to support projects that are needed in the community.”
He first tackled replacing the peeling and faded sign that greeted people at the intersection of Francis Lewis Boulevard, the Cross Island Parkway and Locke Avenue. The new one was installed in 2011.
His group has raised money for St. Mary’s Hospital for Children, the Whitestone VAC and the Whitestone Memorial Day Parade, among others.
O’Connor next plans on holding the area’s largest yard sale in July. Residents will be able to set up tables at a yet-to-be-named parking lot.
Having lived in Whitestone all his life, he said everyone knows each other. “It has a local, family vibe. It’s a good place to grow up.”
O’Connor also likes living between the two bridges. “You can get anywhere from there,” he said.
Gene Kelty, chairman of Community Board 7 and an FDNY battalion chief, has also lived in Whitestone all his life. “My grandfather built the house in 1939 and I bought it in 1994,” Kelty said. “Living here was a very pleasant way to grow up and not much has changed.”
He likened the community to a kid’s train set with a post office, bank, school and other amenities.
“It’s a safe place to live and the crime stats are decent,” Kelty added.
Speaking of crime, Carmen Tramunti, who headed the Lucchese mafia family, lived in Whitestone and was arrested in his home in the 1970s as part of the French Connection case. He is quoted as saying, “I may be a mobster and may have done bad things, but I am not a drug dealer.” He died in prison.
Actress Drea de Matteo, best known for her role in “The Sopranos,” and former Met Mike Baxter also hail from Whitestone as does new FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro, who has lived in the community for 40 years.