In 2003, a British newspaper writing about the surprise Academy Award victory for actor Adrien Brody described him as being from “Woodhaven, a New York City suburb about ten kilometers east of Manhattan.”
They were wrong of course — Woodhaven is a neighborhood within, not a suburb of, New York City — but anyone who has been to the community could easily forgive their mistake.
Nestled at the foot of the glacial moraine that cuts across the length of Long Island, Woodhaven has all the staples of a small community — tree-lined streets populated with one- and two-family houses dotted with the occasional school, church or playground. Jamaica Avenue cuts across the neighborhood like a “Main Street,” while Forest Parkway acts like a “Second Street,” playing host to the neighborhood’s post office, library and banks.
The two roads intersect at Forest Parkway Plaza, where neighborhood events reminiscent of those in rural American towns, including the annual Christmas tree and menorah lighting, take place.
“It’s a small town in the city,” said Maria Thomson, executive director of the Woodhaven Business Improvement District and Greater Woodhaven Development Corp. “We are very strong in our ways, keeping our homes well, taking care of Jamaica Avenue. In that respect, that’s why it has such a small-town feeling.”
The first permanent developments date back to 1835, but Woodhaven was on the map earlier than that.
Near Jamaica Avenue and 98th Street, behind the former St. Matthew’s Church, 18th-century gravestones bear the names of the Wyckoff and Snediker families, who settled in the area in the 1700s.
The area was home to Union Course Race Track, which was located around 78th Street and 88th Avenue, near the current location of the historical Neir’s Tavern, which first opened next to the track in 1838.
The neighborhood of Woodville was born when John Pitkin — whose name now graces the major avenue in Brooklyn and Ozone Park — brought manufacturing to the area and laid out developments to house his employees.
But the new neighborhood, which was later renamed Woodhaven, stalled.
Enter French immigrants Florian Grosjean and Charles Lalance. The duo bought an abandoned factory at present-day Atlantic Avenue and 90th Street in 1863. The factory brought with it workers who settled in the area. Within two decades, more than 300 workers were employed at the factory.
A fire in 1876 nearly destroyed the factory — and the neighborhood. However, Grosjean and Lalance rebuilt the factory, crowned by the clock tower that still dominates the neighborhood skyline, despite technically being in Ozone Park. The factory lasted until the 1950s and sat vacant for several decades before the current shopping center anchored by Pathmark opened in 1985.
As the neighborhood grew, so did the infrastructure. The Long Island Rail Road opened a station at Atlantic Avenue and 87th Street in 1848. It closed in 1939. Another station opened in the southeastern corner of the neighborhood in the 1890s, linking to the Rockaway Beach line until 1962.
In 1917, the Jamaica Avenue elevated line opened, bringing the subway to the neighborhood and throughout the 20th century, the community welcomed residents who commuted to Brooklyn and Manhattan for work.
During the same decade tiny Trotting Course Lane was dramatically widened into a grand boulevard connecting Elmhurst and the Rockaways. Despite only going through Woodhaven for a small section of its length, the new road was graced with that name north of Ozone Park.
Woodhaven, like the surrounding neighborhoods of Ozone Park, Richmond Hill, Glendale and Cypress Hills, became home to large Italian, Irish, German and Polish families during the middle of the 20th century.
By the end of the century, the ethnicity of Woodhaven’s residents had changed, but the same family-centric community still holds firm. Today, new immigrants from Latin America and Asia call Woodhaven home. Their children play in the same playgrounds and attend the same schools, while their parents ride the same trains and shop in some of the same Jamaica Avenue stores as the European immigrants of yesteryear.
“Those immigrant communities have that same attitude as past immigrants: that’s why they move here in the first place,” Thomson said. “They see that you can get a small home here, that’s affordable, that you can take care of it and shop on the avenue.”
Woodhaven’s “spinal cord”
If Woodhaven is a well-oiled machine, then Jamaica Avenue is where its gears are located. During the latter part of the 20th century though, those gears were getting rusty.
In an effort to keep Woodhaven’s “spinal cord,” as Thomson calls it, working, the Woodhaven Business Improvement District was created in 1993.
“Without Jamaica Avenue, our neighborhood would fall apart,” she said. “We knew we needed to do something to protect that commercial strip.”
Today, the Woodhaven BID is the only one in South Queens and is responsible for the commercial strip from 100th Street to Dexter Court. The BID works to keep Jamaica Avenue clean, helps businesses along the strip and organizes events like the annual street fair and holiday gatherings.
For a sleepy suburb, Woodhaven has had its fair share of historically notable events.
On April 7, 1929, more than 21,000 people gathered in Dexter Park, a sports field located near Franklin K. Lane High School, to watch the New York Hakoah soccer team complete the sweep with a 3-0 win over a rival team from Missouri. The game, between two Jewish teams, brought out a surprisingly large crowd of Jewish New Yorkers from Brooklyn and Manhattan. It remains one of the largest crowds ever assembled for a soccer game in the United States.
The neighborhood was the site of one of Queens’ worst natural disasters — a tornado that tore through on July 13, 1895. One woman and her unborn child were killed and much of Woodhaven was devastated. It was the only fatal twister in Queens for 105 years — until the September 2010 tornado that struck Forest Hills and Flushing.
During World War II, author Betty Smith wrote “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” while living at 86-20 Forest Parkway, directly across the street from the Woodhaven library.
Besides Brody, icon Mae West lived here — a plaque marks her former home on 88th Street, and she is buried just across the border in Brooklyn — Fred Trump, father of billionaire Donald Trump was born here and entertainer Danny Kaye, the “real” Walter Mitty, also called Woodhaven home.
West herself performed several times at Neir’s Tavern early in her career, and the bar has played host to scenes in several movies, including “Goodfellas” and “Tower Heist.”