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Queens Chronicle

17th Annual Celebration of Queens ‘THE WHOLE UNITED NATIONS IS HERE’

Bustling on one street, quiet on the next, Rego Park has it all

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Posted: Wednesday, June 18, 2014 10:30 am | Updated: 11:00 am, Wed Jun 18, 2014.

A self-guided tour around his old Rego Park neighborhood draws Bruce Levy first to the place he called home until he was 27 years old.

As he approaches the intersection of Saunders Street and 63rd Drive on a recent overcast day, he pauses, points to a fifth floor window — the one that now has a flower box in it — in the corner building, and says, “That was my room,” quickly adding, “I’m not an emotional person. It’s part of history, part of my life.”

It’s not like Levy, 60, has exactly moved to the other side of the Earth. In fact, since leaving his childhood home, this travel agent who has seen the world, has lived in nearby Forest Hills, a stone’s throw away. But seeing his old neighborhood again — a whole new world, really — brought back memories aplenty, mostly of places that are no more.

Bordered to the north by Elmhurst and Corona, to the east and south by Forest Hills, and to the west by Middle Village, Rego Park was named after the REal GOod Construction Co., which began to develop the area in the mid-1920s. The area previously had been farmland, populated primarily by Dutch and German families. Later many Holocaust survivors settled there, including Levy’s parents.

“Up until last year, I knew someone who lived there,” Levy said of his old building. “I used to go there for Passover. She passed away last year.”

The building, Marion Court, was erected in 1929. Levy seems pleased that the original rubber mats at the main entrance remain in place.

Looking to the right along 63rd, he recalls, “Up there used to be the Rego Park railroad station, which doesn’t exist anymore. My father and I used to go and watch the trains go by.”

Walking a block to Queens Boulevard, he points to the Queens Tower, now a physical therapy center, and recalls, “That was a Howard Johnson’s ... an old building with an orange and blue roof. You’d go there for ice cream.”

It was across the street from the tower that Bette Wilk, an area resident for 38 years, was waiting for a bus. She said she had moved to Rego Park because “I couldn’t afford Manhattan anymore.

“It’s a vibrant neighborhood,” Wilk said. “It’s changed so dramatically ... so many more buildings and traffic. Some days I feel like I’m in Manhattan. You can’t have a car around here. People don’t come to visit me because they can’t park. Now that they added Rego II, it’s even more crowded.”

“Rego II” refers to Rego Center II, a relatively new mall that brought to the area, already a popular shopping destination, such box-store staples as Costco, Century 21, Kohl’s, T.J. Maxx and, yes, Staples. Rego Center I, which includes Sears, Marshalls, Old Navy and Bed, Bath & Beyond, is located at the former site of Alexander’s department store, which, with its fabled bright red exterior, stood as a beacon at the corner of Queens Boulevard and 63rd Road until it closed in 1993.

Wilk said she was surprised to have read somewhere that Rego Park is “considered an underused area. That’s why they’re building apartments above Costco.”

Truer to the neighborhood’s earlier feel are the many small shops located on 63rd Drive, one of the area’s main thoroughfares in both the quiet residential and bustling business districts.

Few of the original tenants remain. Levy recalls that “there was a pharmacy on the corner, and a jewelry store. And a Woolworth’s. Across the street was a McCrory’s, so the two five-and-tens would compete.”

And, Levy remembers, there was Blaco Linens, where his mother worked. Today, the space is occupied by Natural Identity Hair Architects.

Pushing her shopping cart on her way to a nearby bank, Anne Wagman said she has lived in the same house in Rego Park for more than 50 years. Asked what has changed during that time, she replied, “Everyone from all over the world” has moved into the neighborhood. And she misses being able to go into a long-gone appetizing store “where you got lox.”

Making his way to the Shalimar Diner, an area mainstay on 63rd Drive at Austin Street, Levy points out where a pet store used to be, as well as what he referred to as a TV repair shop. “That dates it,” he observes.

Among the newer stores, one that points to the area’s diversity is Queens Bazaar Food, which opened its doors on 63rd Drive at Booth Street in 1999. A family business, the store caters primarily to a Middle Eastern and European clientele, though its customers include Americans, Russians, Persians, Hispanics and other representatives of the area’s population, according to manager Fred Saz.

Originally from Iran, Saz moved to Rego Park as a 12-year-old. That was 25 years ago, and he remembers when 63rd Drive “was not busy at all,” saying, “As far as I remember, there were no buses on this block.”

At the diner, waitress Fran Colletti has also noticed the influx of new immigrants in recent years. “The Russians have moved in. This Rego Park area — you have everybody. The whole United Nations is here,” she said.

But the diner, she said, has its old-time loyal customers: “They come here with their wheelchairs and their walkers. This is the highlight of the day.”

On the wall are framed photos taken during the filming of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the Leonardo DiCaprio film that was made partially in and around the diner. Colletti wasn’t present during the filming, but said, “Leonardo wasn’t friendly, they told me.”

The 2007 documentary film “Crazy Love,” about a bizarre case of romance and crime, was also filmed at the diner.

Rego Park has, in fact, played a role in pop culture. The 1980s situation comedy, “Dear John,” centered around a fictional Rego Park Community Center, while another sitcom, “The King of Queens,” was set in Rego Park.

And while legendary series “All in the Family” was set in Astoria, those are Rego Park homes viewers saw as the theme song played.

Theater aficionados take pride in Rego Park being mentioned in a lyric in the all-but-forgotten 1964 Broadway musical, “Bajour.”

And plenty of bold-face names at one time or another called the area home, including comedian Sid Caesar, burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee and sports journalist Robert Lipsyte.

Rego Park is also home to the Queens Chronicle, located along its western edge on Woodhaven Boulevard.

Across the street from Queens Bazaar Food is PS 139, which Levy attended as a child. A typical afternoon finds the sidewalks in front of the school filled with parents waiting to pick up their children at dismissal time.

Among them on a recent day was Beth, who declined to give her last name. She said she moved to the neighborhood 13 years ago, after marrying a man from Queens. Prior to that, she lived in the Bronx, where she grew up.

“The neighborhood is very similar,” Beth said. “The schools are good. Shopping is convenient. The demographics are more diverse.”

With her was Tricia, who also did not want her last name published. Tricia has lived in the community for 35 years and still seems to love it. “You’re right in the middle,” Tricia said. “You can walk to the stores, the train. It’s still a nice community neighborhood. Rego Park is the melting pot. It always has been to some extent. Now it really is.”

Not surprisingly, the area is home to many houses of worship. One, Our Saviour New York, a Lutheran church on 63rd Drive, dates to 1931, its appearance inside and out largely unaltered since then. Today, its quaint facade, which harkens to the humble origins of the neighborhood, stands out in sharp contrast with its bustling mercantile surroundings.

Going back nearly as far is the Rego Park Jewish Center, which was placed on the state and national Registers of Historic Places in 2009 and is now celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Before moving into their current location on Queens Boulevard, the center’s congregants gathered at various locations in the area, including a small rented room at Lost Battalion Hall, today a popular community center run by the city Parks Department.

Ruth Loewenstein, president of the synagogue’s Sisterhood and a Rego Park resident for 60 years, recently recalled, “The whole neighborhood has changed. We had a lot of kosher butchers. You had a beautiful fish restaurant. The population has changed very much.”

She pointed out that in recent years Bukharian Jews have moved into the neighborhood in large numbers. This emigration is due in large part to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, an event that forced many of them, from the Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan, to relocate. The Bukharians have formed an enclave around 108th Street, which is located two blocks from Rego Park in Forest Hills and is often referred to as “Bukharian Broadway,” filled, as it is, with Bukharian restaurants and gift shops.

And now word is that the borough’s first drive-thru Starbucks is being planned for Rego Park, at a location on Queens Boulevard that formerly housed a gentleman’s club.

Perhaps Thomas Wolfe was right, after all, when he said, “You can’t go home again.”

Welcome to the discussion.