It’s hard to imagine by visiting this vibrant and bustling neighborhood, but Cambria Heights used to be filled with farmland and woods. Today, it is defined by wide tree-lined streets, cozy brick homes with finely manicured lawns, and a rich mosaic of people and cultures.
Along Linden Boulevard, the major business corridor, one can find restaurants and specialty stores selling traditional Caribbean and West Indian fare, such as curried goat, oxtails, pig’s feet and cow skin.
Italian, German and Irish immigrants were the first to settle in the area, spilling over from the densely populated boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Now, however, the primary ethnic group is West Indian, which make up approximately 36 percent of the total population of 21,404, according to the most recent census. Jamaicans claim the top spot in the category with 17.3 percent, followed by Haitians with 12.6 percent and Trinidadian or Tobagonian with 2.3 percent. As late as 1960, blacks were not welcome in this predominately white neighborhood, but today they make up 91.7 percent of the area while whites make up only 2.9 percent.
Cambria Heights occupies a total area of 1.2 square miles. It is bound by Springfield and Francis Lewis boulevards to the west, Elmont, L.I. to the east, Queens Village to the north, and Laurelton and Rosedale to the south.
The “heights” portion of the neighborhood’s name comes from the fact that it is one of the highest elevations in Queens along with Jackson Heights and Richmond Hill. When it was purchased by real estate agent Oliver La Freniere in 1923, it was located 50 feet above sea level. It is believed that the “Cambria” portion of the name is derived from one of two sources — a coal company in Cambria, Pa. or Cambria Title Savings and Trust Co., a bank, which funded the construction of many homes in the area. It was originally known as Kerosene Hill before gas pipelines were eventually installed.
Founded in 1928, Cambria Heights Community Church located at 116-02 220 St. was the first church established in the neighborhood. “Our doors are always open to everyone we can be of service to, especially the youth,” said Ruby Johnson, the vice president of the church consistory, a board made up of elders and deacons. “The church is a beacon of light and hope for everyone in the community — a place to come and find peace and be in the company of followers of Christ.”
The area is also home to the oldest civic association in Queens — the Cambria Heights Civic Association, which was founded in 1932. The groups motto is “united for community progress,” and together the more than 300 active members work to improve the quality of life in this peaceful neighborhood by working with the local police precinct to reduce crime, attempting to reduce speeding and cleaning up the unruly shrubbery that surrounds dilapidated foreclosed homes.
“I believe that Cambria Heights is a jewel in the borough of Queens,” said Kelli Singleton, president of the civic since 2006. “We want a safe, clean environment to live, study and shop. We are committed to it and serious about it. It’s a labor of love.”
On a warm autumn afternoon in October, Brian Block, the president of Community Board 13, brushed the leaves away from the lawn in front of his home, where he grew up and has lived since 1967. His family moved from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where crime had become rampant, and settled in Cambria Heights when he was just 10 years old. The lush green lawns, quiet atmosphere and cohesive family-oriented structure of the neighborhood greatly appealed to them.
As a youth, Block and his younger sister, Monique, attended Sacred Heart Catholic School where he studied hard and earned good grades. During his leisure time he would head over to nearby Frank Cabell Park, to play football, basketball, stickball and hang around with friends.
“There were no issues with fights. There were no gangs. There was nothing like that,” he said. “It was just a typical suburban community that you would see whether it’s in Bayside, Douglaston, Bellerose or Floral Park. The only difference is that you drive through here and most of the homeowners are African Americans.”
Long-time resident Lloyd Hicks and his wife of 59 years, Elvira, have lived in the neighborhood for nearly 40 years and purchased their one-family, 4-bedroom brick home on 223rd Street for $30,000 in 1970. Today, the same home would sell for approximately $430,000, according to a local real estate broker.
Hicks originally lived in a housing project in Harlem, but his family wanted to get away from the overcrowded area and moved to into a two-and-a-half bedroom home in Hollis in 1959. As their children grew and just about the time their son, Larry was six-years-old and daughter, Christina was seven, the Hicks family moved to Cambria Heights seeking better opportunities and quality schools.
The block was mostly Irish and Jewish then and the Hicks were only the fourth or fifth black family to settle there. They purchased their home, one of 26 on the block, from an Italian family. “The residents were up in age and most of them moved out to places like Long Island, Colorado, New Mexico and other states,” Hicks said. “A few stayed, but they eventually passed away and their houses were sold.”
He and his wife greatly enjoy living in the area and have no intention of moving any time soon. “I think we are going to be here for the rest of our lives and our neighbors feel the same way,” Hicks said. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, unless I hit the lottery and maybe not even then.”
The area’s close proximity to the Cross Island Parkway, Kennedy International Airport, public transportation, grocery stores, parks, the library and a senior center make it convenient for running errands, participating in activities and commuting.
“The brick homes in this area are well-built even though they appear small they are big on the inside,” explained City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans). “The people have always cared about their quality of life here and have always maintained their homes and kept them in pristine condition.”
As a result, the area has become quite desirable and the population continues to grow. However, this has led to overcrowding in schools, an increase in illegal home conversions and put strain on the sewer and drainage systems.
Cambria Heights is primarily a residential area consisting mainly of one-family detached homes and the median price is approximately $420,000 according to Kenny Sattaur, a real estate broker with RE/MAX realty located at 219-16 Linden Blvd. A two-family home typically sells for approximately $550,000. The rent for a one-bedroom apartment is approximately $1,000, two-bedrooms is $1,400 and three-bedrooms, $1,700.
“It’s a safe, close-knit neighborhood where neighbors look out for each other,” Sattaur said of the area, which borders Elmont, L.I. “It’s Long Island living with city taxes.”
Sattaur says his clients are mostly young families and blue collar workers who buy homes and then refurbish them, installing new stucco fronts among other amenities.
“They take pride in home ownership,” he said.
Those 18 years of age and older make up 76.4 percent of the population, while those 65 years and older make up only 12.6 percent of the population. The median household income is approximately $75,000, according to Kevin Jemmott, president of the Cambria Heights Development Corp.
Along Linden Boulevard, one can find a wide variety of mom-and-pop stores — everything from restaurants to beauty salons and most recently a spa and fitness center. The CHDC has been trying to get a big name retailer like Starbucks or Barnes & Noble to open a location on the strip.
“They don’t want to be an anchor store. It’s too risky,” Jemmott said. “They want to follow an anchor store.”
The size of the storefronts has also posed a problem when trying to attract new businesses. An average storefront is 2,500 square feet, but on Linden Boulevard, the storefronts are less than 1,600 square feet.
One new local business that is doing well is Sankofa Salon Inc. a beauty salon located at 223-17 Linden Blvd. Co-owners Gerde Rene and Stacey Ticeron, opened the establishment on May 3, 2008. They chose the area because it is easily accessible by public transportation, near major highways and has ample street parking. The demographics and median income of the residents also fit the profile of the clientele they were trying to acquire.
“We wanted to provide exceptional customer service and we wanted to provide a Park Avenue experience here in Queens, so that people wouldn’t have to go to Manhattan,” Rene said.“Business has been great. We are really blessed especially during these tough economic times to not only be open but to have new clients constantly coming in and to have returning clients.”
One of those clients, Dolly Hayles, who was having her hair washed and set, has been visiting the salon over the last few weeks and has been so pleased with how her hair has turned out, she said would recommend the salon to others.“This is it for me,” she said. “I love it.”
Cambria Heights is located within the confines of 105th Precinct along with Queens Village, Laurelton, Rosedale, Springfield Gardens, Bellerose, Glen Oaks, New Hyde Park and Floral Park.
According to the latest NYPD Compstat report, overall felony crimes are down nearly 9 percent compared to last year. The only crime to increase was rape which went up by 16 percent. Robbery decreased by more than 15 percent with 266 incidents reported this year compared to 315 last year. Car theft declined more than 11 percent from 301 to 266. Grand larceny decreased by almost 8 percent with 384 incidents reported this year compared to 417 last year. The murder rate remained flat with six incidents reported this year and last year respectively.
“We work hard,” said Inspector Paul Piekarski, the commanding officer at the 105th Precinct. “Sometimes we work swiftly. Unfortunately, it does take some extra time because we work within the legal confines of the law and we make sure we build up a strong, good case against them so we can solve the problem, not just mask it.”
Over the years, many famous people have called Cambria Heights home. They include jazz legend, Chick Corea, baseball player, Jackie Robinson and singer Lena Horne.
But perhaps most notably, it is the final resting place of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the leader of the Hasidic movement and the most revered Jewish leader of the past century. He passed away in 1994 at the age of 92 and is buried in Montefiore Cemetery located at 121-83 Springfield Blvd.
The rabbi used to visit the grave of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, who is also interred at the same cemetery, several times a week and it is the only neighborhood he is known to have spent much time in besides Crown Heights. Every year tens of thousands of Jews from all over the world, many of whom claim Schneerson as the Messiah visit the site to pay their respects.
“It is our belief that the soul is everlasting and standing in its presence gives spiritual energy,” said Rabbi Abba Refson, director of the Ohel Chabad Lubavich visitor’s center. “It offers an opportunity to request blessings and ask the soul to intercede on our behalf.”
The main public schools in Cambria Heights are P.S. 176 and P.S. 147. There are four themed high schools occupying the former location of Andrew Jackson High school. They are: Humanities and the Arts Magnet High School; Business, Computer Applications & Entrepreneurship High School; Mathematics, Science Research & Technology Magnet High School; and the Magnet School of Law & Government.
The local Catholic parish is Sacred Heart and it has a grammar school with the same name.