Some neighborhoods are exactly what they seem. Want art galleries? Sashay over to Long Island City. Prefer rolling hills and manicured lawns? Grab a latte and explore the idyllic corners of Little Neck and Douglaston.
But for those who appreciate a surprise wrapped in a cliffhanger, the more demure, less media-hogging neighborhood of Woodhaven is one of the city’s unchartered treasure troves. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig scored home runs here — at now defunct Dexter Park, to be exact. Mae West torpedoed her infamous double entendres at the crowd at Union Cross Tavern before shimmying her way back to her home on 88th Street and 89th Avenue. And one of America’s beloved novels, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” may have been set in Williamsburg, but author Betty Smith gave life to Francie and Neeley at her Victorian home on Forest Parkway and 85th Street.
“It’s a really good hidden secret,” said Maria Thomson, executive director of the Woodhaven Development Corporation. “It’s a great community with residents who are hardworking and very diverse. People work very hard for their families here and to make the American dream happen.”
Times have changed, of course. Shoe cobblers, confectionaries and pizza parlors now share retail space with, and sometimes struggle, to thrive amidst discount chain stores and delis along Jamaica Avenue. But the last two decades have also brought an influx of new immigrants from Guyana, Jamaica, China, India and beyond, reflective in the culturally diverse businesses — Thai noodles, West Indian supermarkets and homemade quesadillas, just to name a few — that can be found along the avenue.
Even as far back as 200 years ago, Woodhaven, which was then known as “Woodville,” was savvy about distinguishing itself. Tens of thousands of horseracing enthusiasts regularly packed Union Course Racetrack, built between 78th Street and 82nd Street and Jamaica and Atlantic avenues in 1921, and Centerville racetrack, which opened four years later east of Woodhaven Boulevard and south of Rockaway Boulevard. The former was a nationally known racing venue that hosted match races between horses from the South and North. The events attracted so many patrons, area hotels were built to accommodate them.
The neighborhood really began to take off as a working class community when Connecticut-born John Pitkin moved in, developed a manufacturing center, launched a local newspaper in 1853 and encouraged residents to vote to change the area’s moniker to “Woodhaven,” in an effort to set it apart from an upstate town with the same name.
Another leap forward occurred when French manufacturers Florian Grosjean and Charles Lalance opened a tin factory on Atlantic Avenue in 1860 and built housing for their employees — 2,100 of them — nearby. The factory shut its doors in 1955, but its distinctive five-story high clock tower can still be seen from blocks away.
Today, more than 40,000 people call Woodhaven home. Notable residents have included Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody, composer George Gershwin, Broadway and film star Barry Sullivan and Brian Hyland — the pop artist who immortalized the “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”
Woodhaven is located in south Queens. Its boundaries are Park Lane South to the north, Atlantic Avenue to the south, Eldert Avenue and the Brooklyn line to the west and 102nd Street to the east.
Places to Visit
Before Leonora Lavan became president of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society, the lifelong Woodhaven resident says she didn’t realize there were quite so many historical gems in her neighborhood. But now, when asked what she would recommend a tourist do first in Woodhaven, she pauses to consider all the options.
“I think I would go see Betty Smith’s house,” Lavan says. “The inside is just beautiful. It’s like it was before.”
The author’s home, located at 85th Street and Forest Parkway, is a Tiffany-blue Victorian in pristine condition. Across the street is the Woodhaven Post Office, which houses a 1941 mural by Lithuanian-born social realist artist Ben Shahn.
Performer Mae West lived at 89-05 88th Street and sang her heart out just blocks away, at the Union Course Tavern, located at 87-48 78th St. The tavern also holds the title of oldest bar in the borough. It first opened in 1855 and was called the Blue Pump Room. In 1891, it became the Niers Social Hall. A few years before Prohibition, the owner changed its name to reflect the nearby Union Course Racetrack. Movie buffs may recognize the bar, which is now called Neir’s Tavern and Cafe, as the hangout where Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta plotted a crime or two in the 1990 film “Goodfellas.”
Sadly, all that remains of Dexter Park — the grandiose ballfield where semi-professional team The Brooklyn Bushwicks once reigned supreme — is an historical marker. But the legendary tales that surround the space, located at Jamaica Avenue and Dexter Court, make it worth the trip. The roster of famous players who played at Dexter include Babe Ruth, Dizzy Dean, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Joe Medwick.
Not far from Dexter Court, on 77th Street, is an historic sign marking the supermarket built by Fred Christ Trump, the father of real estate tycoon Donald Trump. The senior Trump was responsible for creating myriad affordable housing in New York City.
Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church, located at 85-45 96th St., is the oldest house of worship in the community. The rural English Gothic-style church, which features a square bell tower, continues to offer weekend services in both English and Spanish.
When it comes to recreation, nearby Forest Park offers everything from baseball, golf, tennis and basketball to the Seuffert Bandshell, where rock bands and symphonies have entertained crowds, to the famous 1930 Daniel Mueller Carousel, comprised of 54 wood horses and animals. The carousel is one of two remaining wooden merry-go-rounds in the country, although it was closed this season.
A portion of the park, called Strack Meadow, was named after Lawrence George E. Strack, the first Woodhaven resident to die while serving in the Vietnam War.
Some of Woodhaven’s most pleasurable visits will not be found in a guidebook. Schmidt’s Candy, located at 94-15 Jamaica Ave., is one of the last remaining handmade chocolate and confection emporiums in a city once steeped in ice-cream, malted and five cent candy shops. Woodhaven resident Margie Schmidt, whose grandfather started the business in the mid-1920s, still uses her ancestors’ baking pans, heavy silver cookie cutters and old German chocolate recipes — free of preservatives — to create trayfuls of caramel fudge, pecan, peanut and walnut dark chocolate bites and hundreds of other goodies.
Schmidt and partner Susan Tirino are a Laverne and Shirley-like presence at the shop, cracking jokes and taking straight-shooting shots at what each feels could be done better. Tirino would like to upgrade some of the old-fashioned candy jars with fancier ones; Schmidt favors simplicity. Tirino is encouraging her long-time friend to make use of the Internet, which she feels could help boost sales. Schmidt is open to the idea, but remains nostalgic about the way her grandparents and parents used to run the store.
“I was thinking the other day how foreign it will be for our grandchildren that we stand here all day, waiting for people to come in,” Schmidt said. “The idea of smelling chocolate — it’s like going to a butcher. I sell a luxury product in a working class neighborhood.”
Mass transit options are plentiful in Woodhaven. Buses include the Q56: Jamaica Avenue, Q24: Atlantic Avenue and Q53 and Q11 on Woodhaven Boulevard. Available subways and trains are the A train at 104th Street and the J train at 75th Street, 85th Street and Forest Parkway and Woodhaven Boulevard.
“Everything is so convenient,” Lavan said. “There are buses to New York City, Rockaway, Queens Center Mall and Gateway is just a hop, skip and jump away. It’s really great.”
Woodhaven is located within Department of Education District 27, which has been cited as one of the most overcrowded in the city. Public schools include P.S. 60 and P.S. 97, which serve kindergarten through fifth grades, and P.S. 306 New York City Academy for Discovery, comprising pre-kindergarten through second grades and special education. St. Thomas the Apostle Roman Catholic Elementary School serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Although there are co-operative apartments and rentals in Woodhaven, particularly around Park Lane South, the community is known for its one- and two- family houses and Victorian structures. According to Anadena Figueroa at Century 21 Park Lane Realty, the average cost of an attached or semi-detached house is approximately $399,000, while larger detached houses cost between $400,000 and $550,000.
Places of Worship
Houses of worship in Woodhaven include:
St. Thomas Apostle Church, located at 87-19 88th Ave.
Emanuel United Church of Christ, at 93-12 91st Ave.
Crossroads Christian Center, at 74 Eldert Lane.
Jesus Revival Church, at 85-01 86th Ave.
Queens Tabernacle, at 86-03 96th St.
Nearby Hindu temples include:
Parbattie Mandir, at 134-01 97th St., Richmond Hill.
Shri Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, at 128-04 Liberty Ave., Richmond Hill.
Sudama Mandir Inc., at 101-51 115th St., Richmond Hill.
NYPD: Woodhaven is served by the 102nd Police Precinct, located at 87-34 118th St., Richmond Hill. The Precinct Community Council meets the third Tuesday of every month at 8 p.m. at the Moose Lodge, located at 87-25 118th St., Richmond Hill. For more information call (718) 805-3215.
FDNY: Fire Department Engine 293, Battalion 51 and Engine 294, Ladder 143, Battalion 51, located at 101-02 Jamaica Avenue, ensure the community’s fire safety.
Library: The Woodhaven branch of the Queens Borough Public Library is located at 85-41 Forest Parkway.
Elected officials: Woodhaven comprises the 15th Senate District, headed by state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach), whose office is located at 159-53 102nd St., Howard Beach (718) 738-1111. The office of District 38 Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Glendale) is located at 68-28 Myrtle Ave., Glendale (718) 366-6725. City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) is located at 6477 Dry Harbor Rd., Middle Village (718) 366-3900.
Community organizations: Community Board 9 serves Woodhaven, Richmond Hill, Kew Gardens and Ozone Park. The group holds public monthly meetings where members address items of concern to the community. For more information, call C.B. 9 at (718) 286-2686 or visit communitybd9@ nyc.rr.com.
The Greater Woodhaven Development Corporation is a nonprofit dedicated to keeping the community safe and promoting local business. For more information, call (718) 805-0202.