Tuesday, December 23, 2008

In Search Of Dunton


As a child, growing up in New York’s borough of Queens, I’ll admit I had it pretty good. It was not like living in the country, with farms and great wide-open spaces, but not as congested as being in Manhattan or Brooklyn. In spite of its relative suburban placement, we were still close to major transportation, shopping and recreation sources.

Most of the houses in my neighborhood could be considered "Archie Bunker-style" houses, fairly close-together on 25 x 90 foot lots, for the most part. There’d be an occasional smaller house and a few much larger ones, each style probably much older than the majority, remnants of farms or summer property that had been there before most of the others were built.

My mother and her parents moved into their new house in 1925; it had two stories plus a basement, and an attic for storage. The first-floor railroad-style rooms consisted of an enclosed front porch, a living room, dining room, and kitchen with a breakfast nook and walk-in pantry. Upstairs, there were three bedrooms and the only bathroom in the house; access to the attic was via a ladder in the center bedroom closet, so it was mainly used for storing Christmas decorations in boxes.

(ABOVE: My grandparents and mother
sit on the stoop of their house
when they bought it in 1925, and
BELOW: the same house in 2007)



The best part about the new area was its relative quietness and lack of congestion. It seemed more country-like than some more densely populated areas; there was a “general store” in the middle of my mom’s block of otherwise residential homes. Operated by two elderly ladies, Hattie and Nettie carried the kinds of things you’d probably find in a 7-11 today. But there were still quite a few vacant lots, barely-paved streets, and relatively few cars to be found on those streets.


(Tom, the ice cream man brought us treats back in 1954,
when this photo was taken.
In the background is Hattie & Nettie's "general store."
BELOW: The same street in 2007.)


I was born in 1943 and, by that time, the area had seen a steady escalation of home-building. Two blocks to the west, on a corner of two streets with more residential dwellings, was Jones’ Candy Store and a small carpenter’s shop next door. A block further west, again in the middle of blocks of houses, was Ruprecht’s delicatessen. There were more commercial areas, of course, all within walking distance to our house. Two blocks to the south ran 101st Avenue, where you’d find taverns, restaurants, gas stations, and small stores like a barber shop and a bakery. Going two blocks further to the south brought you to Liberty Avenue, where it was much busier and solidly lined with bigger businesses–clothing stores, movie theaters, banks, etc.

One really surprising fact is that, when my mother first moved into the neighborhood, diagonally across the street were four square blocks of homes. In the mid 1930’s, the homes were demolished and a huge playground with ball fields was erected; it opened in 1938. Atlantic Avenue bordered it on the north, 95th Avenue on the south side, 127th Street its east side and 125th Street its west side. This new complex became known as “Smokey Oval Park”, due to the abundance of smoke in the area from the Long Island Railroad’s coal-burning locomotives constantly going by on the other side of Atlantic Avenue.


(The northwest corner of
127th Street and 95th Avenue;
ABOVE: homes and stores around 1930
and BELOW: the park complex in 2007.)


From as early as I can remember I knew that we lived in Richmond Hill. But, from time to time, as I walked through the neighborhood, I saw hints of another name: Dunton. The most prominent sign was on a tavern on 101st Avenue called, “The Dunton Barn”. It was still operational when I was a young boy and I knew my parents frequented the place occasionally; it served food and had live music and dancing, along with the traditional drinks found at any bar.

To the west of my neighborhood was the Morris Park Long Island Railroad train maintenance yards. Just across Atlantic Avenue from the yards to the south, was a small park–a block long and maybe fifty feet wide–with trees and benches; I just always assumed that was Morris Park. There was also no pressing reason for me to investigate the question of Dunton or Morris Park either... until recently. You see, as I’ve been researching my family’s roots, I’ve come across so much extra information that answered questions that had lay dormant for most of my life.

I have a large post card collection and, years ago, came upon a post card of the Richmond Hill Railroad station; but it was much further north than where I lived. Then, I found a post card with the Morris Park Railroad station on it, at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Lefferts Boulevard; but they wouldn’t create a station just because that tiny park was there, would they? No, the park is actually on the site of the former railroad station!

Well, between the post cards I found, maps and the history of the Long Island Railroad, and information I uncovered while researching my family’s roots, I’ve finally solved another couple of puzzles.

As a boy, my family always referred to 101st Avenue as Jerome Avenue; indeed, there was even a Jerome movie theater on it, so I accepted the fact that street names often change. One of the first things I discovered was that all of the streets in my neighborhood originally had proper names that were converted to numbers; 95th Avenue had been Chichester Avenue, 127th Street had been Wickes Avenue, and 97th Avenue had been Beaufort Avenue.

Growing up, I attended P.S. 55 from Kindergarten through 6th grade. As I walked to our school at 131st Street and 97th Avenue I passed an old building at 130th Street that looked like it might have once been a small school. At the time I was growing up it was being used as offices for the Department of Sanitation. In recent years, while trying to look up old friends on Classmates.com, I found reference to Maure P.S. 55, and wondered where they got that name from; I never remembered it from my days as a student there. It turns out that the old building at 130th Street and 97th Avenue had been the original P.S. 55, and 130th Street had previously been Maure Avenue, so the newer school retains that name to this day.

I always knew Richmond Hill had two zip codes. Even before the post office initiated the five-digit zip, there was a Richmond Hill 18, and a Richmond Hill 19; today it’s 11418 and 11419. The reason for that is there was an original Richmond Hill and an extended Richmond Hill that we know today.

According to an online article I found from the Queens Borough Public Library, dated April, 1939, BULLETIN # 647 Page 20:
“Dunton was developed and named in the eighties (MLD notes that this refers to the 1880’s) by the late Frederick W. Dunton, a nephew of Austin Corbin, president of the Long Island Railroad. Mr. Dunton was the president of the "Bicycle Railroad" and became interested in the development of real estate on Long Island in 1883. He built good houses and sold them to desirable citizens on easy payments. The village of Dunton was made up of small farms prior to this time. Mr. George Maure, after whom Maure Avenue, now 130th Street, was named, was actively connected with the progressive enterprises of Queens County. He was commissioned by a New York syndicate to purchase large tracts of land on Long Island, and later became associated with Mr. Dunton. Together they invested a large amount of money in real estate in this section and laid out several towns, of which Dunton was one.”

“The early maps of the community indicate that Dunton proper extended from Atlantic Avenue to Jerome Avenue, or Broadway, as it was called in those days, and from Van Wyck Boulevard to 126th Street. The section between Jerome Avenue and Liberty Avenue, then called Centerville Avenue, was Dunton Park. If the library had been in existence at that time in its present location it would have been in a section called Liberty Hills.”

So, it looks like Dunton was a very small area, indeed, since it’s only eight blocks from 126th Street to the Van Wyck Boulevard (today, the Van Wyck Expressway), and three blocks from Atlantic Avenue to Jerome Avenue (for a total of 24 square blocks). If you include the so-called Dunton Park it would nearly double the acreage because, while there are fewer blocks in the Dunton Park area, most of them are larger than those in the Dunton proper area. Through that article I also found that 101st Avenue–which had also been called Jerome Avenue–had previously been called Broadway!


(Click on the map to enlarge it.
The dark magenta area on the above map was Dunton;

the lighter magenta area was Dunton Park.
A magenta dot by the railroad tracks
just north of Atlantic Avenue
is where
the Long Island Railroad
Dunton block tower stands.
The small red square at 126th Street
is the site of Smokey Oval Park.)


Further online searches indicate that Morris Park was another community built by Mr. Dunton, although a book I found on Richmond hill claims that the community was developed by William Zielger. According to an online article:
“The place was so called because many years earlier it had been owned by a Mr. Morris. It had formerly been known as Morris Grove, originally a ten acre tract of woodland enclosed by a rail fence and with a crude frame structure which served as a shelter against rain. It was a favorite picnic ground for many years. The railroad established a station there and called it Morris Park.”

Morris Park seems to have run from the 126th Street western border of the community of Dunton to some number of blocks west of Lefferts Boulevard, and probably from Jerome/101st (or maybe even Liberty) Avenue to either Atlantic Avenue or possibly a few blocks further north. The church of St. Benedict Joseph Labre is located one block west of Lefferts, on 118th Street, and an historic marker at its site claims it was built originally in Morris Park, so we know the community extended at least that far west. There is a photo in the book I found about Richmond Hill showing the “Morris Park Hotel”, at the northeast corner of Atlantic Avenue and Lefferts Boulevard (opposite the Morris Park LIRR station).

An 1873 map in the Images Of America Book on Richmond Hill shows the original boundaries of that community to be from Jamaica Avenue on the south, to Park Lane South (the southern bordering road to Forest Park) in the north, Lefferts Boulevard to the east and 109th Street, to the west... a pretty small area by today’s standards. According to that map, Clarenceville was immediately to the south of Richmond Hill’s southern border of Jamaica Avenue and it presumedly went to at least Atlantic Avenue, where the Clarenceville LIRR station was located at 111th Street. Clarenceville was named after Clarence Miliken, the teenaged son of one of the original settlers; it extended east to border Morris Park.

According to an online article, “The original village of Richmond Hill was at one time a summer garden area with many wealthy denizens coming only for the summer. Many of the homes in that northern area had music rooms, libraries and domestic quarters in their homes.” The book on Richmond Hill also states, “The town was conceived when Albon Platt Man and Edward Richmond purchased the Lefferts farm on June 29, 1868. The earlier village of Clarenceville was established in January, 1853.”

It goes on to state that in 1895 the three hamlets of Richmond Hill, Clarenceville, and Morris Park incorporated into the Village of Richmond Hill... but it doesn’t say when Dunton was included into the fold. The Present day (approximate) boundaries for Richmond Hill seem to be: on the north- (still) Park Lane South; south- Liberty Avenue; west-Woodhaven Boulevard; east- the Van Wyck Expressway (even though the Jamaica Hospital is situated on the west side of the Van Wyck, just south of Jamaica Avenue). Jamaica is located just to the east.

A while back I came upon a Dunton Presbyterian Church as I searched the internet for connections to my old neighborhood, but it’s actually in South Ozone Park at 109-29, 135th Street. Ironically, my wife Ro’s grandfather lived near that church before his passing, many years ago. I stopped to photographed it on a recent trip home from Brooklyn. It’s about a half-mile from the Liberty Avenue border of the old community of Dunton, so I can only assume that the congregation may have originally been located somewhere else and moved to its present location–or the church is named for someone named Dunton.

(The Dunton Presbyterian Church.)

Recently, I drove into the Richmond Hill area to take some photos of the neighborhood I grew up in; to be more exact, I was trying to find whatever remained of the old community of Dunton. The one place that had always carried the name (the Dunton Barn) is now a laundromat, although the building itself has not changed too much. Nearly all of the original businesses I remembered from my childhood are gone and, in many cases, the buildings themselves have been renovated or replaced by newer ones.

(A laundromat occupies the site of the former Dunton Barn.)

There are probably very few people living in that part of present-day Richmond Hill that even know Dunton ever existed... unless you talk to someone that works for the Long Island Railroad. You see, back around 1898 to around the turn of the century–along with the Clarenceville and Morris Park stations–there was actually a Dunton station on the LIRR. I recently discovered an old map of the area–and the railroad–which places it at the intersection of what is today Atlantic Avenue and the Van Wyke Expressway. I thought that was odd since it's only a short distance from there to the current Jamaica railroad station. However, I've since learned that the original Jamaica train station was further east from its present location, making more sense when considering the distance between stations.

Railroad employees will immediately recognize the name Dunton because there’s still a block tower near 130th Street, where an employee oversees the operation of trains within a designated block of track; this includes managing the traffic and switching of trains around the nearby Morris Park Maintenance facility (which, since this article was originally written, has been demolished!). It’s a good thing I decided to take the time to photograph the block tower, with its original Dunton nameplate; it’s scheduled to be demolished soon and replaced by a series of computerized switches and relays in adjacent metal sheds marked “Dunton”. This is probably the last place in the area still bearing the namesake of the original community and–with the new switching sheds in place–will probably be the only site to carry on the name for posterity.

(The old block tower and modern metal sheds
are the only objects to retain the original Dunton nameplate,
as seen in these 2007 photos.)



As I drove west on Atlantic avenue from the old Dunton area, I stopped by the church I attended as a child, St. Benedict Joseph Labre (the only parish in the world under the patronage of that saint, according to an historic marker in the adjacent garden). The original wooden Gothic church was built in 1892; a school was opened in 1913 and a modern, brick church with cloister garden was finished in 1941.

A bit further west along Atlantic Avenue, I was surprised to find the S&S Speed Shop still in business–at the corner of 107th Street–looking very much like I remember it from 1959, when I used to hang out there with all the other custom car and hot rod enthusiasts of the area. I stopped to take a few photos and then decided to go inside to satisfy my curiosity.

Back in the “old days” the owner, John, ran the place with his young son, Richard, helping out behind the counter. I always loved his daily mode of transportation: a ‘49 Ford pickup truck with a supercharged Oldsmobile engine tucked under the hood. Of course, no one I knew drove a stock car back then; my first car was a fully customized ‘50 Mercury convertible with an Olds engine. Upon entering the store, a man behind the counter greeted me; I told him I was curious to check out the place as I’d been a customer nearly fifty years ago. He said, “Oh, you probably remember my father, then.”


(The original S&S Speed Shop,
at Atlantic Avenue and 107th Street, as seen in 2007,
and LEFT TO RIGHT:
Richard, Robert and John, Jr., the current owners.)



I was amazed to learn that I was talking to the original owner’s son, John (Jr.), and that his other sons, Richard and Robert–as well as Robert’s son, Rob, Jr.–were now running the place. The speed & parts store, as well as a full machine shop, were still in operation after sixty years and still in the same family. We talked about people who frequented the place over the years and many familiar named popped up. We also discussed the neighborhood and how it changed over the years. We all remembered Maybee’s “Chicken In The Basket”, which was just across the street from the speed shop; my wife and I ate there often. Sadly, it–and so many other places I remembered–are just memories now. After reminiscing with the guys for a while, I promised to return one day with my photo albums of old cars and the guys from the neighborhood who owned them.

A particularly interesting event I remembered from growing up in Richmond Hill was the construction of the Van Wyck Expressway, named after the first mayor of the unified New York City, Robert C. Van Wyck (properly pronounced “van-WIKE” and rhyming with "like"). The southern section, from the Belt Parkway to Idlewile Airport (now JFK) was completed in 1950. The section from the Belt Parkway to Kew Gardens, passing near the area where I grew up, was completed two years later; so, I was seven to nine years-old while that section was being built.

What I remember most was that a large apartment building (between 97th and 101st Avenues) originally in the center of the current expressway path, had to be moved about the length of a football field to the west. I’d told that story so many times over the years that I recently wondered to myself, “Did that really happen?” By googling the “Van Wyck Expressway”, you can access a website at http://www.nycroads.com/roads/van-wyck/, and find a message from another former resident of the neighborhood who remembers the event well, confirming my story.


(ABOVE: The white apartment building in the center of this photo,
seen on the west side of the Van Wyke Expressway,
was at one time right in the middle of where the expressway now runs.
BELOW: The building's main entrance used to be on the north side-
right side in photo-but was changed to the opposite side after the move.)


The other thing I recall vividly was that the entrances and exits on the Van Wyck were so close together in a couple of places that they had to be torn apart during construction and rebuilt; there was simply no room for a car on the expressway to exit while another car was entering from an adjoining ramp. Even as I was driving home from this current trip into Richmond Hill, I entered the Van Wyck from the service road between Atlantic and 95th Avenues only to find that the exit to Liberty Avenue began even before I was fully merged with traffic on the expressway... still a dangerous design.

I remember sitting on one of the swings in the playground at Smokey Park, during the 1950’s, and watching the freight trains go by on the railroad, across Atlantic Avenue. Once, I counted over a hundred and forty cars on one freight train. They were curving around a track going northwest, probably en route to the freight yards on Lefferts Boulevard, just south of Jamaica Avenue, near the original Richmond Hill station that’s no longer in use. As a kid, we used to play in those freight cars after they were unloaded while they sat there waiting to be shipped somewhere else. Sometimes, we’d find stuff that had been left behind after they were unloaded; we often got chased by the railroad yard security guards.

The freight yards are gone now; in their place is a large parking lot for the big supermarket that was built there sometime in the 1960’s, I guess. I saw a freight train on my recent visit to the old park; I wonder where they unload them now. I’m sure there aren’t as many as there used to be, with tractor-trailers hauling most of this country’s freight nowadays.

The old neighborhood that I knew so well is not really gone but changed forever. Older homes are being maintained, renovated, or–in many cases–demolished to make way for newer structures, often multiple family homes. Many families have more than one car as well, causing the once peaceful, empty streets to be cluttered with vehicles; parking has become such a precious resource in Queens now that homes with driveways fetch much more than those without, and garages translate to even more thousands of dollars on the price of a house.

Like everywhere else in our country, increasing numbers of people and cars have become a negative force to the quality of life. Throughout the past 100 years or more, however, Dunton and Richmond Hill–like so many communities–have had to change with the times. And, as in other towns and cities all around the country, people will continue to change, as well, adapting to those times.

(Current photos © 2007 by Ken Bausert;
old photos from my personal collection.
Updated information added August, 2011.)

4 comments:

Randy A. said...

Hey Ken,

I lived some of my childhood during the 90's in Richmond Hill, specifically in the area you highlighted as Dunton. Moved out of the state and now that I'm older have been looking through some history on the area for fun. I was wondering if you could spare any photographs you may have of the intersection of 95th Avenue and the Van Wyck Expressway or if you have any stories of your own. I used to live on the second floor of a building on the corner that has a "bodega" on the first floor(building is family owned now but they don't much of the history since it was bought in the late 80s). Also if you were to have any photographs of the area around the used-to-be Metropolitan Ave on the Jamaica El (love the subways and rails) that would be awesome! :) Thank you for sharing what you've posted; love comparing the times.

Ken B said...

Hi, Randy,
Are you looking for photos of 95th Ave. & Van Wyck from THEN or NOW? I don't have anything from then but if you'd like, the next time I'm in the area I'll take some photos of the way it looks now for you. Likewise, I have no old photos of Metropolitan Avenue & Jamaica Avenue (just to the west of the Van Wyck) area but you will probably find some on many of the nostalgia-related sites. Once again, I could take some of that area for you (minus the "EL" of course, which has been torn town) if you're not in any particular hurry for them (don't know exactly when I'll be in that area).

Ken

Randy A. said...

Hey Ken,
Thanks for the reply, but I was looking for photos of the "BACK THEN". I'll be heading there sometime before the end of this year so no need to snap any photos for me although that's generous of you offer, Thank you. Maybe you can help me find additional resources on the web, I've GOOGLE'd several sites but nothing quite as interesting or relevant as your blog goes. Or if you can list some places I can go in the city (for when I do go this year) that I might find archives available to such area. Thanks again for your time!

Ken B said...

If you have the time & determination, you might want to check out the NYC Archives (as mentioned in my blog entry of THURSDAY, APRIL 23, 2009). It's located in the Surrogates’ Court building at 31 Chambers Street, in Manhattan, and has hundreds of thousands of old photos on file. These were pictures that were taken of every property in the five boroughs for tax assessment purposes between 1939 and 1941.

You may also want to check out the
Queensborough Public Library Archives on Merrick Boulevard, in Jamaica, Queens (as mentioned in my blog entry for THURSDAY, JUNE 4, 2009). Lots of actual photos as well as many in digital format of the early days of Queens.