Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Coffin Factory

The Coffin Factory?

Yes, you read that correctly! Only a few blocks from where I lived while growing up was a large, three-story building on Atlantic Avenue, at 124th Street, in which they made coffins. We actually had quite a lot of light manufacturing in our part of Queens, during the ‘50s and ‘60s, but the coffin factory was probably the most unusual. It’s main entrance was on 94th Avenue where a large side yard bordered the big brick building.

The things that I remember most about this place were the smells of various types of fresh wood that they would mill themselves to actually build the boxes; the aromas greeted you anytime you walked by and, in their yard, was a big dumpster where they threw their discards. My friends and I would always check the trash bin for scraps that we could use to make bird houses or feeders, or – if we were really ambitious – tables and chairs that we would use in our clubhouses (which sprang up in someone’s yard or a vacant lot, from time to time).

(As seen from the corner of 124th Street and 94th Avenue
through a Recent Google Earth photo.)

I think it was sometime in the 1970s, after I had moved away, that the coffin factory closed its doors and the entire block (gas station/auto repair shop on one half and the old factory on the other) was bought by the South Shore Tire & Rubber Company, a Goodyear tire distributor. They bricked up all the windows in the old factory and – to this day –  continue to use the building as a warehouse to store tires which they can then deliver to numerous repair shops in the surrounding areas.

That Pond in Forest Park

How about a place that once existed, then it was no longer there, and now it’s back again? I’m talking about the large pond that used to be in a hollow across from the carousel in Forest Park, Queens.

When I was a kid, we used to walk – or ride our bikes – to this 538-acre wilderness in the center of one of the largest boroughs of New York City. A couple of winding roads used to let you drive through the heart of this pastoral and picturesque green space but half of them are now closed to vehicular traffic so that walkers, joggers, and bikers can have more safe spaces. Back in the day, we used to ride our bikes all over this place and, especially, directly through the woods on hilly trails.

One of our favorite destinations was this natural pond that I’ve lately discovered was actually a kettle pond left over from retreating glaciers during the last ice age. Over millennia, this depression filled with rain water and, during the 1950s, my friends and I used to sail boats there or try catching fish. It was about forty feet below the level of the nearby road. Looking back, it’s amazing that we didn’t kill ourselves riding our bikes down the steep dirt hills leading to the water’s edge.


Around 1966, some genius in the NYC Department of Parks thought it would be a great idea to drain the pond and create a couple of ball fields in its place. They named the Twin Fields after PFC Laurence Strack, a boy who use to play hockey on the frozen pond – and the first local resident to be killed in Viet Nam. This was shortly after I moved out of the area but I used to return to see family and friends. So, when I saw the ball fields during one of my visits, I thought, “That’s never going to work; they’re constantly going to get flooded every time it rains.”

Well, guess what? That’s exactly what happened.

In 1994, Marc Matsil, chief of the parks department natural resources group, and Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, visited Forest Park to survey Twin Fields. “It had rained a couple inches literally two weeks before, and right field was about 5 feet underwater and left field was 4 feet underwater,” said Matsil. Stern, he said, turned to him and commented, “Those are black ducks in right field and those are mallards in left field, aren’t they?”

It was then that they decided to restore the area to its former glory and remove the ball fields and the fill that had been laid down, and replant the entire area with native plants and trees. Today, the area is even more lush than I remember it from my childhood because all the original trees that were surrounding the pond (or ball fields) are now huge, and all the new growth has filled in beautifully. On a recent visit, I saw lots of turtles in the renewed pond but I don’t know if there are any fish; I guess they would have to be stocked, wouldn’t they?



The path leading from the road to the pond.
(Parks Department photo)

 My photo from a recent autumn visit.

 My photo from summer, 2017.

 My photo from summer, 2017.

 Google Earth photo with Strack Pond visible within white oval.