Forest Hills Garden
Turning off of the earsplitting hustle of Queens Blvd. and walking down Continental Ave. you see the urban oasis of Forest Hills Garden. When you pass underneath the LIRR tracks there's a sign: Warning! Entering Private Streets. Parking by Permit Only. There's always a secret thrill in being somewhere you aren't supposed to be and are not wanted.
On a side street I spot a gypsy cab under the shade of a poplar tree. The driver, Frank Hedrick, sits and eats his lunch. Hedrick is old-school Queens. Pushing 50 and tired of being a hack. I ask him if he's courting trouble parked on a private street.
"Nah, they only bother you if you park the car and leave. Then they'll throw a boot on it and it'll cost you $125 for them to remove it. Nice racket if you can get it. I'm harmless. The security guards won't bother with me."
I ask Hedrick for his impressions of Forest Hills Gardens. He puts down his sandwich and takes a swig of soda.
"I guess this is one of the last of the exclusive neighborhoods in Queens. This borough used to be nice. Around here it's still good, but the problem with living in this private community is all the shit that's around it. I mean Queens ain't America anymore. You're lucky if they speak English here. And they might be hardworking people, but they make a mess. Where I live [Richmond Hill] they rent out every floor and no one takes care of the homes."
Forest Hills Gardens is comprised of 880 private homes and at least 10 apartment buildings that house about 6000 people. Real estate is hot here; a house can fetch anywhere from $500,000 to $3 million. Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage incorporated the 142-acre neighborhood in 1909. She was left a fortune by her husband, Russell, and with her lawyers set up a private community in New York to show the rest of the rabble how decent people could live in a crowded city. Fredrick Law Olmsted, Central Park's designer, put together the plan for the community; one of the stipulations for owning a home here, still in effect, is that you cannot radically alter the exterior of the house.
But time is catching up with Forest Hills Gardens. I pass an abandoned restaurant called the Melting Pot. The awning reads A Fondue Restaurant?a lost logo from more affluent days. The streets are empty but for a few dark nannies and nurses pushing lightskinned babies in buggies and a crinkly old man in a wheelchair.
Farther into the community there's a village green lined with massive trees. A bronze and marble memorial off to the side is dedicated to the soldiers who fought "in the Great War." A soaring flagpole stands at the end of the green with a plaque that reads: "This towering spar was the main mast of the yacht Columbia when it defeated the Shamrock I in 1899 and the Shamrock II in 1901 in defense of America's Cup."
I walk down Slocum Crescent, impressed with the huge brick colonial and Tudor homes. Old-fashioned wrought-iron streetlamps line the pristine sidewalks. Huge willow trees hang over manicured lawns. In here the clatter and hum of Queens cannot be heard. The song of this burg is chirping birds and power mowers. The only thing missing is people. These are the emptiest sidewalks in New York.
I turn down Tennis Pl. and the homes get even larger. Lush lawns are holding up well during the summer heatwave. Colorful pansies fill gardens. The driveways have Saabs, BMWs and Mercedeses in them. I pass the tennis club that was once home to the U.S. Open. Now middle-aged women jump out of luxury cars in tennis whites to play a few sets. I turn onto Burns St., near the site of a 1977 Son of Sam killing, and spot a mailman who will only give his name as Mike. I ask him if the streets are always so quiet.
"Pretty much. Everyone stays inside here. Keep to themselves, I guess. These homes?these beautiful homes are huge. I mean you could fit two, three of mine in them. The shame of it is that these mansions have like one person living in them. One person in 20 rooms. It's usually old ladies?widowed?everyone gone. I'll put the mail in the box and sometimes see them like little ghosts behind the curtains. They wait till I leave."
I ask Mike if that annoys him. He looks up at nothing and says, "No?it's just kind of sad is all. Like they all got left behind and they don't want no one to see them. See how alone they are."
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