Woodside, Queens (History)

(Neighborhoods In Queens)

neighborhoods_queen_woodside_300x300Woodside is a working class and commercial neighborhood in the western portion of the New York City borough of Queens. It is bordered on the south by Maspeth, on the north by Astoria, on the west by Sunnyside and on the east by Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. Some areas are widely residential and very quiet, while others (especially closer to Roosevelt Avenue) are more urban. The neighborhood is located in Queens Community Board 1 and Queens Community Board 2.

 

HISTORY

For two centuries following the arrival of settlers from England and the Netherlands, the area where the village of Woodside would be established was sparsely populated. The land was fertile but also wet. Its Native American inhabitants called it a place of “bad waters” and it was known to early European settlers as a place of “marshes, muddy flats and bogs,” where “wooded swamps” and “flaggy pools” were fed by flowing springs.”Until drained in the nineteenth century, one of these wet woodlands was called Wolf Swamp after the predators that infested it. This swamp was not the only place where settlers might fear for the safety of their livestock, and even themselves. One of the oldest recorded locations in Woodside was called Rattlesnake Spring on the property of a Captain Bryan Newton. The vicinity came to be called Snake Woods and one source maintains that “during New York’s colonial period, the area was known as ‘suicide’s paradise,’ as it was largely snake-infested swamps and wolf-ridden woodlands.”

Woodside was settled by farmers in the early 18th century. In time, inhabitants learned how to farm the land profitably. The marsh grasses proved to be good for grazing and grains, fruits, and vegetables could be grown on the surrounding dry land. By the middle of the 18th century the area’s farmers had drained some of its marshes and cut back some of its woods to expand its arable land and eliminate natural predators. Agricultural produce found markets in New York City and at the beginning of the 19th century the area came to be “abundantly conspicuous in the wealth of the farmers and in the beauty of the villas.”A late 19th-century historian described one of the area’s 19th-century farms as a pleasing mix of woodlot, tilled acreage, grazing land, orchard, and pleasure garden. He believed “it would probably have been hard to find anywhere in the vicinity of New York a more picturesque locality.” Another observer of this time praised Woodside’s “pure atmosphere and delightful scenery.”

In the 19th century, the area was part of the Town of Newtown (now Elmhurst). The adjacent area of Winfield was largely incorporated into the post office serving Woodside and as a consequence Winfield lost much of its identity distinct from Woodside.

Some idea of the bucolic nature of the place that would become Woodside can be seen in descriptions of an ancient central landmark, a great chestnut tree. The tree was hundreds of years old when it finally came down in the last decade of the 19th century. It stood on high ground near a junction of three dirt roads and “was of great diameter, some 8 or 10 feet”—perhaps 30 feet in circumference. Its size and central location made it a natural a meeting place, a surface on which to tack public notices, and strategic point of considerable military significance during the Revolutionary War. A 19th-century antiquarian wrote of the great tree as it stood during the American Revolution and in doing so named the families of the local landowners:

Around the roots of the old tree were the huts and stables of the cavalry: with a number of settler’s huts ranged in woods… Great festivities too were constant in the spacious rooms of the old Moore house, during the winter months when the snow was deeper and the frost more cold than now-a-days. To the streaming lights from the ball room, and the lanterns hung on the trees, were wont to assemble the gay sleighing parties from the Sacket , Morrell, Alsop, Leverich and other houses; for the soldiers were all over and had come to Newtown to recruit themselves after the yearly campaigns… Is there any relic more associated with Newtown [i.e. the town in which the village of Woodside would come to be located] than its old chestnut tree?… not been for two centuries the “Legal Notice” centre of Newtown, for all vendues, real estate transfers, town meetings, lost “creeturs” and runaway slaves?

Woodside was first developed on a large scale beginning in 1867 by speculative residential neighborhood builder Benjamin W. Hitchcock, who also founded Corona and Ozone Park, and John Andrew Kelly. The neighborhood’s location about three miles from Hunter’s Point on the Long Island Railroad line made it an ideal location for a new suburban community. In 1874, the New York Times described Woodside:

At Woodside there are now 100 houses erected, chiefly of the villa-cottage order, and thirty trains daily stop at the station, making it, via the Hunter’s Point and James Slip Ferry, less than forty-five minutes from the lower part of the city. Woodside is located on sloping ground, having a good elevation, and pleasing, though not very diversified scenery. There is an abundance of good fruit trees in the vicinity…

 

DEMOGRAPHICS

The character of Woodside’s population, in terms of national origin, has changed radically over time. Its first inhabitants were Native Americans, probably of the Mespeatches, who gave their name to the town of Maspeth. The first European landowners were mainly Dutch and English and their laborers mainly British, African (slaves), and American Indian. During the nineteenth century, Germans largely took over from these first settlers. In addition to the major Germanic landowners already mentioned (the Kellys—whose name was originally Kölle—Riker, Schroeder, Schmidt, Sussdorf, and Windmuller), the first purchasers of Hitchcock’s little plots were largely of German extraction. They included men with names like Eberhardt, Groeber, and Schlepergrel.Beginning at the close of the 19th century and through most of the 20th, growing numbers of Irish residents arrived and Woodside eventually became Irish enough to earn the nickname “Irish Town.” A major turning point in the transition from German to Irish occurred in 1901 when the Greater New York Irish Athletic Association formally opened a large athletic complex called Celtic Park on the border between Woodside and Laurel Hill, its neighbor to the south. A second turning point was the death of Louis Windmuller, the last of the German estate owners. Prominent in local as well as city and national affairs, he was called the “grand old man” or “patriarch” of Woodside. Although the estate did not go out of his heirs’ hands until the close of the Depression and beginning of World War II, his passing nonetheless helps mark Woodside’s transition from country village to suburban bedroom community.With large-scale residential development in the 1860s, Woodside became the largest Irish American community in Queens. In the early 1930s, the area was approximately 80% Irish.

Toward the end of the 20th century, Irish dominance gradually yielded to a mixture of other nationalities, but even as the neighborhood has seen growth in ethnic diversity today, the area still retains a strong Irish American presence, and there continue to be a number of Irish pubs and restaurants scattered across Woodside. After World War II, baby-boomers born in the area were primarily of Irish, Italian and Jewish extraction. Gradually, Dominicans and other nationalities began to make an appearance in the community, beginning in the late 1960s. A trend of diversity began then, and has continued since. This diversity has been remarked upon by many observers and can be shown in residents’ places of worship. For example, the Winfield Reformed Church began in 1880 as a Dutch Calvinist church and in 1969 became the first Taiwanese congregation in America. Others of Woodside’s places of worship now include ones that are Hindu, Thai Buddhist, Romanian Orthodox, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, and Bahrainian. Woodside has a strong Muslim community and is home of a large, multipurpose organization, the Islamic Institute of New York. Among St. Sebastian Mass-goers, a priest reports that are about 45% are Hispanic (particularly from Colombia and Mexico), 25% Irish, 25% Filipino, and 5% Korean. An article published in 1999 says that Woodsiders come from 49 countries and speak 34 different languages.

In the early 1990s, many Asian American families moved into the area, particularly east of the 61st Street – Woodside subway station. In 2000, Woodside’s population was 30% Asian American. Woodside has a large population of Thai Americans, Korean Americans, Chinese Americans and Filipino Americans (see Koreatown, Chinatown, and Filipinotown), each with their own respective ethnic enclave. There are also South Asian Americans, particularly Indian Americans, Bangladeshi Americans, and Pakistani Americans, as well as a large Dominican and Latino population.Reflecting its longtime diverse foods and drink, the neighborhood is filled with many cultural restaurants and pubs. It is also home to some of the city’s most popular Thai, Filipino, Colombian, and Ecuadorian eateries. Woodside’s diversity lends itself to a number of festivals and street fairs. It commemorates Saint Patrick’s Day with a parade prior to the famous celebration in Manhattan. Woodside also hosts several events in the summer, including an Independence Day street fair.