History of Long Island City


Long Island City dates back to the early 1630s when a land grant, awarded by the Dutch, established a 160 acre peninsula in Astoria as Jarck's farm.  This area originally part of Long Island, is where Astoria Boulevard intersects Vernon Avenue.  Jarck’s farm helped to establish the first Long Island City community. The area was known for its rich soil and supported a strong farming tradition which continued in Queens until the 19th century.  This set the stage for LIC’s now nearly 180-year history. 

In 2011 geography, Jarck’s farm was just north of what is now Costco and Socrates Sculpture Park and directly across the East River from Gracie Mansion and Carl Schurz Park. 

The Dutch lived peacefully with the local Native Americans in this new area of Long Island until 1643.  Unfortunately, Dutch settlers in Jersey City and Manhattan took advantage of their Native American neighbors in what became known as the Indian outbreak of 1643.  The Native Americans took revenge and the Dutch West India Company recalled the governor responsible for establishing LIC and installed Peter Stuyvesant as the new governor in 1647. 

In 1652 William Hallett, an Englishman, received the now abandoned 160 acre Jarck’s farm as a grant from Governor Stuyvesant.  Another Dutch settler in 1655 touched off a new outbreak of violence with Native Americans who destroyed Jersey City, Staten Island and once again Jarck’s farm.

William Hallett bought 2200 acres from Chief Mattano of the Staten Island and Fort Hamilton Indians in 1664which included all of what is now Astoria and Steinway. The deed for this transaction can be found in the State Archives in Albany.

In 1764 the British Authorities instituted taxes on manufactured American goods because the manufacturing caused competition for British goods.  This policy touched off a debate by early settlers, from Queens all the way to Massachusetts, and resulted in the Congress meeting in Philadelphia in 1774.  The taxes were voted down and Queens County was visited by a 600 strong British militia dispatched from Philadelphia. 

On July 4, 1776 the Congress, in Philadelphia, declared independence from Britain resulting in the Battle of Long Island and the British Army Occupation of Queens County until 1783.  A fleet of British ships was maintained in Newtown Creek and British troops were stationed on Skillman Avenue in LIC.  In September 1776, Astoria saw its only military activity during the Revolution when units of the British Army marched through the area.

As result of the Revolutionary War’s use of boats, as transportation across the East River, ferry service was established for residents traveling to Manhattan.  The service began in 1872 and delivered passengers from Astoria to 86th street in Yorkville.

The forbearers of Long Island City, and in particular the landowners of Astoria, experienced the Dutch, the English and lived adjacent to Native Americans.  Slaves also helped work their farms.  Records establish the sale of slaves between owners in Queens County until the 1820s.

In the early 1800s the area began attracting affluent New Yorkers who were escaping the “crowds” of the city.  The area was soon developed as a village and named Astoria in honor of John Jacob Astor.

Origins of Hunter's Point

Hunter’s Point, a low island farm that was above tidewater, was owned by Captain George Hunter and his wife Ann on the banks of Newtown Creek.  By 1833 both Captain Hunter and his wife had died.  Three years after Ann Hunter died her will stated that her three sons should sell Hunter’s Point and share the profits.  The entire estate of 210 acres was sold in 1835 for $100,000. It was resold in 1837 for $200,000.  The “Point” part of Hunter’s Point comes from the area of land that juts into the East River and lies just west of the mouth of Newtown Creek.  Between 1852 and 1853 the 200 acres of Hunter Farm were leveled of all its hills, streets carved out and building lots created for sale to home buyers.

In 2011 geographical terms, the Point will soon house the southernmost portion of Queens West that Mayor Bloomberg has renamed Hunter’s Point South.  Hunter's Point is also the neighborhood that is home to LaGuardia Community College.

Hunter's Point, or the junction of Vernon and Jackson Avenues was always the political and administrative heart of Long Island City.  Even in 1850 Hunter’s Point was considered the downtown of LIC, all four blocks width of it. The rest of Hunter’s Point had vestiges of its farm origins with vast areas of meadow frequently flooded by unpolluted East River water and punctuated by beaver dams.

About the same time that the Dutch and Indians were fighting over the Jarck’s farm land in Astoria, the Dutch government at New Amsterdam, granted ground-briefs in 1643 to the first Dutch Reformed minister in New Amsterdam, for the land at the mouth of the Newtown Creek on the Queens side. Thereafter the point of land at the river came to be known as Dominie's Hook. This grant appears to have also covered the island and some of the meadows totaling 130 acres.

The Steinway Family & LIC’s Transportation History

Henry Englehardt Steinway immigrated to the US, from Germany, in 1850 with his wife, five sons and three daughters.  They opened the Steinway piano factory in Manhattan in 1853, built on a foundation of expert craftsmanship, musicality and family loyalty and solidarity.  By the late 1860’s the family needed to expand their business from its headquarters then located on Park Avenue and 52nd Street.  New Jersey was deemed too swampy nor did it have property near the water large enough and so the family looked to the northeastern part of Astoria that is now 36th through 49th Streets and north of 20th Ave.  Astoria was only five miles from Manhattan and with unlimited access to the East River for shipping and for storing of the logs they used to craft their pianos.

Regular ferry service to Manhattan was expanded in 1861 when the LIRR opened up its main terminal in Hunters Point.  The ferry terminal linking Hunters Point with 34th street in Manhattan was located at what is now the Waterfront Crab House.

The German Settlement, or Steinway Settlement era, began in 1869 which ended the farm activity in Long Island City. In May 1870, Astoria was incorporated into Long Island City and this enabled the Steinways to continue an already created grid pattern into their area.  To make the area more attractive and livable, for the hundreds of workers imported for the factory, a city was needed and by1873 it began to take shape with streets, avenues and housing construction.

Transportation to the Steinway factory from Manhattan where most of their employees still lived was a difficult problem to solve.  The Steinways first built a stage coach route along Steinway Avenue to a 92nd Street ferry and then in 1875 the Long Island City Shore Rail Road opened a street car line all along Vernon Avenue which connected to the Steinway Settlement and the 92nd Street ferry.

By 1877 the only family members surviving were brothers Theodore and William Steinway.  In 1879 the brothers oversaw the construction of a giant piano case factory.  This brought the total number of their employees to 1500.

In 1883 William Steinway organized the Steinway and Hunter’s Point Railroad Company which merged the various Long Island City transportation routes into one company.  This enabled him to manage all LIC transportation, but it also ensured that he could provide reliable transportation for his workers and the Steinway Settlement.

In 1896 sadly, William Steinway the only brother who was still living passed away.  The Steinway family left quite a mark on western Queens with its rich manufacturing, artisanal and transportation history.

In 1898, Long Island City officially became part of New York City, and expanded its borders to include what is now Queens.   Although LIC is part of Queens, its location and geography link it more closely to Brooklyn and Manhattan with NYC’s transportation system by subway, train, tunnel and bridge.   In the early 20th century, Long Island City became even more accessible with the opening of the Queensboro Bridge (1909), the Hellgate Bridge (1916), and the Steinway subway tunnels (1917).   These transportation links enabled commercial and industrial development.   Soon even more factories lined the East River waterfront completing the transformation from a farming economy to a manufacturing economy in LIC.

Today, there are eight subway lines, two major bridges, multiple bus lines, the mid-town tunnel and a new ferry service linking LIC to Manhattan.

Origins of the Name Long Island City

Sir: It may not be uninteresting at this time, nor will it be less so in future history, to know to whom really belongs the honor of giving to Long Island City its name. This high privilege belongs by right to Capt. Levy Hayden, late superintendent of the Marine railway, Hunter's Point. The history is this: In 1853 or thereabout, a member of the Beebe family of Ravenswood was induced to take quite a number of shares in the Marine railway stock; and inquired from Capt. Hayden what name should be given to the concern and the surrounding country which at that time was perfectly wild. The captain suggested that the prospect was that Hunter's Point, Ravenswood and Astoria would before many years become a large united city; therefore he would propose to give the name "Long Island City" to the place. An immense flag was at once hoisted on the building with the name written in full; this flag must be yet fresh in the memory of many of your readers and must be sufficient proof that Capt. Levy Hayden is the true godfather of our new "Long Island City."

Respectfully yours,
B. Maillefert-L.I. Weekly Star, May 14, 1870

The Gantries

As Hunters Point became the freight gateway to Long Island, freight cars were sent to Hunters Point by barge or “floats” where they were transferred from the floats to trains. The towers that remain today and referred to as 'gantries' were part of this transfer system.  In the 19th century the gantries were called "gallows frames" or "supporting towers."  Two of those gantries remain today as a gateway to Gantry State Park.

The gantry system worked in the following way:

“Incoming floats would be pushed into the slip by a tugboat. When it reached the end of the bridge, a worker would slip lines over the cleats at each side of the float so it could be winched tightly to the bridge. At the same time the bridge would be raised or lowered to the height of the float deck. Then bars on the apron called toggles would be attached to sockets on the float, to lock the float horizontally and vertically. Chains holding the freight cars firmly onto the float were then removed, and their brakes released. A locomotive would advance to remove the cars from the float, using a "reacher" car or "idler" car to keep the weight of the locomotive off the float. Once unloaded, the cars were transferred to the LIRR’s freight yards for delivery to industries on the Island. Freight cars to be returned would be loaded onto the float, the above steps would be reversed, and a tugboat would remove the reloaded float.”

As NYC became less industrialized in the latter part of the 20th century, LIC became a ghost town of unused warehouses and factories.  LIC served as a bellwether for the rest of the nation and by the 1970s, the end of manufacturing was all but a given.  Though LIC still retains its industrial flavor, it is returning to its artisanal roots.  MoMA’s PS1 Contemporary Arts Center started the trend by setting up residence in the former Public School 1 built in 1871.  PS1 had been the largest school on Long Island when it was built.

Dr. Joseph Shenker, LaGuardia Community College’s (LaGCC) first President, and City University of New York (CUNY) had the foresight to “transform the old factory buildings of Long Island City’s declining industrial economy so that they could become the agent of change in the lives of a multitude of students.”  The college was opened in 1971 in a former Ford Instrument Company factory on Thomson Avenue near the Queensboro Bridge interchange.

The gantries helped serve as a vital link to sustain Long Island’s economy. Today, the gantries link the original Hunters Point neighborhood and a new era of vertical living in Queens West, Hunter’s Point South and Court Square.

Queens West, Hunter's Point South & Court House Square

Queens West is a joint project sponsored by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and the New York Empire State Development Corporation, in cooperation with the Queens Borough President. The Queens West Development Corporation (QWDC), a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation, was established in 1992 to facilitate implementation of the approved development plan. The four-member QWDC Board of Directors, two from each sponsor, plays an instrumental role in formulating policy and authorizing major actions.

The Queens West project is a $2.3 billion; 74 acre project that was first announced in the early 1980’s when the area along the waterfront was an abandoned mess.   In total and on 44 acres there will be 11 residential buildings with about 4,500 units, 13 acres of state park land, a public library, two public schools and 120,000 square feet of retail space.

In May 2009, 30 acres were transferred to the City of New York for construction of the development Mayor Bloomberg has renamed Hunter’s Point South.  This $350 million project has begun construction and will be completed in 2014 with 5,000 residential units, an 11 acre park, and 96,000 square feet of retail space and 46,000 square feet of public and community facilities.

The Special Long Island City Mixed Use District consisting of Hunters Point, Court Square, and Queens Plaza sub-districts expects to include about 5 million square feet of new office space, 300 new housing units and retail space. Residential districts will be paired with manufacturing districts in four areas, allowing development of 10 to 12 story buildings in some manufacturing areas, and 4 to 7 in others.

Roosevelt Island’s applied sciences campus, Long Island City and LaGuardia Community College will again be poised to make significant contributions to New York City and this country along with small businesses and artists.  Thus our economy has shifted from Agricultural in the 1600s to Industrial to Information/Tech and now to the Conceptual Age in the 21st century.

UPDATED:
Very astute students recently pointed out that this article referred to early settlers of New York as Indians rather than Native Americans.  The article was based on information found in archives and other reference materials that referred to the early settlers in a manner that was used at the time.  This article has been updated.

The information above is an abridged version of the history of Long Island City.  Please refer to the bibliography below for additional information.

Bibliography

Queens West Development Corporation. 633 Third Avenue, New York, NY. http://www.queenswest.org/ 

Seyfried, Vincent F.  300 Years of Long Island City 1630-1930 .  Garden City, NY: Queens Community Series, October 1984.

Singleton, Robert S. Greater Astoria Historical Society. http://astorialic.org/