Kew Gardens Hills: A Little Town in Central Queens
In Paul Simon’s 1975 song, “My Little Town,” he and Art Garfunkel croon about a dreary place, where laundry is hung out to dry in air polluted by factories.
“Everything’s the same back in my little town,” they sing. And so it would be, if they were referring to the cookie-cutter townhouses and stolid apartment complexes in Kew Gardens Hills, the (factory-less) neighborhood in central Queens where both men grew up. Mr. Simon’s boyhood home — a 1940 brick rowhouse at 137-62 70th Road, four blocks from Mr. Garfunkel’s — is still easy to recognize from old photographs.
In other ways Kew Gardens Hills — not to be confused with Kew Gardens, a neighborhood about three miles southwest — has changed dramatically. Once largely populated by assimilated Jews (Mr. Simon descends from Hungarian Jewish immigrants), it now supports one of the biggest Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City. Main Street is crammed with kosher food stores with names like Holy Schnitzel. Synagogues have proliferated, making it easy for residents to walk to services, as the rules of Sabbath observance require. Processions of baby carriages glide down the road, bearing the scions of growing families.
But appearances can be deceptive, said Jack Eichenbaum, Queens’s borough historian. In Kew Gardens Hills, “there is a lot more residential ethnicity than you would suspect just looking at the commercial stuff,” he said. The neighborhood has not only Chinese, Korean, Afghan and Latino citizens, but also diversity within the Jewish community, including a growing number of Bukharian Jews, from Central Asia.
Nathan Erlich, 55, a real estate lawyer who moved from Australia to study at Boston University, found his way to Kew Gardens Hills in 1991. “I was a single guy with no money, and a good friend of mine was renting a house with some other guys,” he recalled. “I stayed.”
The neighborhood was quiet, he said, and only 10 minutes by bus to Forest Hills, where he has a law office and can catch the E and F trains to Manhattan. “Forest Hills is like a little Manhattan,” he said. “And Kew Gardens Hills is like a bedroom community to Forest Hills.”Continue reading the main story
He now lives with his family in a 20-foot-wide semi-attached house on 71st Avenue. The home cost $250,000 in 1996 and is worth more than $1 million now.
Queens College, which sits at the northern edge of Kew Gardens Hills, has served as a gateway to the area for many local home and business owners. Mark Becker, 44, who attended the school, said his familiarity with the neighborhood was one reason he and his brother, Bruce, 50, chose Main Street as the site for Max & Mina’s, the ice cream store they opened in 1997.
Inspired by the quirky experiments of their grandfather, a biochemist who disliked commercial ice cream, the brothers are known for creating flavors like Garlic and Lox, as well as the more conventional Cinnamon Toast and Chocolate Cookie Dough. On a recent afternoon, they urged a visitor to try their Halava ice cream, based on the sesame-flavored treat.
Rory I. Lancman, 49, another Queens College graduate, lived in the area from the age of 5 until his late twenties. Now he is the member for the 24th City Council district, which includes Kew Gardens Hills. Last month, at the urging of the Orthodox Jewish community, the community board agreed to sponsor a proposal to rezone two sections of the neighborhood to allow “bigger homes with more bedrooms for more babies,” he said. The measure will affect about 377 homes.
Mr. Lancman is also keen on improving the 1.4-square-mile Flushing Meadows–Corona Park just west of Kew Gardens Hills. The Albert Mauro Playground within the park is being rebuilt, and a project is underway to reduce chronic flooding and make sense of a confusing internal roadway.
What You’ll Find
Typical of New York City neighborhoods, Kew Gardens Hills has no official borders. According to Queens Community Board 8, it is bounded on the north by the Long Island Expressway and Jewel Avenue, on the south by Union Turnpike, on the east by Parsons Avenue and on the west by the Van Wyck Expressway.
Mr. Eichenbaum, the Queens borough historian, said the area was known as south Flushing before developers nudged it semantically, if not geographically, closer to the more affluent Kew Gardens. English echoes can be found in the Tudor-style houses near Main Street dating from the 1920s and ’30s, but the typical Kew Gardens Hills home is plain brick and postwar, built for the swelling population of World War II veterans.
Mr. Erlich, the real estate lawyer, said the housing stock south along Main Street to Jewel Avenue is mainly attached homes and small multifamily housing complexes known as garden apartments, which represent about half of the neighborhood’s residences.
West, toward the Van Wyck Expressway, the garden apartments are frequently co-ops. Below Jewel Avenue, one finds more condominiums, “which are a little bit more snazzy,” Mr. Erlich said. A southwestern section called Charm Circle has many detached houses and is in high demand. Two- and three-family homes that appeal to investors are also found throughout the neighborhood.
The main commercial stretch of Main Street runs from Melbourne Avenue slightly more than a mile south to Union Turnpike. The variety of kosher restaurants includes Chinese (Soysauce Glatt Kosher Chinese, at 68-22 Main Street), Mexican (Carlos & Gabby’s, at 67-11 Main Street) and Italian/Japanese (Benjy’s Kosher Pizza Dairy Restaurant & Sushi Bar, at 72-72 Main Street). Kouchi Supermarket, at 75-01 Parsons Boulevard, serves a growing Afghan community on the neighborhood’s eastern edge.
What You’ll Pay
Shlomo Meirov, the owner of Olam Realty Group in Kew Gardens Hills, said neighborhood home prices are rising with those of New York real estate over all.
An 18-foot-wide attached house with three bedrooms starts at $750,000. “For a lot of young families, even though they’re blessed with low interest rates, it’s a hard down payment,” he said. A two-bedroom coop in a garden apartment complex is about $300,000; a more upscale two-bedroom condo will fetch closer to $500,000.
Moving east to Long Island, where more housing value is found, is not a complete solution, Mr. Meirov added. There, buyers lose convenience and pay higher real estate taxes. In Kew Gardens Hills, annual taxes average $6,000 to $8,000, he said.
According to the real estate website Trulia, the median sales price of homes in Kew Gardens Hills, as of August 2017, was $698,000, representing a year-on-year increase of 2 percent, based on 384 transactions. (The five-year increase was 30 percent.)
The median rent, as of August 2017, according to Trulia, was $2,700 a month. Mr. Meirov said a two-bedroom apartment in a multifamily home rents today for about $2,000 a month, $500 less than a comparable place in Forest Hills.
As of March 4, 105 Kew Gardens Hills listings were featured on the Redfin website, culled from multiple sources. They ranged from a one-bedroom, one-bathroom condominium in a 1950s brick building at 144-60 Gravett Road, listed at $138,888, to a five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom detached Tudor-esque building at 141-36 Union Turnpike, listed at $3.388 million.
A recent afternoon at the Kew Gardens Hills branch of the Queens Library, at 72-33 Vleigh Place, underscored the neighborhood’s diversity. The expanded building, designed by WORKac of New York with glass-and-rippling-concrete walls, a grass roof and apple-green carpeting, opened in September, 10 years after it was commissioned. Visitors with skullcaps, head scarves and ski caps tapped on computers, watched over toddlers in the children’s corner and chatted in a book group about the memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.”
The roughly one-square-mile neighborhood has a variety of public and parochial schools. Among them is P.S. 165, Edith K. Bergtraum, at 70-35 150th Street, which enrolls about 770 students in prekindergarten through fifth grades. On 2016-17 state tests, 58 percent met standards in English versus 40 percent citywide; 61 percent met standards in math versus 42 percent statewide.
P.S. 164, Queens Valley, at 138-01 77th Avenue, enrolls about 700 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. On state tests, 57 percent met standards in English versus 41 percent citywide; 51 percent met standards in math versus 38 percent citywide.
John Bowne High School, at 63-25 Main Street, enrolls about 3,600 students in ninth through 12th grades. Average SAT scores in 2017 were 474 for reading and writing, and 572 for math, compared with 491 and 490 citywide.
Townsend Harris High School at Queens College, at 149-11 Melbourne Avenue, enrolls about 1,100 students from the five boroughs based on high academic performance. Average SAT scores in 2017 were 662 for reading and writing, and 692 for math, compared with 491 and 490 citywide.
The Yeshiva of Central Queens, at 147-37 70th Road, enrolls about 860 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. The annual tuition is $9,590.
The neighborhood is ringed by highways and plied by buses that connect to the Forest Hills–71st Avenue subway and Long Island Rail Road stations or run express to Manhattan. Driving time to Grand Central Terminal via the Long Island Expressway at rush hour ranges from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on traffic.
A 140-acre swamp covered part of Kew Gardens Hills until 1918, when it was drained to rid the area of mosquitoes and make way for suburban developments. Known variously as Peat Bog Swamp, Old Crow Swamp and Gutman Swamp, the wetland disappeared completely only with the construction of Lander College for Men, a branch of Touro College, in 2000, and the Opal, a 388-unit apartment complex, in 2004.Continue reading the main story