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Book Review of The Neighborhoods of Queens and Guide to New York City Landmarks, Fourth Edition

  Published in edited form (PDF) in The Architect's Newspaper  
  June 3, 2009  


  The Neighborhoods of Queens
Claudia Gryvatz Copquin
Yale University Press, 2008
  Guide to New York City Landmarks
New York Landmarks Preservation Commission
Wiley, 2008


In the Citizens Committee for New York City’s annual quality of life survey, residents of Queens were found to be the most satisfied with their neighborhoods. The survey's low sampling (4,400 residents across the five boroughs) makes the results far from conclusive, but an emphasis on neighborhoods as the defining area for community belonging and social interaction is an important one that, while fairly obvious, merits mention and attention.

The Citizens Committee extends this focus on neighborhoods to its series of five planned books, edited by historian Kenneth T. Jackson, presenting every neighborhood in the city's boroughs. The second installment, following 1993's book on Brooklyn, is last year's The Neighborhoods of Queens by Long Island City resident Claudia Gryvatz Copquin. All 99 neighborhoods in the “most diverse county in the country” are profiled in maps, facts, photographs, and text, broken up by “photo spreads” that present places and spaces that span neighborhood boundaries.

Being an Astoria resident, I immediately scanned the section on the Queens neighborhood I know best. In seven pages, the text touches upon many of the area's well-known places and defining characteristics (Steinway's factory town, Kaufman Astoria Studios, the large Greek population) and extols the virtues of the place today. Given its length and breadth, it is an accurate yet incomplete portrait of the neighborhood and its residents, missing some notable buildings, spaces and historical events. It stands to reason that the same criticism applies to the other neighborhoods. Granted, the chapters do successfully convey what makes each neighborhood special, but the portraits are lacking, bogged down in an erratic mix of history and boosterism.

The recognition of Queens neighborhoods, incidentally, is one of the notable changes in the fourth edition of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission's (LPC) Guide to New York City Landmarks. Where its previous incarnation omitted the neighborhoods from the table of contents and the organization of the borough's chapter, five years later the new edition treats Queens as it should, just like the rest of the city. Graphically this is a small change, less apparent than the more streamlined three-color graphic design and sans serif font, but it is these and other changes to this frequently updated guide that make it worthwhile or skippable, like an unnecessary software upgrade.

Since its inception in 1965, LPC has designated close to 1,200 individual landmarks and 90 historic districts, including almost 100 individual buildings or interiors and 12 new districts landmarked since the last edition. Numerous “notable structures” (lacking landmark status) within the district boundaries have also been added to the book, a component that extends the reach of the guide beyond the Commission's purpose yet is firmly rooted in its appreciation of historical buildings. All tolled, the graphic and content changes equate to roughly thirty extra pages, hardly a substantial expansion over the third edition.

The basic format of the guide is consistent with its third edition. Individual landmarks, districts and notable structures are keyed to maps structured around neighborhoods, and a number of “of special interest” sidebars interspersed throughout the guide discuss landmarks exhibiting common threads. As would be expected, the descriptions are informative, if dry, with an emphasis on architectural style and the creation and evolution of the landmarks.

Guides to New York City are a cottage industry of sorts, and these two books offer unique ways of looking at the city. LPC's focus on the preservation of architecturally and historically significant structures and spaces neatly carves out a niche among the dearth of books on the subject, just as Copquin's look at the people and places that define her borough fills a void in the literature usually infatuated with Manhattan. These books can learn from each other and other NYC guidebooks: LPC's book lacks the wit of AIA's guide (its fifth revision is due next year) and the sense of place garnered through the Citizens Committee's efforts; the last's remaining volumes should consider the geographical ordering and mapping of both LPC and AIA, to acknowledge the importance of physical adjacencies beyond neighborhood boundaries. Just as individual landmarks co-exist with other buildings on blocks and in neighborhoods, the latter comprise the continuous urban fabric that is New York City.


:: Text John Hill

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