Thursday, March 12, 2009

Old World Charm: An Endangered Species

Yes, everybody’s miserable right now, but really, we can’t pout all the time, can we? There’s only so much foreclosure and bank-failure talk one can take. So as unemployment rates barrel toward a South America-like 10 percent, maybe it’s worth looking at one of the very few good things that’s coming out of The Biggest Economic Crisis Since the Great Depression, Unless You Count the One in the ‘70s, Which I’m Pretty Sure Was Worse, but Nobody’s Saying It For Some Reason.

Across the nation, construction projects have stopped cold. In Chicago, international capital of the skyscraper, work on the tallest building in America —starchitect Santiago Calatrava’s Chicago Spire, which promises to be the most stunning edifice ever constructed — has ground to a halt, ironically leaving the project possibly the shortest building in America: a very, very deep hole in the ground. Half-finished subdivisions across Florida and the rest of the Sun Belt have rendered large swaths of entire cities virtual ghost towns. Closer to home, the hulking, inelegant Bank of America Tower, plunked down at the cusp of Bryant Park, remains tantalizingly close to being finished, and yet not quite. This is bad, right?

For the locally focused, maybe not, because construction in Central Queens tends to be of the hideous, neighborhood-destroying variety. I haven’t seen any new controversies about greedy developers tearing down classic townhouses lately—not that there are any classic townhouses left to tear down, but still. And hey, how’s that controversial 21-story Kew Gardens hotel in the Pasta Lovers parking lot that was the starting point for many a childhood birthday dinner for yours truly? Local residents desperately wanted the project stopped, but activism aside, it’s the inhospitability of the current economic climate to risk that’s more likely to kill this and other projects like it.

Sure, NFL legend Roger Staubach backed out of the grand Austin Street shopping arcade that was to replace a couple of the most nondescript buildings in town, but even then, we got a new restaurant out of it that promises to be pretty good. (I won’t comment on the wisdom of opening a new restaurant in this age of diminishing disposable income.) Suddenly all the community watchdog groups and anti-development blogs seem as quaint and dated as a screenplay about the thrill-a-minute lives of venture capitalists and day traders.

The Great Recession may even end up saving an entire neighborhoodlet: Cord Meyer, the most endangered part of Forest Hills for years now, where utterly charming 1930s-60s ranch houses have been crumbling like the Wall of Jericho that probably decorates countless tapestries in the interior of their replacements: yardless McMansions so vulgar they’d make the location scouts for a VH1 reality show blush.

Unfortunately for Cord Meyer, we used to have a pretty great economy, and so the area was already largely gutted. There are still plenty of dormant construction sites dotting the landscape. And though they’re far from pretty, the fact that work never seems to be happening is a stirring reminder that for every old project that isn’t getting finished, 10 new ones aren’t getting started.

So here’s something fun to do while you’re not staring at a Web browser looking at endless job sites: Take a walk through Cord Meyer, quick, before things get better, and appreciate the beauty of old Forest Hills. By the time it all disappears, hopefully you’ll be too busy at your new job to care.

The writer, Steve Tiszenkel is the host of the Website, Queens Central. Log on to to read more about Forest Hills and surrounding neighborhoods.

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