By Steve Tiszenkel
It’s old news by now, but after years of panic by old-school locals, the charming Cord Meyer section of Forest Hills may have caught a major break. The story is familiar to any regular reader of Queens media. For decades Cord Meyer, a sizable chunk of the neighborhood starting north of Queens Boulevard and chopped off unceremoniously by the Grand Central Parkway, has been a bastion of middle-class serenity in a part of the borough often dominated by six-story brick apartment blocks, attached houses on tiny concrete lots and exhaust-choked thoroughfares.
It doesn’t look like Queens, and yet it looks exactly like Queens, a testament to the impressive variety of urban and suburban landscapes easily encountered in New York’s most diverse borough. Cord Meyer doesn’t look poor, but it doesn’t look rich, either. In the shadow of posh Forest Hills Gardens, which has the air of an exclusive Westchester or Connecticut town, it feels a little like a Nassau County suburb—one of the old inner-ring ones, maybe founded by Brooklyn émigrés in 1921 and home to generations of kids who left to become commodities traders and punk rockers. That’s sort of what Cord Meyer is, only with the subway at its feet and the feverish immigrant energy of a place like Corona just a couple of miles down the road.
When the mid-century woodframe houses — gorgeous in their simplicity and situated at the back of lawns that would make Daniel Stern as an adult Kevin Arnold wax nostalgic—started to come down, it was understandable that the people who had grown up in Cord Meyer panicked. The culprits were mostly Bukharians, immigrant Jews from Uzbekistan who had targeted Forest Hills and adjoining Rego Park as their refuge in a country, a state, a city, a borough, a neighborhood where countless of their coreligionists had come before. When they got there, like tens of millions of starry-eyed immigrants before them, they found that maybe the children and grandchildren of their forerunners weren’t quite as hospitable as they’d hoped. The sticking point was a cultural propensity that perhaps they hadn’t even realized they had back in their impoverished post-Soviet homeland: the desire to build huge, gaudy houses on modest lots, all gleaming metal gates and vulgar stonework, those Wonder Years lawns paved over in favor of gargantuan brick-and-cement driveways.
The Bukharians had the momentum, but the old-timers still had the power. Somehow, some way, they had to stop the teardowns. Some made noise of a historic district, but let’s be honest—it was a stretch to call Cord Meyer “historic,” no matter how many people made it a repository for their hopes and dreams. Finally the politicians came up with an idea so simple, it must have taken years to conjure up: They rezoned the area to favor homes smaller in footprint and height, with an actual yard, grass and all, required by law. It was a big, bold step that no Cord Meyer lifer could fail to admire. But was it too late?
Conventional wisdom said yes — the area was too far gone, the towering McMansions, now grandfathered into a city-mandated low-key neighborhood, forever scarring what was once a valuable slice of Americana, Queens-style. “Cord Meyer Area is a Lost Cause,” blared one representative subject line on my Queens Central forum. And when those zoning regulations got passed, I found it hard to get excited. Too little, too late, I thought — the city might as well have left the neighborhood to the bulldozers and paint-by-numbers architects, with their budgets so large and ideas so small.
But I took a long walk around Cord Meyer recently. You know what? It’s still beautiful. It’s still charming. And maybe, just maybe, now that their era is past, the big, ugly palaces add a layer to the neighborhood that make it more interesting and unique. Now that the McMansions are no longer Cord Meyer’s future, they’ve become more a part of its past and present. They remind us of the neighborhood’s history and the heated battles they inspired. What I found on my walk was that I love the area as much as ever—and if I don’t love the new construction, at least I don’t hate it anymore. Somehow, it fits.
Cord Meyer, the old Cord Meyer, was never going to be a historic district. Neither was the Cord Meyer of the newcomers’ dreams, the Cord Meyer that never was. But what we accidentally got, this fascinating blend of old and new, the awkward collision of two generations aspiring to find their American dream? One day, we might see that as history.
The writer is the host of the Website Queens Central. Log on to queenscentral.com to read more about Forest Hills and Central Queens.