Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ridgewood North Historic District Approved

By Conor Greene

After extensive lobbying by community members and elected officials, the City Council has overwhelmingly approved the Ridgewood North Historic District.

The vote earlier this month brings citywide recognition to one of the neighborhood’s most distinctive aspects: blocks of multi-family homes built starting in 1908. Known as Mathews Flats because they were built by the G.X Mathews Company, the homes provided affordable housing for working class residents.

The Ridgewood North Historic District (RNHD) includes 96 buildings on former farmland along Gates, Fairview, Grandview and Forest avenues and Woodbine and Palmetto streets. The three-story buildings were constructed in long rows of repeated designs with buff-and-amber-colored brick facades and each included six separate residential apartments featuring a full bathroom.

The homes marked a departure from the overcrowded living conditions many immigrants and working-class residents were subjected to after the turn of the century. Central shafts provided ample light and fresh air, and the design was thought to be such an improvement over prior forms of affordable housing that they were exhibited at the Panama-Pacific Fair in 1915. The company, founded by German immigrants, ultimately built more 300 flats in Ridgewood and hundreds of other buildings throughout Queens.

News of City Council’s Nov. 30 approval of the district, during which 48 members voted in favor with one abstention, was welcomed by activists including Paul Kerzner, a lifelong Ridgewood resident who is hoping the city will ultimately landmark the 2,982 neighborhood buildings added to the state and federal historic registers in the 1980s. Next up is the Ridgewood South Historic District, which is currently awaiting approval from the city Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“This is just another chapter,” said Kerzner, adding that the effort is long from complete. “Some people have gotten the impression that this has taken care of all 2,983 buildings in the district… This is the second one they have approved, and the third is in the hopper. I’m very happy to see that we’re making progress.”

Kerzner noted it is important to recognize the neighborhood’s history so that it can be appreciated by future generations. “Ridgewood has always been a melting pot of new immigrants,” he said, making it fitting that its history of providing affordable housing is being recognized. New immigrants are often concerned with finding shelter and work, meaning many times it is “the next generation starts to appreciate the significance of getting historic designation” as they become more invested in the neighborhood.

Vincent Arcuri, chairman of Community Board 5, called the designation “a long time coming and well deserved.” He said that the borough has been “ignored for many years” in terms of preserving historic areas and structures, and as a result Queens has “lost too many of these” notable buildings. “I think it is good for the community’s pride, it’s good for property values, and it’s good for the young people to understand that we recognize our history,” he said. “If Paul Kerzner completes everything he started 15 years ago, we could have the largest historic district in the city.”

The next goal, said Arcuri, is to secure funding and approval for street signs to provide “real visual recognition” similar to the brown and white street signs in Greenwich Village. Arcuri is also looking forward planned to the Wyckoff Avenue reconstruction project, which will help create an inviting entrance way into the historic district.

In a statement, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who represents that portion of Ridgewood, called the approval “a long-awaited victory for many people in Queens.” Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairman Robert Tierney said the buildings are “innovative in plan, striking in style, and, remarkably, have remained unchanged since their completion nearly 100 years ago.”

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