In the early 1950s, when Mrs. Esther Lopata moved to Kew Gardens Hills, there were no places on Main Street to buy esrogim or lulavim. There was no Sukkah Depot or Home Depot. Her brother-in-law had a lumber business and they used wood boards from him to build their sukkah. It took two men and her husband to put it up. In those days, men would cut their s’chach from groves of willows that grew near the spot where Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim is now standing.
She shared that when she first moved to the neighborhood, she lived on 76th Avenue in an attached house. Their sukkah was built on a patio in front. There was this annoying iron railing that stuck out. It was making it difficult to fit the sukkah on the patio. “We didn’t want to move the sukkah out. The railing was in the way!” She said that either she or her husband, Simon Lopata a”h, thought of the idea of cutting a hole in the wall of the sukkah and they enclosed the railing through the hole so they could keep the sukkah on the patio. That year, there was a huge windstorm. Sukkos were collapsing. What happened to her sukkah?
In colonial times, Kew Gardens Hills was the 120-acre Spring Hill Farm. It was owned by Francis Lewis, a merchant from Wales. Lewis was one of the signers of the United States Declaration of Independence.
In 1762, the Spring Hill Estate was owned by Colonel Thomas Willet, High Sheriff of Flushing. He then sold it to Cadwallader Colden, Lieutenant Governor of the Province of New York. Colden’s son David was a loyalist to England during the Revolutionary War, so he forfeited the estate. The property then passed through several owners until the Durkee family acquired it and it became the Cedar Grove Cemetery in 1893. A separate part of the cemetery became a Jewish cemetery, called Mount Hebron Cemetery, which is located today off of Main Street in Kew Gardens Hills.
In the 1750s, William Furman was the owner of the farm he named Willow Glen because of the weeping willows there. Today, Willow Lake, at the southern end of Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, still has the name Willow.
In 1820, Furman sold his land to Timothy Jackson and Jackson expanded the farm to accommodate horses. The location today of the Kew Gardens Interchange or the intersection of Park Drive East and Union Turnpike was his horse boarding stable. This is the near the current location of the Jamaica Yard. The subway yard was a horse racecourse built by Mr. Jackson and was called the Whitepot Race & Track. This area was a part of Willow Glen Farm of Timothy Jackson’s Willow Glen Farm. The farmhouse was located south of Union Turnpike in what is now called Briarwood.
The road called Quarrelsome Lane wound from Jamaica Road to Fresh Meadow Road. That road today is 75th Avenue. I couldn’t find why it’s called Quarrelsome Lane, but I’m very curious.
Kissena Boulevard was called Jamaica Road. It turns into Parsons Boulevard at the intersection of Quarrelsome Lane. Parsons Boulevard is named after Samuel Bowne Parsons, Sr., who moved to Flushing from Manhattan around 1800 and married Mary Bowne, a descendant of prominent local settler John Bowne. The lake on Parsons’s property, which is now Kissena Park, was named “Kissena,” which comes from the Chippewa language meaning “it is cold,” “cold place,” or “cool water.”
In the 19th century, the area of Kew Gardens Hills was called Head of the Fly because it was located at the headwaters of the Flushing Creek or Flushing River. Fly or vly is the Dutch word for swamp. One of the oldest roads in the area was Vleigh Road and today it is called Vleigh Place. It was a road that allowed travelers to circumvent Flushing Meadow Swamp.
The earliest modern homes were built off of Union Turnpike in 1917. In the early 20th century, the area was called Queens Valley and it was mostly farmland. In the 1920s, farmers would bring produce to market riding on Vleigh Road, which ran along the eastern perimeter of the marsh and swamp. The land was eventually sold to golf clubs or country clubs.
In 1936, Queens South got a subway line at Queens Boulevard. Also, Flushing Meadows–Corona Park hosted The New York World’s Fair in 1939.
The original vision for the neighborhood was that it would be a place where beauty would always remain, and undesirable buildings would never be built. It was a tranquil area outside Manhattan like a country town where their predominant sounds would be leaves rustling and frogs croaking.
Early residents were mostly German, Irish, and Italian, who moved from Brooklyn and Manhattan. Kew Gardens was known as a prominent Queens neighborhood, and our neighborhood was hilly, so developers of our neighborhood changed its name from Queens Valley to Kew Gardens Hills. Abraham Wolosoff, who was one of the builders of the neighborhood in the 1930s, stayed in a hotel in the Kew Gardens section of London that he liked, and that is where he got the name Kew Gardens. It’s interesting to note that the name Kew Gardens is after the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew London, England. The plural name is because, in 1772, King George inherited Kew Estate and joined it with the royal estate in Richmond Hill so the two gardens became one.
Three brothers named Leon, Martin, and Abraham B. Wolosoff, built up a building dynasty in the 1930s. The Wolosoff brothers began building in Queens during the Great Depression. Their first venture, called Stafford Lawns Homes, was off of 69th Avenue in Forest Hills.
In 1937, they moved to the other side of the Grand Central Parkway and built high-quality, upscale homes in Kew Gardens Hills and Briarwood. Homeowners had a choice of eight different model homes, priced between $8,500 and $14,000, for the middle- to upper-middle-class family. You can see the Wolosoff homes as you drive down the service road of the Grand Central Parkway and they look as good as they did when first built. The first private house in Kew Gardens Hills was built in 1938 and is 1ocated at 141-35 73rd Avenue.
In 1940, the Main Street Cinema opened. The city took over the area now known as Main Street and completed building Main Street from Kew Gardens Hills to northern Flushing. Main Street was paved, and bus routes were added to it in 1941. The building with the clock tower, called The Queens County Savings Bank, opened on Main Street in 1949, and a local school, P.S. 164, also opened that year.
The first Orthodox Jewish shul, Congregation Toras Emes, was established in 1950 on Parsons Boulevard, by Rabbi Joel Laks. The first congregants included the future rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. The Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills was founded in 1951 with 15 families.
Congregation Machzikei Hadas was formed by Rabbi Yosef Gelernter on 73rd Avenue and is the home to the first mikvah in Kew Gardens Hills.
In 1954, there were still large areas of open land in Kew Gardens Hills. Some of the stores that were around at that time include: Whelan Drug Store at 71-55 Kissena Boulevard and Colony Card Shop on Kissena Boulevard.
At Vleigh Place and Main Street, the City of New York constructed a small park in 1957. In March 1960, the City Council named it Freedom Square to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Theodor Herzl.
Six streets in the neighborhood are co-named by the Jewish community of Kew Gardens Hills. They include Haym Salomon Square (the triangle across from the Queens Library), Rabbi Kirshblum Triangle, Freedom Square, Rabbi Avraham Schechter Way (between 147th and 150th Street along 72nd Drive), Rabbi Joel Laks Way (near 78th and Parsons Boulevard), Abe Wolfson triangle (along Kissena Boulevard, near 75th Avenue), and, recently, the Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld Way (near the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills).
This writer had the honor to interview a long-time resident of Kew Gardens Hills, Mrs. Esther Lopata, who has lived in Kew Gardens Hills since the early 1950s.
She shared that she and her late husband Dr. Simon Lopata a”h first lived on 76th Avenue in 1950. They then moved to her current location on 70th Avenue in 1951. She shared how there were farms all around. The Yeshiva of Central Queens was a vacant lot. Across the street there were greenhouses and no houses. The owner of the greenhouses had a huge friendly dog that was really big, and it was named Tiny. She recalls one time that she was sitting in her car in her driveway, and when she looked up, there was Tiny looking her right in the eye. He was that tall.
She fondly recalls her neighbors, Shirley Blatt a”h and Leon Blatt a”h, and how kind all the neighbors were. “We were all there for each other,” she shared. One neighbor came over to her house and said, “I heard you have a new baby. I came to help.” Mrs. Lopata said, “That’s just how it was,” and she added, “I have wonderful neighbors now.” She shared how some neighbors do the weekly shopping for her now.
She said that Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld zt”l was still studying for s’michah and he was the acting volunteer rabbi for their shul, which met in the basement of Nat and Mary Saperstein. She said that there were 22 families that davened there. Rabbi Schonfeld at that time was working two or three jobs like everyone else, her husband included. The Sapersteins hosted a kiddush every Shabbos with herring.
The Young Israel moved to its current location, but she recalls davening in a white house on the property before it became a building. She noted that Forest Hills was a more developed Jewish community then. She said that in those days she had to drive to East New York to go to the mikvah.
She also recalled going to chamber concerts in the morning in the music building at Queens College. Back then, the college was much smaller.
She shared how air conditioning in those early days was a rarity. They had one air conditioner in the bedroom. Wealthy families had two air conditioners. When it was super-hot, she shared, “we used to set up a card table in the bedroom and eat there.”
She said they did their shopping in Borough Park. People had stores in their homes where they sold dresses or shoes, etc. She recalled there was a beauty parlor/barbershop on Main Street at that time. She said there was a kosher grocery store and bakery in Forest Hills. There were no kosher supermarkets or kosher restaurants on Main Street like we have today. Mr. Sam Brach a”h, didn’t open his kosher grocery market on Main Street until 1959.
That year, when all the sukkahs blew down, the Lopata’s sukkah remained standing. The iron rail that seemed so annoying was really hashgachah pratis because that kept their sukkah upright.
Baruch Hashem, it was a privilege to learn about and to hear about the history of our neighborhood and the Jewish community from Mrs. Lopata. Hashem should continue to bless our community, and He should bless Mrs. Lopata with good health and blessings to 120.
By Susie Garber