What Doesn’t Change

I was unsure about what topic to write about for today’s post, but a client solved the problem by asking a question that required some research. The example below is not the question I was asked, but it shows the kind of research I did for that question. This is a form of historical research and not engineering per se, but it was necessary to be able to answer an engineering question. So, using an inclusive definition of engineering, it was part of my job as an engineer.

For an example, I’m going to use my old stomping grounds in Flushing. From when I was 4 until I was 17, we lived just to the left of where the Happy Arts Science Center now is on the map above. (It definitely was not there in 1982.) The heart of downtown Flushing is where Main Street intersects the two stations: the 7 train (with the line in purple) terminal and the Long Island Railroad station (with the line in blue.) As I’ve mentioned before, Flushing was still a suburban town when it got absorbed into New York in 1898, and it didn’t immediately become an urban neighborhood, although it made up for lost time after 1950 or so. A fire insurance map from the first decade of the twentieth century looks very different. (I can’t even pin the map date down exactly: the title page says 1904, but there appear to be later additions.)

Some of the changes are easy: Amity Street was later renamed Roosevelt Avenue and Broadway was joined up with streets from some of the other towns in Queens to become Northern Boulevard. Bradford Avenue and Madison Avenue are now both 41st Road, part of the horribly misguided effort to give Queens a grid of numbered avenues and streets that has left it with one of the most confusing street layouts I know. (Because the grid was cobbled together from streets in separate towns, things don’t line up. In some places numbers are skipped, so west of LaGuardia airport you go from 71st Street to 49th Street in the space of one block. In other places extra streets were required to fill in gaps, so further south on Main Street you have, in a row, 72nd Avenue, 72nd Road, and 72nd Drive.) Jaggar Avenue was renamed to be a southern extension of Main Street and Jamaica Avenue became Kissena Boulevard. Here’s a 1924 aerial photograph:

Downtown Flushing is on the upper right. The weird geometry in the middle is the huge ash dump south of Flushing Bay that became the site of Flushing Meadows Park after it was cleaned up for the worlds fair fifteen years after this. Here’s a close-up on downtown:

The small scale of the buildings is clear. You can see the Long Island Railroad just above the Y intersection of Main and Kissena. An important pieces of modern-day downtown are missing: there’s no bridge over the Flushing Creek (on the left) for Roosevelt Avenue. Since the 7 train is elevated for most of its length in Queens, and enters Flushing as an elevated line over Roosevelt before diving underground for the Flushing station, that means the subway hadn’t made it here yet. Sure enough, a look at Wikipedia says the extension from the 111th Street station (off to the left of the ash dump) to Flushing opened in 1928.

Unless you’re talking about a famous building, buildings are poor way-finding landmarks. Trying to figure out where I am on the photo by using buildings would be close to impossible. Street layouts can change and railroad lines can move, but when that happens in a built up area, there tend to be remnants of the old alignment. There’s an Old Broadway in upper Manhattan and an Old Fulton Street in Brooklyn because of realignments. In this case, the Y intersection and the LIRR are the landmarks that make it possible to figure out what I’m seeing. If I need landmarks like that in a neighborhood that I’ve known like the back of my hand since I was a child, I need them everywhere when engaging in historical research.

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