North Beach History: Bowery Bay Amusement District to Airport Central

Posted on: September 24th, 2013 at 11:28 am by
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[1907]Bowery Bay – it’s real and nowhere near the Bowery we know and love.

Once again venturing out of the Lower East Side: this time we are heading to North Astoria, Borough of Queens. Just like “de lane,” Bowery Bay also took its name from the Dutch term bouwerij (farm).

William Steinway, the famed piano manufacturer, built beaches and pavilions on the Northern Queens shore in 1886. It was then called the the Gala Amusement Park, built atop swamp and marshland which was known as “Frogtown” in the early 1800s. When was the last time you heard a frog croak in NYC?

With Frogtown paved over, Gala Amusement began its reign as the place to be. More so than Coney Island, even though (despite recent transformations) the latter has certainly outlasted the former. But the park fun concluded in 1929 when the massive beer hall there was shut down, causing the amusement center to go bankrupt. This was prohibition, after all. As a result, the resorts, buildings and parks of North Beach (including the East Coast’s first Ferris Wheel) were destroyed to make way for a private flying field named Glenn H. Curtiss Airport, ancestor to North Beach Airport, and later, the modern-day LaGuardia.

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[Courtesy of NYPL]

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Prime real estate in the mid-20th century? Check … cue Robert Moses. A fine piece of land for a New York City airport.

From the New York Times:

…From 1886 until the 1920’s, Bowery Bay Beach — later renamed North Beach — was a seaside haven for thousands of working-class families from Manhattan, Long Island City and Brooklyn.

Once known as ”the Coney Island of Queens,” the resort was financed by William Steinway, the piano manufacturer, who hoped to provide a wholesome retreat for the workers from his nearby factory, and George Ehret, owner of the Hell Gate Brewery in Yorkville, according to Jeffrey Kroessler, a historian at Long Island University. The shady hillsides and clear water of the bay were augmented by bathhouses, saloons and landscaped picnic groves.

During North Beach’s heyday between 1895 and 1915, electric lights, amusement piers and thrill rides were added, and fireworks displays, vaudeville acts and ragtime music sweetened the atmosphere. Although families and church groups visited to swim or picnic during the day, North Beach at night became a less reputable destination, where single young men and women drank beer, danced and caroused, Mr. Kroessler said.

Attendance at North Beach declined rapidly after Prohibition closed the dance halls and saloons, and the bathing beaches of the bay became too fouled by untreated sewage to make swimming appealing, Mr. Kroessler said. In the late 1920’s, part of Bowery Bay was filled to provide runways for the Glenn Curtiss Airport, and by the late 1930’s North Beach had disappeared beneath the city’s second municipal airport, later renamed for Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia.

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Those familiar with the area may wonder how this once bucolic piece of Queens became the last stop on the way to the infamous Rikers Island Prison, so we go back further than we’ve gone before to the First Crusade.

Several genealogists have found that the Rycken/Ryker/Riker family dates back to 1096.  “Hans von Rycken…a valiant knight, with his cousin, Melchior von Rycken, who lived in Holland, took part in the first crusade to the Holy Land, in 1096, heading 800 crusaders in the army of Walter the Penniless.” Through the centuries the Rikers had a plethora of surname spellings. 600-ish years later, the Ryker attributed to the island is Abraham Rycken Van Lent (Abraham Riker).

From Rikers.org:

Abraham Rycken or de Rycke, as his name is indiscriminately written in our early records, was the progenitor of the present Riker families in New York, New Jersey and other parts of the Union. He is presumed to have emigrated in 1638 as he received in that year an allotment of land from Gov. Kieft for which he afterwards took out a patent, Aug. 8, 1640. In 1642 Riker is found in New Amsterdam, where he continued to live many years upon premises of his own, on the Heeren Gracht. He was probably engaged in trade, for it appears that in 1656 he made a voyage to the Delaware River for the express purpose of purchasing beaver skins, then a leading article of traffic. In 1654 Riker obtained a grant of land at the Poor Bowery (take note), to which he subsequently removed, afterwards adding to his domain the island known as Riker’s Island.

The Riker family had many homes in Queens yet there is only one still standing. You can visit the Lent-Riker-Smith Homestead built by Abraham Riker 1654 on land Riker received from New Amsterdam:

GG 37 PATENT TO ABRAHAM RYKEN
We, Willem Kieft, etc…testify and declare herewith, that in the year 1638 we granted to Abraham Ryken a certain piece of land located upon the Long Island opposite Rinnegaconck, where Gysbert Ryken’s is on one side and the highway running from the kil into the woods east north east and west south west and Hans Hansen on the same highway is on the other; containing along the kil in proper width 500 paces, to which aforedescribed parcel of land is added a third part of the hay marsh lying close behind the land of George Rapaelje and Gysbert Ryken, under express condition and stipulations, etc…

Done in Fort Amsterdam in New Netherland, 8 August 1640.

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Painting by William R. Miller (New-York Historical Society Museum) 

New York City bought Rikers Island in 1884 for $180,000. From then on until the 1930s prisoners and workers alike expanded this island with landfill to make it what is has become today:

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[Today]We attempted a closer look at Bowery Bay and what remains of North Beach, but were turned away. The area is a sewage treatment facility now (since 1939) and we were told that due to “the nature of the establishment as well as its proximity to the [Francis R. Buono Memorial] bridge, access is not permitted.”  No problem. Jail? No, thank you.

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Back to the Lower East Side then! To the 19th century flophouses, vaudeville theatres, opium dens and dives. Poor Bowery? Poor Bowery. That may very well be their one connection besides NY itself.

No timber, no landfill, no stone nor brick left unturned…New York City, my stunning and gritty.

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