Years ago, when I lived in Inwood, I walked to the public pier at Dyckman Street on the Hudson River to see fireworks on the Fourth of July. The sightings were disappointing. Through clouds in the distance I could see the faint glow of a few shows over New Jersey and could see none of the official Macy’s fireworks happening farther downtown.
I returned to my apartment disappointed but was soon treated to shows of illegal fireworks that more than compensated. The barrage of ordnance that filled the northern Manhattan sky was a welcome sight that took me back to my childhood in Yonkers. I would emerge from our apartment in Yonkers on July 5th to a scene that resembled a war zone. The curbs and corners were filled with the spent paper from reams of firecrackers, and one time I saw a metal garbage can that had been exploded and overturned, looking like a giant metallic banana peel.
When I first returned to the city to live as an adult, I lived in Ozone Park, once the home to professional-grade illegal fireworks shows and street festivals paid for by the Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti. Gotti had been in prison several years at that point, and the authorities worked hard to prevent the return of a large-scale illegal fireworks display. Police were all over 101st Ave. and the surrounding streets, but it made little difference. Managing to get on the roof of my building, I could see the official fireworks far away in Manhattan, but the cat-and-mouse game of cops and illicit fireworks was more entertaining.
Illegal fireworks have been a New York City staple for decades. When I was in fifth grade in the New York suburbs, I went to a neighbor’s yard where a friend’s father let me light sparklers off some candles set on the ground. I felt like the greatest outlaw on Earth. Kids waved around sparklers while adults set off bottle rockets and M-80s. When we heard police sirens in the distance, adults blew the candles out and we ran to the backyard until the danger had passed.
More recently, we have enjoyed the sights of fireworks over Whitestone and College Point. Early morning jogs through Flushing Memorial Field has found launch sites of the previous evenings fireworks displays, the tubes still smelling of gunpowder in the cool dawn, like a mortar position of a recently passed battle.
The allure of illicit explosives dates to the birth of the American nation. The first battles of the American Revolution were fought over the British Army’s attempt to seize illegal weapons.
New York, which was under the yoke of British rule for the bulk of the Revolution, was no less fervent in its commitment to the cause. One of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought in Brooklyn; the Battle of Long Island almost ended the Revolution—Washington barely escaped to regroup. The first woman known to take up arms for the United States did so in Manhattan at the Battle of Fort Washington; Americans lost that battle too and Fort Tryon park still bears the name of the British governor of New York at the time.
Our founding fathers would have been hanged as traitors to the crown had we not won. No matter our heritage, Americans are proudly descended from outlaws and outcasts. People setting off fireworks today are not would-be revolutionaries, but they are tapping into the same antiauthoritarian sentiment that is alive in spades in America today.
The city has seen an increase in setting off illegal fireworks. We hear them in every neighborhood and in some cases too late (true fireworks enthusiasts know to stop between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m., July Fourth excepted). There is a need now for people to celebrate and sending exploding stars into the night sky is best done while remaining safely distant from fellow citizens. Many bars and restaurants remain closed, large parts of the city are effectively locked down by massive protests. Fireworks are a needed respite, a needed release of our energies to celebrate something, whether that be the birth pangs of a better America or a fiery exegesis of an abiding patriotism.
Illegal fireworks are a proud New York tradition, a proud American tradition. Let it never die.
Growing up in Yonkers, New York, which borders the Bronx, the fourth of July was always a time for fireworks and fun. I would stay up as late as I could watching people light up firecrackers, Roman candles, bottle rockets, and other fare. I’d jump at the fearsome boom of M-80s. On the fifth of July I’d go outside to ride my bike and step into what looked to me like a war zone. Paper from expended fire crackers lined the gutters, leftover powder from unexploded ordnance glinted in the sun. One time I saw a metal garbage can that had been split in half and turned upside down by a blast of something, looking like a sad metallic banana peel.
When I first moved to New York City as an adult, I lived on 101st Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. A few blocks down the street was famed Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti’s old local headquarters, the Bergin Hunt & Fish Club. Gotti had been in prison for several years by that point, and the Mafia was a shadow of what it once was, but the Teflon Don had thrown big parties in Ozone Park every Independence Day and his presence was still looming large enough to draw a large police presence. I could not look out the window of my small studio on July 4th of that year without seeing the NYPD.
When my brother was visiting the next year, we managed to get onto the roof of the building I lived in. While we could see the fireworks off in the distance happening over the East River, it was much more fun to see the illicit explosions spreading it spider light over the skies of Ozone Park. The ensuing cat-and-mouse game of the firework lighters and the police added to the intrigue.
Years later, when I lived in Inwood in Northern Manhattan, I walked down to where Dyckman Street met the Hudson River, hoping to see fireworks of some capacity over the water. I was too far away from the official celebrations to get a good view of anything and I went home. But the volume of illegal fireworks being launched in Inwood was enormous, and I got a better show from my living room window than I could have had anywhere else.
I have been back in Queens for almost seven years now, this time in Northern Queens on the Flushing-Whitestone border.
Our co-op apartment building houses two addresses that do not connect except in the basement and on the roof. The roof is normally not accessible, but one of the buildings is without its elevator, so residents can take the elevator to the top floor of our side and cross over the roof.
On the fourth of July the skies over New York City were lit with legal and illegal fireworks alike. With one girls falling asleep early, my wife and I took turns bringing our other daughters up to see what there was to see. We knew there was a lot going on in our neighborhood as the evenings leading up to the fourth had at least one or two substantial barrages of fireworks audible and in close range.
From all sides of the roof we saw fireworks in the distance. A string of lights on the roof added to the festive air. The official Macy’s show over the East River started up at 9 p.m., and other legal displays could be seen over some of the country clubs of Douglaston and other well-to-do neighborhoods. But the most compelling sights were the ones going on right over the tidy homes of Whitestone.
The fireworks would burst into a glowing flower of streaking fire and fade almost as quickly. “Where go?” asked my youngest daughter, pointing to where the colorful display had just been. Another family from the other side if the building was on the roof as well. “Happy Birthday America!” one little boy called out as the colorful bombs burst in air.
The Saturday after July 4th, our family visited friends for a celebratory party. There my older girls got to experience sparklers for the first time. They enjoyed holding the fizzing light, aware it could burn them but marveling at how pretty it was. It was what the older people and the big kids were doing, and they were glad to be involved in the tradition. I didn’t get to hold sparklers until I was in fifth or sixth grade, and my parents would not have allowed me to partake if I had asked them. I was at a neighbor’s house and the grown-ups were lighting off the bigger stuff, using a candle on the ground to help light things. When police sirens could be heard in the distance, someone would blow the candle out and we’d retreat to the dark shadows of trees near the house until the danger of being caught had passed.
Of course there are dangers to fireworks, and no shortage of stupid people who set them off dangerously and without regard to safety or consideration for others. But we can’t let stupid people ruin our good time. Just as we shouldn’t stop loving our country because stupidity is on the ascent in our leadership and public discourse, we shouldn’t stop loving the celebration because morons are in the mix. The idiots will be there until common sense or well-placed fireworks weed them out.
Colonists won their freedom with blatant opposition to oppressive laws and plenty of gunpowder. It’s that heritage of the outlaw patriot we celebrate with fireworks at this time of year. It’s a tip of the hat to our revolutionary history. May it never die.
Because New York City is constantly being remade and revised, pieces of the city’s past can often linger around and become subsumed into the present, sometimes barely noticeable. These totems of city history are treasures often right in front of our faces.
Such is the case with the abandoned track of the Long Island Railroad’s Rockaway Line, which has been a tempting forbidden zone to Queens residents since the early 1960s when this part of the LIRR stopped operating.
Years ago, when I lived on 101st Avenue only a few blocks from the abandoned Ozone Park station, I would walk by the abandoned tracks, which are elevated for much of its stretch through Queens. The city rents out the space beneath the tracks to some businesses along the way. And one auto parts business near Rockaway Boulevard and Liberty Avenue welded a large spider sculpture together from used auto parts and suspended this from one of the trestles over the track. It has since fallen down. While I was living in Ozone Park, a motorcycle club rented out one of these spaces beneath the tracks, and would have parties in their clubhouse there.
The success of the High Line in Manhattan has encouraged communities in Queens to push to make a three and a half mile stretch of this abandoned LIRR line into a similar park. The QueensWay is a plan to turn the abandoned line into a “family-friendly linear park and cultural greenway.” Others would like to revive the tracks so they can be used for public transportation again. This plan would meet a lot of resistance from people who now live near the existing track, and face an uphill battle for funding. The prospect of a 20-minute commute to midtown is enticing and New York’s transportation system is in such a shambles that any stretch of track should be welcomed with open arms. Maybe some long-term compromise can be reached, whereas much of the railroad is revived and used for transportation again but some segments are made into a park.
But I have long wanted to walk along some of this abandoned track and this weekend I got my wish in Forest Park. Not far from Woodhaven Boulevard, there is a paved road that looks like a regular street but is closed off to regular traffic. This road traverses an overpass that runs over a segment of abandoned track. With a two-year-old girl in a carrying pack on my back, I walked down a steep drainage gutter that runs along the overpass.
There were some N.Y.U. students there filming what they described as an experimental film, and they looked more nervous about filming on off-limits abandoned property without a permit than about the critical success of their film. They had camera equipment and enough food and beverages there to be a proper film crew. I discreetly made my way around them and started walking on some of the abandoned track.
The tracks are overgrown and the rails are rusted. Trees both grow out of and in some cases lay across the tracks. There is a lot of graffiti on the concrete surrounding the tracks and even some on the trees. Rusted wire towers stood sentry along the line; some of them have topped over. The lush greenery is also dotted with signs of the tracks being a party place. There are empty beer cans, and sadly, traces of a poorly-tended campfire.
A second overpass is more remote to pedestrians and has more elaborate graffiti. A collection of discarded spray paint can tops sit together among the leaves and other detritus.
It feels like stepping into part of history, even poorly preserved history from 50 years ago feels significant. It is a feeling of pleasant quiet and secret entre among the bustle and grind of our five boroughs.
Someday the Rockaway Line will be busy again, either with park-goers, tourists, or even trains. Take some time to explore it before this piece of overgrown history goes away.
Taking a road trip sometimes happens on a whim on a random weekend day, not because I’m suddenly inspired with the desire to know the American road, but because our toddlers have fallen asleep in their car seats and the wife and I want them to nap for a while. So began our latest sojourn on the great American road, which kept us mostly around our borough of Queens, but that’s OK because as you might have surmised, Queens is secretly New York City’s greatest borough.
We left the Queens Botanical Garden in our neighborhood of Flushing and our twin girls were asleep before we reached the nearby highway. We headed to the Rockaways because it was the anniversary of the Easter Uprising in Ireland and the Rockaways have been a home to hardscrabble Irish for a long time, including one Queens native who wound up fighting in the Easter Uprising of 1916.
Our navigation system took us into Nassau County and we passed by Valley Stream State Park before getting off of the highway and driving through the villages of East Rockaway, Malvern, and Lawrence.
We didn’t end up in the Irish part of the Rockaways, and the housing projects that tower over the bungalow houses are not filled with Irish immigrants. We decided to start our journey home going through Broad Channel and my old neighborhood of Ozone Park.
We took Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge and cruised over Jamaica Bay. On one side of the bridge the skyline of Manhattan was prominent through the haze of sun and clouds. On our right and north was JFK Airport. Broad Channel is a small community that sits on the waterfront of Jamaica Bay. It’s a rare example of small town life within the five boroughs of New York City.
Cross Bay Boulevard brought us farther north, past the Jamaica Wildlife Refuge on both sides of the road and into Howard Beach and Ozone Park.
When I first came back to New York City, I worked at JFK Airport and lived in Ozone Park. I was very happy to learn that Jack Kerouac lived in Ozone Park for 12 years. He’s celebrated a lot in Massachusetts where he is originally from and buried, and in Manhattan where he would give readings and where he wrote On the Road. But Kerouac wrote his first novel, The Town and the City, while living in Ozone Park.
There is a historic marker outside the house where Kerouac once lived. When I lived nearby, it was good to go to Glen Patrick’s Pub and gulp down drinks, hoping some literary magic might have survived and would rub off on me. That kind of sentimentality is crap, really, but it was good at the time to know that the inheritors of America’s great literary traditions came from working-class enclaves like Ozone Park and Howard Beach.
It was good to see reinforced the knowledge that real literary grit and work takes place not in the posh hipster enclaves and trendy bars or bookstores of Manhattan or (nowadays) Brooklyn. Kerouac didn’t haul his typewriter to a coffee shop so people could gawk at him write. He got his writing done in a cramped apartment a few feet away from Cross Bay Boulevard.
We took our girls into the Cross Bay Diner and had a late lunch while watching boats and seagulls come by on Hewett Creek. Fishing boats, a police boat, and even a large fishing boat called The Capt. Mike, came by and served as a great distraction for the kids.
Howard Beach and Ozone Park have changed quite a bit since Kerouac lived there, and they’ve changed a lot since I moved away in the summer of 2001, but their working-class character survive and they remain great neighborhoods to live in. They will continue to inspire and bring more great artists to the world.
The Borough of Queens is taking applications for its poet laureate, and I’m going to throw my sweaty hat into the ring. I think my chances of being accepted are low, but fuck it. I’m as good as anyone else and I like this borough very much.
Queens was where I lived when I moved back to New York. I had been away from the Northeast for several years and hadn’t lived in the five boroughs since I was an infant in the Bronx. I grew up mostly in Yonkers and while I came to the city frequently growing up, I am by and large a child of New York’s suburbs.
In college I decided I wanted to be a great American writer in the same way that thousands of other English majors do. I was determined to get myself back to New York City as if that would somehow magically bestow some great inspiration power and let me live a charmed literary life.
I got a job at JFK airport that helped me move back here and I went looking for apartments that were a reasonable commuting distance to JFK. I found a small studio in Ozone Park at $500 per month (it soon went up to $525). It was on 101st Avenue and John Gotti’s old Bergin Hunt & Fish Club was still there and only a few blocks away. That was a selling point that the realtor mentioned. “People know not to mess around in this neighborhood,” he said. Gotti had been locked up for several years by then but the neighborhood still had some old wise guys hanging around.
I enjoyed living in Ozone Park a lot. I would walk around the neighborhood as much as I could and enjoyed how quickly neighborhoods could transition from one to another. Not far from where John Gotti plotted his takeover of the Gambino Crime Family a store sold cricket supplies to the Indian and West Indian immigrants who were moving into Richmond Hill. I was not too far from Forest Park and I could also walk to the small apartment where Jack Kerouac wrote his first novel.
While immediate literary success proved elusive, I managed to publish my first poetry collection while I was living in Ozone Park. ‘Five Borough Blues’ was a small broadsheet of poems published by New Jersey-based Lucid Moon Poetry (RIP Ralph Haselmann Jr.).
Years later, after living in Inwood for a decade, I moved in with the woman who is now my wife and that brought me to Flushing. I got to learn Northern Queens whereas Ozone Park is in Southern Queens.
The greatest borough continues to impress me. I do miss Inwood a good bit, I can’t lie. But Queens has many more great neighborhoods that are still real neighborhoods and not overpriced tourist zones.
Queens has both the greatest number of interesting neighborhoods, real residential neighborhoods with character, as well as cultural institutions and a variety of environments that the other boroughs don’t have. Do you have the beachfront and harbor areas like Broad Channel and the Rockaways in Manhattan? No. Can you find 24-hour Korean barbeque in Staten Island? Good luck.
And without fail, Queens continues to inspire me to write poetry. The entire city does, to be sure, but Queens is my home and it’s where I believe you find the most New York part of New York. It has the widest array of cultural offerings and the largest sampling of interesting people anywhere in the world. It stands between the city and its suburbs. It has all manner of terrain. It even has its own zoo.
I will gladly accept the (unpaid) responsibilities of the Queens Poet Laureate. I will let no excellent verse about this borough go unwritten. Applications are due April 24th (April is national poetry month).
But whether or not I am poet laureate of Queens, I will continue to let the city inspire to create good written works. It deserves no less.
News from Long Island has come in that John A. Gotti son of the more famous Mafia boss and a one-time Mafia boss himself, was stabbed on Long Island. He survived the attack.
Gotti Jr. told the police he was stabbed while breaking up a fight between two strangers. Police find that about as believable as him being stabbed by a unicorn.
When I first moved back to New York, I worked at JFK airport and found a place in Ozone Park, on 101st Avenue near Woodhaven Boulevard. A few short blocks away was the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club, which had served as John Gotti’s Queens headquarters before he became head of the Gambino Crime Family.
The fact that we were close to a place of Mafia lore was a selling point.
“You’ve heard of John Gotti?” the real estate agent asked.
“Yes,” I said. Who hadn’t?
“Well his club is right down the street. People know not to mess around here.”
Gotti had been in prison for years by then, but there were still plenty of wise-guy types around. There were still old men playing cards in the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club when I would walk by. It is long gone now.
Gotti’s headquarters for the time he was the big boss was in Little Italy, the Ravenite Social Club, is now a shoe store. Only the tiled floor remains. John Gotti died in prison, ravaged by cancer, a shadow of the feared “Teflon Don” he was in the 1980s.
For better or worse, New York loves its Mafia heritage. There are tours in Little Italy featuring famous assassination sites. I love it too, no doubt. I was glad to walk by the Bergin Hunt & Fish club and gladly bragged to friends that I was in John Gotti’s neighborhood.
But really, when you get right down to it, the Mafia is bullshit.
We like to imagine the Mafia through the lens of “The Godfather,” the quintessential mob film that popularized the genre and made mobsters look good. It’s a great film. Anyone who doesn’t love “The Godfather” deserves to sleep with the fishes. But “The Godfather” is an accurate portrayal of Mafia life as much as “Star Wars” is an accurate portrayal of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
The real Mafia is not a collection of earnest Vito Corleones living the American dream, it’s a gaggle of the worst grease ball Goombahs you can imagine but with guns and money. The real Mafia isn’t keeping your neighborhood safe, it’s stealing your car and shaking you down for protection money.
A few years ago I read the book Underboss by Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, who was John Gotti’s lieutenant who eventually turned on him and testified against him. Gravano’s memoir, like anything else told by a career criminal, can’t be taken at face value, but it describes a life not of dapper dons but of sleazy thieves and thugs, always looking for new ways to make money, usually by stealing from others in some way. A piece of shit thief in a tailored silk suit is still a piece of shit thief.