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.
This past weekend the wife and I attended a co-ed baby shower for my friend and spiritual advisor Rabbi Jay Levitz and his wife Sarah. We were in Oceanside, Long Island, New York, a short drive outside the city for us, as we live in Eastern Queens. As we talked with Jay, the conversation turned to what constitutes the “bridge and tunnel crowd.”
We all agreed that the term was more of a cultural construct than a geographic one, though we acknowledge that the two go hand in hand in many ways. Where I live now in Queens is not a trendy area at all and is too far from any of the celebrated night life to become popular among the moneyed classes or the upwardly mobile youth any time soon. That is actually a blessing. We happen to have decent access to public transportation, though getting into Manhattan always involves at least one bus and one train. My commute to work is at least one bus and two subways, and it is terrible, subject at all times to the fickle whims of the increasingly incompetent MTA.
The “bridge and tunnel” term may have been initially meant to denote people coming from outside of New York City—especially from New Jersey, considered by many to be a cultural leper colony filled with only guidos and hill people. But my current settings would qualify me as a bridge and tunnel crowd person when I venture into Manhattan for cultural events.
Manhattan was once the undisputed epicenter of New York City’s cultural life. Now that cultural life is much more diffuse and spread through the outer boroughs, most prominently in Brooklyn. New movie theaters, restaurants and music venues are more likely to be opening in Brooklyn or Queens today than in Manhattan. Accordingly, real estate prices in the outer boroughs are still going through the roof.
This shift has made use of the term “Bridge and Tunnel” a bit outdated, but the cultural chasm between whose who perceive themselves as cultured city residents and the people who travel to the city only on the weekends to party is not gone. Someone who takes the Long Island Rail Road from Mineola to see a concert in Brooklyn is considered part of the bridge and tunnel crowd, though they did not use a bridge or tunnel (yes, I understand that the LIRR in Brooklyn does use subway tunnels and uses overpasses on its way to the city; shut up).
And these social demarcations between what is city and what is not stretch to the outer boroughs as well. I mentioned that I drove to Long Island to attend a baby shower this weekend, but as I live in Queens, I already live on Long Island. When New Yorkers talk about “Long Island” they don’t mean the Island itself but Nassau and Suffolk Counties, the parts of the Island that lie outside of the border of New York City.
I could never justify the expense of living in a more trendy or celebrated area of Manhattan. I had a chance to move to the Upper East Side one time. I looked at an apartment in Yorkville and realized that I would be doubling my rent and would still not be able to fit the modest furniture from my small studio in Ozone Park, Queens into the new place. It wasn’t worth the money. I could have said I lived on the Upper East Side, but I’d be living like a hobbit.
So while proximity to Manhattan is become less and less of a cultural touchstone to judge a neighborhood, I propose a new measure of the value of where you live: proximity to live Shakespeare.
A good measure of the value of any place to live is how far away you are from some free Shakespeare. When I lived in Inwood in uptown Manhattan, it had yet to become a trendy place to live and people hadn’t heard of it. But I lived across the street from Inwood Hill Park which had free Shakespeare plays every summer. Score.
I can’t easily walk to free Shakespeare like that, but I am a very short trip from more than one of the venues of the free Shakespeare in the Park in Queens.
Some will argue that this Shakespeare standard is an unfair way to judge where you live, but I don’t think so. I don’t want my children to live in a world where they can’t easily see some free Shakespeare every summer. I’ll be dragging their soggy asses to Two Gentlemen of Verona this season; I won’t need a bridge or tunnel to get there.