Years later, I would return to Flushing to finish school at Queens College where I received a BA in Studio Art. I lived with an ex-girlfriend in an apartment building next to the Whitestone Expressway and Whitestone Lanes. The New York Times distribution center was across the expressway. She was a tough Queens girl with a thick New Yawk accent. She lost both hippy parents at an early age and was raised by her maternal Jewish grandmother. Her grandmother had died and she lived in the apartment by herself. There was unresolved trauma around the loss of her parents. She found her mother dead from a drug overdose. She was raped at age 13 by an older kid in the neighborhood. Neither of us had the emotional self-awareness to maintain the relationship.
These were issues I was not exposed to in a north shore Long Island suburb. I grew up in Port Washington, NY, a cow-neck shaped peninsula facing the Long Island Sound. In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Port Washington was East Egg, the “old money” enclave of Gilded Age estates. West Egg or Great Neck was for the “nouveau riche.” Not that drugs and rape weren’t happening, but wealth can make those things go away very easily.
I grew up middle-class. We were better off than some, but I acutely felt the haves and have-nots in Port Washington. The growing “Spanish” community lived in apartments on Main Street or in multi-unit houses near the industrial areas of town. I remember the local police moving Latino men along who were “loitering” on fences around the train station. Most of the young men lived together and simply sat outside their apartment buildings on warm nights. Many worked in restaurant kitchen and landscaping companies.
My neighborhood was middle-class, but has gentrified with yuppies since. Smaller pre-war homes with wood floors and original molding appeal to a new generation of yuppies looking for authenticity and integrity in their down-low consumption.
The Park section is a grid of four streets: Bar Beach Road, Park Avenue, Highland Avenue and Fairview Avenue. The grid starts at Port Washington Boulevard and climbs up a slope to Woodlawn Avenue, a street that overlooks the Sandpits. During the summers in the seventies, hang gliders would set off from the cliff and float over the Sandpits until you saw the soft silent landing in the sibilant spray of sand. Someone would pick them up in “the pits” and drive them back up to Woodlawn Avenue for another run.
Sand was a booming industry at the turn of the 20th century and the sand pits provided raw material for many of the buildings in New York City including the Empire State Building, the Chrystler Building, the Queensborough , the former Twin Towers and Rockefeller Center. Immigrants from Europe worked the mines and many single men lived in barracks. Families lived in homes with stilts. A school was established for children. I remember seeing rusty cars and motorcycles embedded in the sides of cliffs. People played “chicken” and it was rumored that the mob disposed of enemies in the pits.
A large green building with conveyer belts would transport sand to barges in Hempstead Harbor. It was a dilapidated green relic that anyone who grew up in Port Washington at the time would remember driving along West Shore Road to Bar Beach or Hempstead Harbor Beach. The rotting barges remained on the liminal unused banks of the harbor until the nineties.