In the Citizens Committee for New York City’s
annual quality of life survey, residents of Queens were found
to be the most satisfied with their neighborhoods. The survey's
low sampling (4,400 residents across the five boroughs) makes
the results far from conclusive, but an emphasis on neighborhoods
as the defining area for community belonging and
social interaction is an important one that, while fairly
obvious, merits mention and attention.
The Citizens Committee extends this focus on neighborhoods
to its series of five planned books, edited by historian Kenneth
T. Jackson, presenting every neighborhood in the city's boroughs.
The second installment, following 1993's book on Brooklyn,
is last year's The Neighborhoods of Queens by Long
Island City resident Claudia Gryvatz Copquin. All 99 neighborhoods
in the “most diverse county in the country” are
profiled in maps, facts, photographs, and text, broken up
by “photo spreads” that present places and spaces
that span neighborhood boundaries.
Being an Astoria resident, I immediately scanned the section
on the Queens neighborhood I know best. In seven pages, the
text touches upon many of the area's well-known places and
defining characteristics (Steinway's factory town, Kaufman
Astoria Studios, the large Greek population) and extols the
virtues of the place today. Given its length and breadth,
it is an accurate yet incomplete portrait of the neighborhood
and its residents, missing some notable buildings, spaces
and historical events. It stands to reason that the same criticism
applies to the other neighborhoods. Granted, the chapters
do successfully convey what makes each neighborhood special,
but the portraits are lacking, bogged down in an erratic mix
of history and boosterism.
The recognition of Queens neighborhoods, incidentally, is
one of the notable changes in the fourth edition of the New
York City Landmarks Preservation Commission's (LPC) Guide
to New York City Landmarks. Where its previous incarnation
omitted the neighborhoods from the table of contents and the
organization of the borough's chapter, five years later the
new edition treats Queens as it should, just like the rest
of the city. Graphically this is a small change, less apparent
than the more streamlined three-color graphic design and sans
serif font, but it is these and other changes to this frequently
updated guide that make it worthwhile or skippable, like an
unnecessary software upgrade.
Since its inception in 1965, LPC has designated close to
1,200 individual landmarks and 90 historic districts, including
almost 100 individual buildings or interiors and 12 new districts
landmarked since the last edition. Numerous “notable
structures” (lacking landmark status) within the district
boundaries have also been added to the book, a component that
extends the reach of the guide beyond the Commission's purpose
yet is firmly rooted in its appreciation of historical buildings.
All tolled, the graphic and content changes equate to roughly
thirty extra pages, hardly a substantial expansion over the
The basic format of the guide is consistent with its third
edition. Individual landmarks, districts and notable structures
are keyed to maps structured around neighborhoods, and a number
of “of special interest” sidebars interspersed
throughout the guide discuss landmarks exhibiting common threads.
As would be expected, the descriptions are informative, if
dry, with an emphasis on architectural style and the creation
and evolution of the landmarks.
Guides to New York City are a cottage industry of sorts,
and these two books offer unique ways of looking at the city.
LPC's focus on the preservation of architecturally and historically
significant structures and spaces neatly carves out a niche
among the dearth of books on the subject, just as Copquin's
look at the people and places that define her borough fills
a void in the literature usually infatuated with Manhattan.
These books can learn from each other and other NYC guidebooks:
LPC's book lacks the wit of AIA's guide (its fifth revision
is due next year) and the sense of place garnered through
the Citizens Committee's efforts; the last's remaining volumes
should consider the geographical ordering and mapping of both
LPC and AIA, to acknowledge the importance of physical adjacencies
beyond neighborhood boundaries. Just as individual landmarks
co-exist with other buildings on blocks and in neighborhoods,
the latter comprise the continuous urban fabric that is New