Friday, November 7, 2008

Writing: Bellerose, Queens

Glen Oaks and Bellerose sit on the eastern edge of Queens near Nassau County, Long Island. No subways go there. This is where I grew up. In 1906 Helen Marsh of Lynn, Massachusetts purchased 77 acres in what was then part of Floral Park. Supervising construction of the first home there in 1910, her vision was one of a model community adjacent to the Long Island Railroad. When the LIRR agreed to build a station at her village she came up with the name Bellerose as a placeholder for something the neighborhood would later vote on. It stuck. Some believe the name comes from a rose farm that existed on the southern edge. Although Mrs. Marsh once said she chose the name because it sounded "euphonious".

Bellerose is home of the Queens Children's Psychiatric Center, the largest hospital of its kind in the United States, and the New York City-owned Queens County Farm Museum. Who would have thought the nation's most visited farm museum would be in Queens? This was where my neighboring elementary school would go select pumpkins around in the fall. This is where at the age of 14 we would climb through a whole in a fence on 249th Street to drink 40s and puff herb on the farm. If Bellerose had a skyline it would consist of the North Shore Country Club Towers and the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. Purchased on land owned by the National Rifle Association, in 1912 the Farm Colony of Brooklyn State Hospital was opened by the Lunacy Commission of New York State. Fresh air for the crazy folk was the idea. Initially home to 32 patients by the 1950s this understaffed hospital now hosted over 8,000 in fifty buildings. Then Reagan happened. As budgets were significantly cut and new antipsychotic medications were developed, deinstitutionalization occured and patient population declined. One building, #25, has been abandoned since the 1970s. It houses one squatter who's lived there for over a decade and refuses to leave. The first floor is boarded off. Paint slowly chips away. Two blue chairs, torn apart by animals and time, sit in a room. Paint slowly chips away. One room has been infiltrated by pigeons and their droppings approach knee-level, creating a surreal effect. Paint slowly chips away. Wheelchairs sit. Paint slowly chips away. Chairs gain dust. Paint slowly chips away. A report on Long-Term Tissue Culture of Neuro-blastomas, never read, sits on desks. Paint slowly chips away. The Virgin Mary is depicted on a mural.

In 1987, when I was two years old, John Marrero walked out of Creedmoor. John Marrero was a 25-year-old prisoner who murdered his 14-year-old sister in 1979. He stabbed her and hurled her body out a sixth-story window. A police spokesman said "he apparently just left." Two weeks prior to that, John escaped Creedmoor his first time and returned several days later. In 1983, John and another inmate sawed through a barred window at the psychiatric hospital on Wards Island and climbed down 9 stories by tying together 25 bed sheets. The police captured John, who didn't resist, three days later in the Bronx. After escaping from Creedmoor that year he turned himself into authorities in East Los Angeles, California a month later. He was "cold and hungry". A day after John Marrero escaped, a 78-year-old patient named Stanley Daisak bludgeoned two other patients to death with a fire extinguisher. Stanley was a voluntary patient in the geriatric ward. Hours before daybreak he removed a fire extinguisher from the wall of Building 40, Ward 122-3A, and beat Joseph Guittari and Salvatore Inzerilla to death as they slept. Stanley Daisak was described by state mental health officials as a "model patient" who lacked the capacity for killing. He was found in his bed gripping the bloody fire extinguisher. Earlier in the year a patient who had been discharged was found frozen to death in the Bronx. Another patient who had permission to leave the center was found dead near the Roslyn exit of the Northern State Parkway, having been struck by a car. A nurse who worked there in the 1970s still dreams about the smell, the noise, the disregard for patients, and the Thorazine injections. A student who was there in 1956 once said the orderlies were more dangerous than the patients. On August 1, 2005, Brian Palmer escaped while being transported from Creedmoor to Mary Immaculate Hospital in Queens for consultation with a surgeon. Brian was a mental patient with a long history of violence, including sexual assault. I knew none of this, living four blocks away the entire time. Creedmoor remained isolated from the neighborhood but central to it at the same time. It was gated off. To me Creedmoor served as a marker of when the exit to our home would arrive on the highway. I never wondered what went on behind its intimidating facade. The barbed wire never stood out to me.

Across Commonwealth Boulevard from Creedmoor and adjacent to Bellerose lies Glen Oaks Village. The village is a 112-acre array of two-story buildings along curved, tree lined streets. I was raised in a small apartment in Glen Oaks before I moved 4 blocks away to Bellerose when I was 8. Glen Oaks was built during World War II as rental housing for GIs returning from Combat in Europe and the Pacific. During the 1970s and 1980s the community experienced a downturn in appeal. The property was not well maintained. Glen Oaks became known as a place for transients. It converted to co-op in 1981. Eventually new management came aboard and values rose. Initially home to mostly German and Italian families, during the 1980s the two neighborhoods saw a dramatic increase in immigrants from India and Pakistan. Neighboring Floral Park was the same. The schools in this neighborhood offered Indian families the promise and hope of private school education in the form of public school. It was a relatively quiet neighborhood and it's suburban nature set immigrant fears at ease. This is where I went to P.S. 186 in my sister's baggy mens (Queens in the 90's!) hand-me-down Hunt Club jeans, an L.A. Raiders Starter jacket, and Jordache sneakers I bought from Payless. This is where I played basketball and was told on the court that my L.A. Raiders Starter jacket smelled like curry. This is where I was called "Gandhi" - an insult I still don't understand as I didn't respond by calling my white classmates "George Washington". In the 21st century the neighborhood moved towards majority South Asian. Blue Star Grocery became Maharaja Grocery and the lady behind the counter morphed into a very intimidating South Indian lady with a ferocious mustache. Raj Mahal, Bombay Sizzlers and Bellerose Famous Pizza cater to entirely Indian consumers. There are still no subways. This is where I grew up.

*Big up Sarah Riffat for bringing up that crazy malayalee mustache lady I forgot about - that crazy malayalee mustache lady I've spent the last 5 years trying to forget about.

1 comment:

Riffo said...

No mention of Alley Pond park, which is supposed to be a fun place but is surrounded by too many sketchy foresty-areas, a main road, a major highway and Creedmor across the street.

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