There are many distinct neighborhoods in the five boroughs of New York City each with its own flavor, architecture and often a concentration of one or more ethnic groups. Many of these, however, can appear to be rather nondescript and uninteresting to a visitor just passing through. The numbered Streets, Avenues and Places of Queens connote nothing, and row houses are virtually indistinguishable from one another.
A little homework, i.e. reading, goes a long way. I always look to the New York Times, which has done a series entitled If You Are Thinking of Living In... on virtually every neighborhood in the city. This is a great launching point along with some other online reading - Wikipedia typically has an entry for all the New York City neighborhoods.
The formation of Richmond Hill came about as a result of the 1869 purchase of the Lefferts and Welling farms by one Albon Platt Man, a prominent New York attorney. Cookie cutter row houses dominate Richmond Hill, but the neighborhood has a small number of Victorian homes located in a newly proposed historic district. The neighborhood is home to a large number of Indian immigrants from the West Indies and Guyana, evidenced by the merchants on the main shopping thoroughfares - Liberty, Jamaica, and Atlantic Avenues.
Ideally, having a native or former native is a great way to get a real feel for a place and on this journey to Richmond Hill, Queens, I had a friend who had grown up there. So, this expedition was both an exploration for me and simultaneously a walk down memory lane for my friend. There is always such a vicarious thrill taking someone by their old home. The featureless and anonymous comes alive with the recounting of memories of people and activities and gives the lifeless set a cast of characters.
One of my destinations was to be Jahn's, an ice cream parlor with several locations - their first establishment was in the Bronx, dating back to 1897. I had assumed that the Richmond Hill location was still in operation. Sadly however, I discovered that it had closed in 2007.
A number of notable individuals hail from Richmond Hill. Jack Kerouac lived from 1950-1955 at 94-21 134th Street in Richmond Hill, NY and also in Ozone Park with his mother where he wrote On the Road. Kerouac included Queens subject matter not only in On the Road, but also in The Vanity of Duluoz.
The Marx Brothers lived on 134th Street during the 1920s. Fred Gretsch, Jr. manufacturer of Gretsch Guitars, attended Richmond Hill High School as did comic Rodney Dangerfield. New York columnist and Pulitzer Prize writer Jimmy Breslin attended St. Benedict Joseph Labre School in Richmond Hill. Anaïs Nin, known for her erotic writings, lived in Richmond Hill prior to moving to Paris in 1924. Jacob A. Riis was also a resident.
Although the value of the cultural breweries of New York City's well known neighborhoods like Greenwich Village or SoHo can not be discounted, a place like Richmond Hill and the notables who lived there demonstrates the diversity of places that not only are home to many, but also from which greatness incubates. Perhaps there is truth in the old cowboy adage - wherever you go, there you are :)