Queens, the largest borough of NYC, is more layered with history and modern-day significance than even locals realize. Of course, there’s too much to cover in any one list, but here are just ten fascinating things that you may not know about Queens.
01 of 10
No Other Locality on Earth Speaks More Languages Than Queens
Though it's far from being a Tower of Babel, Queens marks an intriguing meeting of so many different languages in one place. The process in which everyone learns to communicate with each other in the borough gives us an idea of where greater society is headed in this age of ever-increasing multiculturalism within large cities worldwide. The Endangered Language Alliance (ELA) estimates that, when factoring in dialects, there as many as 800 languages spoken in NYC, of which Queens represents the most. In essence, Queens is the most linguistically diverse location in all of humanity: Now, that’s a mouthful!
02 of 10
Queens Has Been Home to Many Jazz Greats
New Orleans, Chicago, and Harlem (even Times Square and the West Village) are all places that one automatically associates with jazz. But it’s a little-known fact that many high-profile and seminal jazz artists made Queens their home. Start with none other than “Satchmo,” or Louis Armstrong, whose contribution to the development of the great American art form is immeasurable. “Pops,” as some called him, moved to Corona, Queens, with his wife Lucille in 1943 and happily remained there until his death in 1971. His home is now a museum and National Historic Landmark.
Dizzy Gillespie also lived in Corona. Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, and Benny Goodman all resided in Jackson Heights. There are other sections of Queens where jazz artists set their roots, too, but one particular neighborhood – St. Albans – had so many prominent musicians living in close proximity of one another that reflecting on what it must have been like back in those days would make any jazz enthusiast gush: the neighborhood counted Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Milt Hinton, Fats Waller, Lena Horne, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis among its many talented denizens.
03 of 10
Queens Is the Best Place in NYC to Witness Migrations...
...Of the human and non-human variety.
Almost half of the borough’s population is foreign-born and walking through certain neighborhoods, one can witness the melting pot in full boil, a stew of autonomous yet connected inhabitants. But that’s just the humans.
Queens hosts all kinds of wildlife migrations, too, including more than 330 bird species that make their way to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a must-visit for avian enthusiasts. The refuge is part of the National Park Service and is home to a remarkable array of Queens natives – reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and over 60 species of butterflies. It can be explored in various ways, including alongside trained guides that educate visitors about the unique habitats and plethora of wildlife. One of the more impressive sights here is the yearly migration of the horseshoe crabs. Every May and June, Atlantic horseshoe crabs make their way to these Queens shores for a ritual mating frenzy. The horseshoe crab (sometimes referred to as a “living fossil”) has been around for 450 million years, preceding the dinosaurs – talk about ancient!
04 of 10
Harry Houdini Is Buried in Queens
The greatest escape artist who ever lived, Erik Weisz, aka Harry Houdini, is interred in Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale. Although graven images are forbidden in Jewish cemeteries, an exception was made for Houdini, and a statuary bust was added to his grave in 1927, the year after he was interred. Unfortunately, given Houdini’s fame, mystery, and obsessive fans, the bust has been stolen or destroyed several times throughout the years. In order to replace it and pay for maintenance of the gravesite, money was raised by the Society of American Magicians, with donations by famous illusionists such as David Copperfield. The most recent replacement of the Houdini bust was installed by “commandos” from the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Let’s hope that this bust doesn't too disappear!Continue to 5 of 10 below.
05 of 10
A Beloved Queens Sculpture Park Was Once an Illegal Dumping Ground
Socrates Sculpture Park, in Astoria, Queens, is a favorite of locals for its many performances, free public events, outdoor film screenings, and, principally, large-scale sculpture exhibitions. Prior to its current incarnation, though, the site was an abandoned marine terminal and landfill that was being used as an illegal dumping ground. The visionary and motivator behind the project, American sculptor Mark di Suvero, used to call it “Rat Park.” Over the last 30 years, the garbage has been replaced by figurative/conceptual art and farmers markets, and the vermin have been phased out by art aficionados and chill New Yorkers doing yoga, tai chi, and capoeira. We can thank di Suvero and the team of artists and local youths who did all the heavy lifting to create what is now an oasis of culture.
06 of 10
Some of the World's Best Rap Artists Come From Queens
Although most rap historians agree that the genre was born in the South Bronx, many early pioneers and contemporary masters of the art form hail from Queens. In fact, many would argue that Brooklyn and Queens eventually overtook the Bronx in generating exceptional rappers. Without turning this into a competition between boroughs, let’s just say that Queens has earned its cred in rap and hip-hop culture in general. Early contributors Marley Marl, MC Shan, Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Chuck D (of Public Enemy), and Salt-N-Pepa made their mark, followed by Onyx, 50 Cent, Nicki Minaj, and countless others. But it is solo artist Nas and rap group A Tribe Called Quest whose clever, thought-provoking lyrics and innovative production truly elevated the genre.
07 of 10
The “Valley of Ashes," From The Great Gatsby, Was in Queens
Speaking of former dumping grounds... the “Valley of Ashes,” described in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, was an industrial waste zone in Queens that has likewise been transformed into a beloved public park space. From 1910 through the 1920s, ash produced by the city’s many coal-burning furnaces was deposited at the Corona Ash Dump, marshlands that sat along the Flushing River. This was an eyesore to wealthy commuters driving to Manhattan from their gilded mansions on Long Island’s “Gold Coast.”
Hence, Queens made its appearance in this classic of American literature as a desolate wasteland, the refuse of moral and industrial excess. The ash dump would eventually be cleaned up as part of a giant public works project headed by controversial urban planner, Robert Moses. Where once ashes grew “like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens,” Flushing Meadows Corona Park was born, along with structures for two different World Fairs, and, eventually, several sporting facilities – including Arthur Ashe tennis stadium and Citi Field, the home of local baseball underdogs, the New York Mets.
08 of 10
Queens Has a Legit Literary Scene
Understandably, when one thinks of literary giants from NYC, the mind goes to Manhattan or Brooklyn, where many a famous writer has been born, bred, and widely read. But make no mistake: Queens incubates writers that speak to a multitude of life experiences with a uniquely outer-borough style. Whether told through the perspective of a domestic transplant, international migrant, blue-collar native, interdimensional being, etc., you’ll find a story in all genres and voices. There has been a rise in literary events, social networking, and support groups amongst Queens’ writers. Locally produced publications, like Newtown Literary, are helping promote the literary arts in Queens and support writers who live in and/or write about the borough. More lit-themed groups are popping up, too, such as the Boundless Tales Reading Series. Recently, 2016 also saw the launch of the first Q-Boro Lit Crawl to help raise funds for the Queens Book Festival.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
09 of 10
One of the Most Impressive Collections of NYC Street Art Is Hidden in Queens
Let’s keep this simple: Go see the Welling Court Mural Project in Astoria! With more than 100 murals covering several blocks, it is a virtual feast for the eyes, featuring an international and celebrated group of artists. Swing by in June 2017 for the project's 8th annual installation.
10 of 10
Queens Is Recognized by Many as the Birthplace of American Religious Freedom
More than 100 years before the Bill of Rights was amended to the United States Constitution, there was the Flushing Remonstrance, in Flushing, Queens — a 1657 petition to Peter Stuyvesant, the Director-General of the then Dutch colony, New Netherland. Although Holland was, at the time, one of the most religiously tolerant countries in Europe, its colony — under the direction of Stuyvesant — was significantly less so, as exemplified in his 1656 ordinance against illegal religious meetings. Stuyvesant’s policies had already persecuted or harassed other groups, but it was his persecution of the Quakers that led to public protest in Flushing, when 30 brave men took a stand to protect the rights of their fellow settlers in the New World. They did so in the form of a beautifully penned letter petitioning for an exemption on the ban of Quaker worship, citing “liberty of conscience.”
As expected, Stuyvesant was swift in his reprisals, arresting several of the signatories and forcing all to recant under different punitive coercions. Still, the winds of change could not be stilled. It’s important to note that none of the signers of the Flushing Remonstrance were Quakers and that there was no direct benefit for its authors: on the contrary, it placed them at risk. The motivation was a bold defense of “others.” That sentiment and that act are as relevant as ever, and we can thank the early inhabitants of Flushing for their example.