Saturday, October 8, 2011

An Interview with Whitestone's Author Jason Antos



KIRPAL GORDON: As you know, Giant Steps Press has many connections to north Queens.  While researching the old neighborhood on the internet, I came across Whitestone, your pictorial history of the neighborhood in a brief 127 pages, and was knocked out by the maps, paintings, sketches, post cards, documents, photographs and your astute commentary which delivers an imagistic memory lane experience for a local like me and a cautionary tale to all New Yorkers about the risks of overdevelopment.  Told in your informed but impassioned voice, it's a testimony to our unique hamlet sitting alongside the East River between the Bronx-Whitestone and Throg's Neck Bridges.  Because you argue so well for the value of history, it seems fitting that you dedicate the volume to your grandmother, Evelyn Kaye, who is seen in a photograph with Joe Dimaggio.  How did the project come about?

JASON ANTOS: Since childhood, I have been a great admirer of history. For years I had been writing short pieces for local papers and for University publications. As a lifelong resident of Whitestone, I remember exploring different areas of the town when I was growing up. I would walk down by the abandoned CYO and hang out in the remains of the Hammerstein House. I knew I had something. There was definitely a story to tell. 

KIRPAL GORDON: Divided into seven chapters that open with Dutch settlers and the Matinecock tribe, you take us through the arrival of the British Empire, Francis Lewis and the Revolutionary War period, Governor de Witt Clinton's homestead in an 1854 photograph, Walt Whitman's stay and the Civil War, the arrival of the Long Island Rail Road in 1869, the population explosion that began with the opening of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909, the neighborhood's brief stint as a seaside resort which brought celebrities and more development and the continuing impact of immigration throughout the two world wars and into the 21st century.  That's an amazing amount of dedicated research.  Who helped you find all that out?

JASON ANTOS: Since Whitestone was my first book, I had to become a detective and figure out one step at a time where to find material. I began at the Queens Historical Society which led me to the Bayside Historical Society. From there I went to the Queens Library Central branch to Long Island Division (now called The Archives). The Queens Library has an endless amount of information on
Queens. The best part is that it is all open to the public!

KIRPAL GORDON: Among the most telling photographs in the book is a shot of Harvey Firestone's mansion
before it was torn down to accommodate the Cryder House.  The sense that the neighborhood's actual history has gotten buried alongside such development is unmistakable.  Ironically, just down the road sits the Hammerstein mansion.  Turned into the highly regarded eatery Ripples on the Water, I see from the cover of your book that the original mansion has been rebuilt on the old grounds.  What do you make of these two tales?

JASON ANTOS: It is all about fate. The Hammerstein home was privately owned until
Le Havre was built in the early 1950s. Originally known as the Levitt House Apartments, the complex acquired it as their club house. Firestone's house was owned by Mrs. Michele who operated a bed and breakfast. She sold the property for the building of Cryder House. Hammerstein's home was luck enough to be purchased by a group who wanted to turn it into a catering hall. This allowed the building to remain long enough to be recognized as National Landmark.

KIRPAL GORDON: In the last section, the construction of the two suspension bridges to the
Bronx really captures the sense of a leafy, once bucolic neighborhood in transition.  How do we keep Whitestone green while limiting the growing McMansion-ization of its homes?

JASON ANTOS: That is up to the people, our local politicians and zoning laws. The laws have to be enforced and perhaps changed so that Whitestone can retain some of its small town feel.

KIRPAL GORDON: What most impressed me in your telling is Whitestone's unique heritage as a place of tolerance.  You point out that the Dutch and the Native Americans coexisted peacefully, which is indeed a rarity in the colonial era. In addition, the Flushing Remonstrance, the
New World's first legislation insuring freedom of religious choice, was signed in 1657.  Ever since, Whitestone has been home to a wide range of religions: Quaker, Dutch Reform, Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Lutheran and of late people from Korea and Far Eastern Asia.  What factors play into this open-mindedness?

JASON ANTOS: I think when a neighborhood is multicultural and tolerant, that atmosphere becomes evident to all people. This creates a sense of calm and attracts diversity. When one group moves out the other stays and grows creating a continuous cycle. 

KIRPAL GORDON: Beyond your present duties as a reporter on the neighborhood for the Queens Gazette, you have penned three other books on
Queens for Arcadia.  Tell us more about those projects.

JASON ANTOS: After the success of Whitestone: Images of America (2006), I followed with Shea Stadium: Images of Baseball (2007), Queens: Then and Now (2009) and Flushing: Then & Now (2010).

Jason Antos is a reporter for the Queens Gazette.  To peruse or purchase Whitestone, see http://www.amazon.com/Whitestone-Images-America-Jason-Antos/dp/0738546283.

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