Sunday, January 22, 2006

Rocky Hill

Like so many others who have been drawn to travel, I am also beginning to appreciate the fact that I was raised in a very special and unique place. I am not merely referring to the geology and natural history of the area, but to the fact that it served as a setting for a prolonged exposure to formative influences. In specific, I refer to a natural elevation in western Long Island which occupies an area of about four square miles. Although no one ever referred to it as a named hill when I was growing up, I now realize I lived, slept and played on the slopes of natural feature once known as Rocky Hill for the better part of eighteen years. Evidence for the name comes from century old maps and railroad literature; there is still one Rocky Hill Road somewhere in Bayside but little more in the current area to suggest that the name was ever used locally much less applied to the entire mound. The toponym has been long forgotten but the extent of my discoveries in this place are incalculable and stay with me.

Our little brick house was built in the years before WW2 and sat third from the corner upon the outwash plain on the southeast apron, nestled half a block from Alley Pond Park and one street away from the gates of Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital. Unlike blocks further up the slope, we were able to play ball out front of the house although the mild angle still influenced the best way to lay out the bases. The hillock also determined which way rainwater flowed in the gutter, provided great downhill stretches to glide along on a bicycle, and in the winter, the park afforded a choice of long slopes to sleigh down with open grassy fields to safely receive you at the bottom.

The kettle hole topography in the northeast quarter of Rocky Hill eventually led to the area being set aside as Alley Pond Park, the second largest in Queens. Bordered by ravines too steep to be used for development, the area had come to be known as 'The Alley' over 300 years ago. A A few months before the great stock market crash in 1929, the park was acquired by the city for 1.3 million dollars. Mayor Jimmy Walker said, 'This is an attractive offer and parks must be anticipated for the good of the increasing populations. There is no better site in Queens.' Good move. In 1935, Mayor LaGuardia and Parks Commisioner Robert Moses attended a ceremony opening a bird sanctuary in the mature woods of the uppper park.

The Old Motor Parkway (OMP), designed for auto-racing at the beginning of the 20th century by the Vanderbilts, provided banked turns, no traffic or crossroads and a steep gradient as it descended the east side of the hill. A second good run, even longer is an old narrow asphalt path which parallels the Cross Island Parkway, descending through the woods into the ravine along the eastern edge of the park as it heads north to the junction of Horace Harding and Cross Island. McCormack and I tripped down here one summer day and got eaten up by mosquitoes from the nearby swamps.

At 206 feet above sea level, Rocky Hill is the second highest point in Queens. Bordered on the east by Cross Island Parkway, on the north by the Long Island Expressway, on the west by the Clearview Expressway, and to the south by Hillside Avenue. Due to the suburbanization of the area, it is rarely conceived of as a hill even by those who live upon it or drive over its slopes regularly, but there is no question about it. The effects of topography are undeniable. Before the sewer system was improved in the late sixties, it was not uncommon for there to be waist--high flooding on various stretches of these low-lying borders after prolonged rains.

The Grand Central Parkway (GCP) cuts through the southern portion of this 2X2 mile square, riding along the crest of the moraine, less than half a mile northwest from our house, a continuous swish, roar and purr of steel on rubber. Being designated a parkway, it was originally supposed to include 'ribbon parks' for walking and biking along its edges. By the time I was a teen, that plan had been so scaled back that it appeared as if they had merely decided to run a large, noisy roadway through a sequence of existing parks, compromising the reserves while providing no green 'ribbons' in-between. While I am recounting trivial details, there is an interesting manmade feature unique to the area, just north of GCP. Running from the overpass above the OMP in the park to the brushy area just west of Springfield, is a large drainage tunnel featuring a walkway and iron railing passing under both Union Turnpike and Springfield, directing the water into natural depressions at both ends; Pea Pond to the west and what I used to think was Alley Pond to the east. (it ain't; see Alley Pond post)

A huge silver-blue water tower stands just south of the GCP near the summit of Rocky Hill on Springfield. This steel tank can be seen from miles away on the southern outwash plains and was very likely the source of our household water. The quality was exceptional and the pressure always sufficient.

Not far from the crest was Redeemer Lutheran, the church-school I attended for eight years. Our pastor as well as many of the major patrons of the congregation lived in the immediate neighborhood. Pastor's son Mark was a rebel with sideburns, a leather jacket and beatle boots. When dad stepped out one evening, Mark played Dylan's I'm Only Bleeding LOUD on the Church's big sound system as David and I, serving as acolytes, readied the altar for Advent services. A few minutes down the street was the Catholic school whose coach let me play third base; our school didn't have a team at the time. Try-outs were held in the open lot on the corner of Bell and Union where big tents blossomed and mechanical rides rotated during the annual bazaar which my folks would not allow me attend. The whole thing was a bit too pagan and degenerate, something Jesus would have chased out of the temple no doubt, at least that's what Pastor thought. The White Elephant sales held by the ladies of our church auxiliary commitee were another thing altogether; no games of chance.

American Martyrs Roman Catholic church was eventually built on the corner sandlot and stirred up some controversy as its non-traditional circular design resembles a Greek Orthodox temple. Across Bell Boulevard was the little library where I obtained my own card, walking there alone after school and then riding a city bus home. Two of my first selections were a well-illustrated editions of Dickens' Magic Fishbone and Sandburg's Windsong.

Most of my friends, a few relatives, and my godparents lived here upon this knoll. The kids I played with after school everyday were from middle class Irish or Italian Catholic families on 236th or nearby streets. The southern slope east of Springfield was covered in acres of those horrid little two story projects which tended to be populated with Jews. Similar housing is found between 73rd Ave and the OMP where Nonnie lived. The hell isn't only of the upstairs/downstairs variety; Daryl would try to play his drums on Saturday morning and the guy on the other side of the wall started banging and yelling about how he worked nights and wanted to sleep.

The wealthiest neighborhoods on the hill are found in the vicinity of the Lutheran church, between GCP and Union Turnpike. Large, well-landscaped brick homes, many with tudor designs, blue slate roofs, attractive stone work and even a few castle turrets are to be found amidst an abundance of azaelas, rhododendrons, maples and evergreens on the very top of the hill. This was a largely German neighborhood, and come December, this is where we would cruise to see some of the more elaborate Christmas light and lawn displays. It is unlikely that any black folk were living anywhere on Rocky Hill. Although there were never any Jim Crow laws (de jure) in New York, Queens racism a la Archie Bunkerwas rampant, de facto. Black neighborhoods were literally on 'the other side of the tracks'; the rails being the property of the Long Island Railroad on their raised bed south of Jamaica Avenue.

On this little patch of earth I learned to walk and talk, to read and write, found turtles, took my clothes off and ran naked in the street, would spin in circles in the living roomtill dizzy and then hold onto the piano leg and wonder if the world was really rocking or was it in my head, learned about Jesus, learned to ride a bike, and that Aunt Marion would have said goodbye had she known and that even little kids can die, and that kites need a tail, learned to watch birds because they are beautiful and might be as wild as it gets in the city, saw sunspots and craters on the moon, visited my grandmother, peeked inside a Catholic church for the first time, rode the city bus alone, walked outside the day after a snowstorm on a path shovelled through drifts a yard over my head, went house to house collecting newspapers in a wagon, trick-or-treating or selling packets of seeds, experienced my first kiss, learned to play guitar, was introduced to all kinds of music, took strong psychedelics, smoked lots of dope, walked in the woods, wrote poetry, became a vegetarian, prayed, got laid, got enlightened, threw the I Ching, read Hesse, Huxley, Dostoevsky, Bradbury, Clarke, Zelazny, Whitman, Sandburg, Ginsberg, Leary, Watts, DT Suzuki, Lao-Tzu, RH Blyth, the Gita, the Upanisads, Eckhart, Merton, and the Bardo Thodrol.....

One fine day in the winter of 1973, on the southern apron of Rocky Hill, on the first day of a mythology class being taught in a second story classroom of Martin Van Buren High School by one Mr. Vincent Seyfried, Lord of Queens Historians, I took my seat in the back of the room, by the windows. Having been expelled from the small private academy I'd attended for the past three years in Hollis, I was now a senior in a large public institution just a few blocks from home and welcomed the anonymity. In Paris, only days before, North and South Vietnam had finally been able to agree on the shape of tables, and the United States had signed a treaty to withdraw all US forces within three months. Mr. Seyfried was a very animated and expressive teacher whose enthusiasm for the material was contagious. His presentation of the Egyptian myth of Osiris and interesting parallels with the Christ resonated with the perennial philosophy I was already immersed in. In hindsight, opting to attend this mythology class was one of the most important choices I ever made in my life; this is where I met Tenkar, my wife of 33+ years, a few months before graduation.

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