When the Long Island Coliseum Falls

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published April 16, 2015

On game days, the narrow concourse that wraps around Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum feels like rush hour on the Long Island Rail Road. Thousands of people are trying to grab beers or take leaks or buy pucks during intermission, before the New York Islanders skate out for the next period. Beer bellies press against the backs of fretful usrents who desperately hold onto their young children. There is no shortcut through the dense crowd, no escape from the masses. There is only shuffling.

A lot of folks have grumbled about the jammed concourse, but I’ve always embraced it. There isn’t a lot of space to check smart phones, so visitors are forced to soak in perhaps the most provincial experience in the National Hockey League – the “Lawn Guyland” accents, the cries of Newsday pitchmen, the sight through the glass of seagulls on the plaza and drivers slogging through the notorious Long Island commute. As I walked through the concourse for perhaps the final time on Saturday, April 11, I tried to take mental snapshots so I could someday describe this scene to the wife I haven’t met yet, or my kids who haven’t been born yet, or anyone who will listen. I’m sad they’ll never experience it for themselves. I love everything about this arena, and I’m the only person to write a book about Nassau Coliseum.

Once the season ends, Nassau Coliseum will not be an NHL arena. The Islanders are moving west to the Barclays Center, the glamorous home of the Brooklyn Nets in an urban setting that is light years away from the Coliseum. I moved from New York to Ohio two years ago to pursue my doctorate, so Saturday may have been my last chance to see the Islanders play again in the arena where they belong, where I grew up. I can’t believe the team I love is leaving.

* * *

Friends have asked whether I will cry when the Islanders move. The Coliseum will remain for concerts, circuses, and maybe a minor-league hockey team down the line, but plans call for a drastic overhaul over the next year and a half with thousands of seats ripped out. Bottom line, the arena won’t look like it has for the past forty-three years of Islanders hockey. When the Coliseum opened in 1972, reporters compared the oval-shaped, off-white building to a loaf of bread, a mushroom, and a vanilla cake. The cake got a little crusty with time, but it’s still good. The Coliseum is the second-oldest arena in the league, a throwback to the great barns of the 1970s. It makes for an electric atmosphere.

The playoffs began this week and the Islanders’ performance will dictate the date of their final game at the Coliseum. All Long Island can do is wait. Wait to bid farewell to a team that makes their voices sore from cheering and their hands chapped from clapping. Wait to somehow move past a team that has brought a lot of joy and heartache over the decades. Wait to say goodbye to the team they adore.

By now, they are used to waiting in the concourse. They must be patient and stare at the names on the jerseys of the fans ahead of them, names in the Coliseum rafters, etched onto the Stanley Cup, and enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

No. 5, Denis Potvin, an original Islander who captained them to four straight championships and nineteen consecutive playoff series victories in the 1980s, a show of dominance that may never again be witnessed in professional sports.

No. 9, Clark Gillies. No. 19, Bryan Trottier. No. 22, Mike Bossy. The men who became the enforcer, the glue, and the pure goal scorer on a line known as the “Trio Grande.”

No. 23, Bobby Nystrom. Thirty five years ago, he clinched the Islanders’ first Stanley Cup with the most memorable goal in the Coliseum’s history. That transformed him into “Mr. Islander,” and put this region, this team, this arena on the map.

* * *

After an emotional video tribute on Saturday, the Islanders skated out to the same public address announcement that I remember from my first game in 1999. “Hockey fans, let’s hear it for your New pause York pause IIIIslanders!”

I looked around the arena and wondered whether these fans would follow the team to Brooklyn. Is this the curtain call for the older couple in Section 340 with personalized nameplates on their jerseys, “Big Jim” and “Sweet Sue?” How about the guy who presses that “Always Believe” sign against the glass in Section 118? Or the curious soul in Section 112 who wears a Ziggy Stardust-style gold wig and a “Rangers Suck” jersey tied around his waist, and flails his arms wildly when the home team scores? He has become as much a part of the game experience as the numbers in the rafters. Will Goldie bother to hop on a train to see the Islanders play somewhere that can only tenuously claim to be Long Island? (A cartographer may say that Brooklyn and Queens are geographically located on Long Island, but most New Yorkers define “Long Island” as only the easternmost, suburban counties of Nassau and Suffolk. I’ve never heard anyone from Brooklyn say they’re from Long Island.)

With its dedication in 1972, Nassau Coliseum symbolized Long Island’s arrival in the big leagues. New York City had an arena and a hockey team, Madison Square Garden and the Rangers. The Coliseum meant that Long Islanders wouldn’t have to leave the suburbs for top-notch concerts and sports. And the Islanders were proud to play the role. They wore blue and orange to match the Nassau County colors and a logo with a simple map of Long Island, not including Brooklyn. Many players lived locally, and fans spotted them in supermarkets and bars. When the Islanders clinched their first Stanley Cup in 1980, feisty goalie Billy Smith was asked about bringing the Cup back to New York, a reference to the Rangers’ last title in 1940. “The Stanley Cup is not in New York,” Smith shot back. “It’s on Long Island.”

The Coliseum is not in New York. It’s on Long Island.

New York is high-rise apartment buildings and pricey clubs and subway stations. Long Island is single-family homes and 24-hour diners and highway traffic. On Long Island, strip malls have sprawling parking lots; so does the Coliseum. Long Islanders can recite the lyrics to “Piano Man” in their sleep, and a banner honoring Billy Joel hangs in the Coliseum rafters. Now, in a cruel twist, the Islanders are movin’ out.

I wasn’t alive when the Islanders hoisted the Cup four straight times in the 1980s, and I wasn’t a hockey fan yet when they charged to the conference finals in 1993. I started going to games as a teenager in 1999, at a time when the Islanders were dreadful and the Coliseum was half-empty. No matter. I was captivated by the sounds of blades cutting into ice, the ferocity of the scraps, the finesse of the passes, the beauty of the goals. And I loved how the simple act of a rubber disc hitting twine could send thousands of grown men and women into spontaneous celebrations that would have been socially unacceptable almost anywhere else.

When the Islanders score at Nassau Coliseum, adrenaline seizes the fans. They high-five people they were flipping off an hour earlier on the Northern State Parkway. At other NHL arenas, goals are punctuated with gimmicks such as the firing of a cannon in Columbus, the nearest NHL city to my new home in Athens, Ohio. The Coliseum never needed them. The reaction is not artificial: We jump from our seats and we applaud and we scream and the sound bounces off the ceiling and back at us. We roar because we are Long Island and the Islanders are too.

Every now and then, I cue up the video from my most memorable moment as a fan in the Coliseum stands, when Shawn Bates scored on a penalty shot late in a playoff game in 2002. The Islanders hadn’t made the playoffs in nearly a decade, and all the pent-up frustration from the fan base came bursting out at once.

But I’ll remember the Coliseum for so many other moments. I’ll remember waiting outside in the cold for autographs from Jamie Heward and Tim Connolly and Kevin Weekes. I’ll remember the long, messy haul on a train and a bus to catch an Islanders game in a blizzard. And I’ll remember a funny exchange in the Coliseum stands after a rare Islanders win in the early 2000s. The Rangers fan began walking away with a woman who appeared to be his girlfriend. “Enjoy your only win of the year,” he said with a smirk. The Islanders fan shot back, “Enjoy your only date of the year!” That’s Long Island wit for you.

The Coliseum is where I sang along to Paul McCartney and the Eagles. It’s where I was once startled by the thud of lacrosse balls against the boards at a New York Saints game. It’s where I saw the New York Dragons set an arena football record by scoring ninety-nine points one night. And it’s where wrestling heels got a charge out of the crowd by shouting that Long Island sucked, a sacrilegious statement in these parts. One time, amid a chorus of boos, a solitary voice in the stands responded to a villain’s negative remarks about Long Islanders by shouting, “Hey, he has a point! We’re not so great!” Remember what I said about Long Island wit?

* * *

I fell in love with the Coliseum in high school. I made a miniature model of the arena for an art project, complete with real light bulbs on the lampposts. My childhood room is filled with souvenirs from Islanders games: a Bobby Nystrom bobblehead, pucks signed by Chris Osgood and Michael Peca, rally towels that are threadbare from being whipped around in the 2002 playoffs, and a Kenny Jonsson CelebriDuck. I don’t think I’d ever bought a present without parental supervision until I sneaked out to a Coliseum concession stand, purchased an Islanders tie for my dad for Christmas, and smuggled it into our house under my jacket. This past Sunday morning, I wore the same tie during a television appearance to discuss the Islanders’ final regular-season game at the only arena they have ever known.

Before the game, I talked to friends who were struggling over which jersey to wear at what could be their final night in the Coliseum. I decided to wear the first jersey I’d ever bought: a dark navy blue sweater, Mariusz Czerkawski, No. 21, with the four bars on the shoulder representing the four Stanley Cups. I saw other folks in jerseys with the 1980 Lake Placid patch and, yes, even the dreaded fisherman logo from the mid-1990s, which consistently appears on lists of the worst sports logos of all time due in large part to its similarity to the Gorton’s Seafood fisherman. It was like we were doing our best to honor a close friend at his funeral by representing all eras of Islanders hockey.

I won’t stop rooting for the Islanders when they move to Brooklyn anymore than I stopped rooting for them when I moved to Ohio. But I also won’t forget what the Islanders meant to Long Island, the real Long Island, the low-scale, suburban communities of Nassau and Suffolk that are nothing like the urban maze around the Barclays Center. A small part of me wishes the team moved far away rather than pretending they still represent what they meant to Long Islanders. The demise of the Coliseum represents a great suburban experiment that ultimately failed. Once the Islanders proved that Long Island could hold its own against the big city. Now they are moving to that very city. Talk about an identity crisis.

I was re-reading my Coliseum book the other day, and I came upon a passage that I’d forgotten. During construction, an official adorned his wall with a famous line from a medieval historian: “While stands the Colosseum, Rome shall stand; when falls the Colosseum, Rome shall fall; and when Rome falls, the world.”

Soon the Coliseum will fall. Of course I’ll cry. Wouldn’t you?

Nicholas Hirshon is the author of the only book on the history of Nassau Coliseum, Images of America: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum (Arcadia Publishing).

Scanning a Slice of Queens

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published May 28, 2014
Wall Street Journal

The 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair in Queens has sparked calls to restore the New York State Pavilion—and a rush to document perhaps the city’s most famous ruin for posterity.

Researchers from the University of Central Florida will trek to the landmark in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park next week to create a three-dimensional scan of the pavilion, from its uneven floors to its deteriorating walls.

“It is really important for future generations to have an understanding of what it looked like in its most minute detail 50 years after the fair,” said Lori Walters, a history professor who will be scanning the pavilion with two colleagues from June 2 to June 6.

Rarely do dormant buildings survive as long as the pavilion has in real-estate-starved New York City, where older structures are often demolished to make way for apartments, offices and stores. Situated in a city park, the abandoned pavilion has eluded developers and remained a constant in an ever-changing cityscape.

The structure probably won’t stay like that much longer. A city study last year reported that demolishing the pavilion would cost $14 million, far less than the $52 million price for restoration. But the fair’s 50th anniversary this spring has generated media coverage, public interest and political promises to rehab the structure.

During the 1964 fair, the Space Age structure held exhibits on New York state, including a giant road map on the floor of an elliptical plaza known as the Tent of Tomorrow. With unusual curved towers that had cafeterias and an observation deck, the building gained even more fame after the fair thanks to cameos in movies including “The Wiz,” “Men in Black” and “Iron Man 2.”

Along with the Unisphere, the pavilion has become an unofficial symbol of Queens, visible from three major roadways. In 2002, the pavilion’s renowned architect, Philip Johnson, wrote that the ruin was “even more haunting than the original structure.”

“It tells a moment in the history of New York,” Dr. Walters said.

To document the pavilion’s ruinous state, the researchers will place high-speed 3-D laser scanners, each about the size of a football, atop tripods around the structure. Dr. Walters plans to stitch together about 50 to 60 images, with scanning lasting as long as half an hour in some parts, to capture the detail of the pavilion.

The researchers won’t be allowed to ascend the towers, which were once accessible by elevators that have since been stripped from their cables and stairs now so worn that they are treacherous to climb. Instead the towers, which are 60, 150 and 226 feet tall, will be scanned from the ground.

The scans will be stored in an archive for posterity and posted online to create a virtual tour, Dr. Walters said.

Relatively few buildings have been preserved in such novel fashion. Digital scanning was championed in recent years by the California nonprofit group CyArk, which has scanned more than 130 historic sites on all seven continents since its inception in 2003, according to its chief technology advocate, Justin Barton.

Conflict and severe weather threaten many landmarks documented by CyArk. Mount Rushmore, which is subject to cyclical freeze and thaw, was scanned in case “a portion of a nose or an ear or something” falls off, Dr. Walters said.

The university researchers are prepared to scan the pavilion by themselves, but CyArk is running an online fundraising campaign that would allow Mr. Barton to accompany Dr. Walters’s crew should the group reach its $15,000 goal by June 1. The pavilion would be among the youngest buildings in CyArk’s archive, which includes sites in ancient Egypt, Greece and Italy.

Mr. Barton noted the urgency of scanning the pavilion. While New Yorkers once considered their city and its landmarks immune from the most destructive natural disasters, a violent storm ripped the wooden steeple off a historic church in Flushing, Queens, in 2010, and superstorm Sandy ravaged Ellis Island in 2012.

“With climate change, it’s hard to say that things won’t happen in the future,” Mr. Barton said. “Weather’s becoming more unpredictable and severe in nature with the intensity of storms. The idea is to capture the data before something happens.”

Preservationist Mitch Silverstein, who has been repainting the pavilion with other volunteers for the past five years, said he believes the digital scans will preserve the look of the building just before its renaissance.

“This is really a historic moment,” he said. “Somehow the essence of the building should be captured.”

Matthew Silva, a preservation advocate and aspiring filmmaker who teaches technology at Jericho Middle School on Long Island, said he would take his eighth-grade students to meet the researchers at the pavilion.

“It’s not important to me that the kids become architects or become preservationists,” said Mr. Silva, who is making a documentary about the pavilion titled “Modern Ruin,” which he hopes to show at a film festival. “But it is important to me that the kids for the rest of their lives can share with people the story of the New York State Pavilion.”

50 Years Later, World’s Fair Lampposts are a Bright Light for Collectors

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published February 7, 2014
Wall Street Journal

Along Route 447 in the Pocono Mountains is a ribbon of retro lampposts topped by squares of ivory, orange, blue, and turquoise, fading away like panels of a Rubik’s Cube that was left out in the sun. They are bulky and heavy, rusty and dirty.

No matter to Mitch Silverstein.

“I would make space now if I could get a hold of one,” said Mr. Silverstein, 55 years old, of Nyack, N.Y. “It reflects our mortality. You’re grabbing something that reminds you of your youth and preserving it.”

Half a century ago, these lampposts dotted the grounds of the 1964-1965 World’s Fair in Queens, an array of whimsical exhibits and rides spread across 646 acres that would become Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. After the fair, a set of the luminaires, as they are known, was shipped 100 miles to Analomink, Pa., to welcome honeymooners to the Penn Hills Resort.

With the 50th anniversary of the fair’s opening this spring, online retailers are peddling books and trinkets from the fair for baby boomers high on nostalgia. But ardent collectors such as Mr. Silverstein have their eyes set on the luminaires at Penn Hills, which closed several years ago and recently transferred into new hands.

“They were just totally different from any other streetlight at the time,” said Bill Cotter, co-author of the new book “Images of Modern America: The 1964-1965 New York’s World’s Fair.”

The group that owns the property, Penn Resort Investments LLC, would prefer to keep the landmark lampposts at the 61.7-acre resort and sell the place as a whole, said one of the company’s principals, David Keller. But Mr. Keller, who said the group turned down an offer of $10,000 for the 10 luminaires on the grounds, said he and his partners could be convinced to sell the lampposts for the right price.

A spokesman for the Queens Museum, which is housed in the former New York City pavilion from the 1964-1965 fair, said the museum isn’t interested in buying the lights but would be open to accepting them as a donation.

Built by Westinghouse, the luminaires came in 76 modular configurations, from only four cubes per post to as many as 16, in vibrant colors like red, yellow, violet, coral, olive green, and chartreuse, according to renderings and fair brochures. Each translucent panel fit into a metal framework, and below them was a sound speaker.

After the fair closed, the luminaires could be found at salvage yards outside the fairgrounds, Mr. Cotter said. They resurfaced at the Villa Vosilla resort in Tannersville, N.Y.; the Orange County Fairgrounds in Middletown, N.Y., and as far away as the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds.

A 1978 TV commercial for Penn Hills played a romantic jingle—“If you’re in love, you’ll love Penn Hills”—over scenes of biking, dancing, tennis, horseback riding, and a large swimming pool with two luminaires nearby.

But the ranks of luminaires, which numbered about 1,800 at the world’s fair, have dwindled to no more than 200 today, by Mr. Cotter’s estimate.

The lamps’ 16-inch plexiglass cubes make them fragile and clunky to collect. Still, graphic designer Doug Seed, 62, managed to save four when Canobie Lake Park in Salem, N.H., scrapped most of them in 2009.

“You can’t not remember the lampposts,” said Mr. Seed, who went to the fair in each of its two summer seasons. “Where else were you going to see these things?”

Mr. Seed eventually gave away two lamps to friends he met on a world’s fair message board, furniture shop owner Gary Holmes, 60, of Wurtsboro, N.Y., and Long Island contractor John Piro, 64.

That made three luminaires for Mr. Holmes, who previously salvaged one from a shuttered restaurant in Liberty, N.Y., and another from a bungalow community near Wurtsboro.

“I’m still kind of a world’s fair nut,” Mr. Holmes said. “I’m interested in just making sure these things don’t get lost or totally destroyed. Even though there are hundreds of these around, you should try to save a few because you never know what will happen to them.”

Mr. Piro, meanwhile, worked his luminaire into the deck in his backyard in Westbury, rewiring the lights to illuminate his barbecues on summer nights and connecting the speaker to a radio.

“People come over and they’re mesmerized by it,” Mr. Piro said proudly. “It’s transcending—the lights and the shape. It’s absolutely beautiful. Every night I go out and turn it on.”

Mr. Cotter, the author, admitted that he would be in the market for a Penn Hills luminaire himself if not for the long haul from his home in Los Angeles to the Poconos, and the inevitable fight that would ensue with his wife over cluttering the house.

“Probably going to be a hard sell,” he said with a laugh, “but it’s awful tempting.”

In Queens, Paying Tribute to a Memorable Voice Some Would Rather Forget

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published July 13, 2013
Wall Street Journal

History teacher Carl Ballenas was eyeing a shady patch at the edge of Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, Queens—Plot 5, where nothing but sticks and browning grass was visible.

It was on this spot in 1914 that the bodies of 21 destitute people were dumped into an unmarked grave. One of them was George W. Johnson, a former slave who was among the first widely successful black recording artists.

“He’s here – some place,” said Mr. Ballenas, his eyes scanning the dirt.

Next January will mark the centennial of the unceremonious death of Mr. Johnson, an anniversary that Mr. Ballenas hopes to mark by dignifying the humble grave, perhaps with a $10,000 relief of the singer’s face on a boulder or a $40,000 bronze bust.

But the same songs that propelled Mr. Johnson to fame could complicate efforts to commemorate him after a century of obscurity. A black man in a white business, he was paid to sing racist lyrics that mocked African Americans. The phonograph companies that hired him in the 1890s, at the birth of the recording industry, used derogatory terms for blacks on the song sheets.

Mr. Johnson had a seemingly sordid personal life, too. At the height of his career, he was arrested on suspicion of murdering his common law wife, though charges were never filed, according to historians. A few years later, Mr. Johnson went on trial for the murder of another common law wife who had been found beaten and unconscious in their apartment. Again, he was exonerated.

By the time of Mr. Johnson’s death, the African American community was not celebrating him. Only one black newspaper appears to have run an obituary, glossing over the offensive lyrics that Mr. Johnson sang. The NAACP had been founded five years earlier, and blacks sought to move on from an era of demeaning songs.

“There was an embarrassment about him,” said Tim Brooks, author of the 2005 book “Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922,” which contains a chapter on Mr. Johnson. “He was, if not rejected, certainly forgotten and just pushed out of the memory of people by the time he died.”

The unease about Mr. Johnson’s work still lingers. Ken Cohen, who oversees the city’s NAACP branches, said that Mr. Ballenas’s effort puts the association in a Catch-22. He said he believes every grave should be marked, but admitted that Mr. Johnson’s legacy made him “slightly uncomfortable.”

“He actually made a pretty good dollar for that time,” Mr. Cohen said. “Of course, it links back to how he made the dollar.”

Born to slaves in rural Virginia, Mr. Johnson moved after the Civil War to New York City, eking out a livelihood singing on the streets. His whistling in particular caught the attention of early phonograph companies, since the sharp sound was easy for primitive recording machines to pick up.

“He slurs his phrases and he goes from one note into another in a very kind of naturalistic, almost street way, and yet does it in a way that is extremely intelligible,” Mr. Brooks said.

So enduring were Mr. Johnson’s catchy tunes, in fact, that he is still lauded by the music community. In 2007, the Grammy Award for best historical album went to a CD that accompanied Mr. Brooks’s book. It featured many recordings from early black musicians, including several of Mr. Johnson’s songs.

Richard Martin, who produced the album for his company, Archeophone Records, said Mr. Johnson’s jovial personality convinced white audiences of the late 19th century to buy the music of a black man.

“He’s got this infectious laugh, he whistles and he’s non-threatening to white people,” Mr. Martin said. “He does have that vigor and that excitement, and he might be accompanied by a hot ragtime pianist.”

In his fundraising effort, Mr. Ballenas already has support from the Josephine Foundation, a Long Island-based nonprofit that sponsors arts programs. Its chairman, Andrew Koslosky, said the foundation would try to raise money by hosting a jazz concert at Maple Grove — without playing Mr. Johnson’s songs.

“I don’t think anybody is saying he is a saint, but what he did historically has to be noted,” Mr. Koslosky said.

Mr. Ballenas is also seeking a grant from the MusiCares Foundation, the charitable arm of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which awards the Grammys. The foundation encouraged Mr. Ballenas to apply, strengthening his hope that music aficionados will look past Mr. Johnson’s lyrics and to his pioneering role.

“I want to recognize him as a musician, not for what he had no control over,” Mr. Ballenas said. “We want to bring his story back to life.”

Queens Boulevard Loses a Movie Icon, Disguised as a Fast Food Joint

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published June 15, 2013
Wall Street Journal

Until recently, the Wendy’s restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens, bustled with customers. But over the last few weeks, crews removed tables and chairs, ripped down signs and set up wooden boards along the perimeter.

So went the demise of perhaps the most famous fast-food joint in cinema history.

Eddie Murphy mopped the floors there. Arsenio Hall washed the windows. Louie Anderson worked the register, and Samuel L. Jackson tried to rob the place.

That was 25 years ago this month, when this nondescript Wendy’s was transformed into McDowell’s restaurant for the 1988 blockbuster “Coming to America.”

The cult classic, which grossed $288 million worldwide, features Mr. Murphy as a good-natured African prince who journeys to Queens to find a queen of his own. He winds up working on Queens Boulevard at McDowell’s, a McDonald’s rip-off where many of the movie’s most memorable lines are uttered.

The Wendy’s fast food restaurant location on Queens Blvd. was recently shut down. But the building, whose shell remains largely unchanged from the time the movie was shot there, will soon be razed to make way for a $105-million, six-story structure with luxury apartments and ground-floor stores, said Nick Chavin, a spokesman for developer Jerry Pi.

Mr. Anderson, who played a downtrodden cashier in “Coming to America,” said he is sad to see the landmark go.

“Wow! For me, it was not so much a hamburger stand as a chance to appear in a movie that became somewhat iconic,” he said.

McDowell’s plays heavily into the “Coming to America” plot. Shortly after arriving in America, Prince Akeem Joffer (Mr. Murphy) and his companion Semmi (Mr. Hall) begin working at the restaurant, without disclosing Akeem’s royal roots. Hilarity ensues when the restaurant’s owner, Cleo McDowell (John Amos), tells Akeem and Semmi that he has a “little misunderstanding” with McDonald’s. “They got the Golden Arches. Mine is the Golden Arcs,” McDowell explains. “Now see, they got the Big Mac. I got the Big Mick.”

Mr. Amos, who also starred in the hit 1970s TV series “Good Times,” said that he used to drive by the old McDowell’s location to remember what he called “a hallmark of my career.”

“It’s sort of a historical landmark for me,” he said. “There is an attachment to the brick and mortar, but everything crumbles in time and you have to make way for the new stuff. I guess they call it progress, and in the process we lose a lot of memories.”

As the film continues, Akeem falls in love with McDowell’s daughter, Lisa, played by Shari Headley in her first movie role. Ms. Headley, who was 23 at the time, had a quick commute between the McDowell’s shoot in Elmhurst and her childhood home in St. Albans, Queens.

But the fast-food set-up confused passersby.

“People were coming by and they were like, ‘Wow, what’s this new place McDowell’s?’” Ms. Headley said. “They really thought they could come there and eat. So that was pretty funny.”

McDowell’s also witnessed one of Mr. Jackson’s first cinematic performances, long before his roles in “Pulp Fiction” and “A Time to Kill.” In a pivotal scene, Mr. Jackson marches into McDowell’s, fires a shotgun into the ceiling and demands the cashier empty the register. Lisa’s vain boyfriend Darryl (Eriq La Salle, of “E.R.” fame) hides behind a chair while Akeem and Semmi manage to disarm the hold-up man.

The blocks around McDowell’s also made cameos in the film. A running joke in the movie surrounds a hair product named Soul Glo, which Darryl applies incessantly to his Jheri curls. The film’s director, John Landis, said the studio wanted to plaster a Soul Glo ad on a billboard at Queens Boulevard and Broadway, but the man who rented the billboard refused to give up the space. Eventually, the sides agreed to a cumbersome solution – creating the Soul Glo ad on canvas.

“We would roll it down and cover his ad only for the length of the shot,” Mr. Landis said. “As soon as I said, ‘Cut,’ there were guys with walkie-talkies that would roll it up. I remember what a pain in the ass it was.”

The legacy of McDowell’s figures to outlive the building. The faux eatery has its own page on Yelp, with five glowing reviews from “Coming to America” fans from as far away as California and Texas. Online retailers also sell T-shirts with the McDowell’s logo, though the profits don’t go to the men who first imagined McDowell’s, the screenwriting team of Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield.

“I directed a few movies, and once an actor came in with a McDowell’s T-shirt, and he said, ‘Look, I got this for you!’” Mr. Blaustein said. “And I went, ‘I don’t receive a penny from it. It’s not a tribute!’”

But the writers may earn their keep yet. Mr. Sheffield revealed the pair is seeking a composer to adapt the film into a Broadway musical that would prominently feature McDowell’s.

“You’ve already got a potential production number at Soul Glo,” Sheffield said with a laugh. “And then you’ve got another big production number at McDowell’s. It’s got to include mops and roller buckets.”

Is It Down There?

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published October 17, 2012

A mid-afternoon rainfall has saturated the dirt just enough that Dr. Lori Walters easily unearths some with the tip of her black loafer. A few yards away, groups of Latino men in bright t-shirts and blue jeans are playing a casual game of volleyball, bumping but never spiking, on a lazy Sunday in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the largest park in Queens.

Dr. Walters is tired. She has been on her feet for much of the past two days, running an exhibit at a science fair teeming with children and parents. Her fingers brush back strands of brown hair that a gentle wind has blown out of place, and she tucks her hands into the large pockets of a maroon jacket. Her slender body is weary, her voice cracking, and she still has a long trek home to Florida, where she is a history professor.

Lori Walters. Photo by Brad Horrigan.

A wayward volleyball—actually an old soccer ball, which serves the same purpose—hits the hard ground with a thud. Greenery envelops most of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, but not here, where patches of brown grass sprout between large swaths of exposed dirt. Saplings never seem to stand a chance.

Surely, trampling takes a toll on the turf. But can that be enough to stop the growth of trees? Might something be down there, obstructing their existence?

Dr. Walters perks up.

“It’s a mystery,” she says, beaming. “Is it there? What does it look like?”

She grows eager and smiles, wondering if something, anything, remains at this spot from nearly half a century ago, when it was transformed into Block 50, Lot 5, at the 1964 World’s Fair.

“We could probably figure out something at this moment if we wanted to just dig.”

Size mattered at the World’s Fair—especially height. Spread across nearly a square mile of Queens were hundreds of exhibits from states, countries and corporations that equated altitude with esteem. The Unisphere, a stainless steel globe that came to symbolize the fair, towered twelve stories tall. Elevators dubbed Sky Streaks whisked passengers 226 feet to the observation deck of the hulking New York State Pavilion. Other attractions had spires or high-pitched roofs.

But not at Block 50, Lot 5.

“Most of the architectural highlights of the World’s Fair spiral skyward,” the New York World-Telegram & Sun reported on November 18, 1963. “And then there’s the Underground World Home.”

* * *
Coinciding with the 300th anniversary of New York City, the 1964 World’s Fair offered an awe-inspiring array of whimsical rides, displays of state-of-the-art technology and glimpses of exotic cultures. Many of the 140 pavilions looked to the future, imagining radical, wondrous changes in the life of the average American. Organizers slated the fair to run for two six-month seasons, from April to October in 1964 and ’65.

A page from the World’s Fair official guide book.

In the lead-up to the fair, the New York press marveled at the newly constructed subterranean dwelling that most knew simply as the Underground Home. The Wall Street Journal welcomed “a new frontier for family living.” The Herald Tribune extolled the virtues of living with “good old earth on all sides.” By the time the fair opened on April 22, 1964, the Underground Home had already generated headlines in all the major dailies.

Jay Swayze was delighted. A lumber dealer and home builder from Plainview, Texas, Swayze designed the Underground Home in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when many Americans feared an impending nuclear attack. Families hurried to build fallout shelters, but many of them were bland and cramped. Swayze began tinkering with spacious underground homes suitable for year-round living.

Protection from radioactive fallout, as well as everyday noise and pollution, lured a bold-faced name to Swayze’s work. In 1964, Girard Henderson, who sat on the board of directors of Avon Products, the beauty manufacturer, had an underground residence built for him in Colorado. He was so enthralled that he financed Swayze’s Underground Home at the World’s Fair, convinced that the masses would buy into subsurface living, too.

Swayze’s team scored a plot on the fairgrounds between the Hall of Science and the Port Authority Heliport, and they began to dig fifteen feet into the Flushing Meadows marsh. Within a few months they had created a concrete shell of about 12,000 square feet and installed the home’s gypsum board ceilings. Candelabras sat on the Steinway & Sons piano in the living room. A simulated garden featured a bed of plastic flowers, artificial wisteria and an organ.

A sign welcoming visitors to the Underground Home. Photo courtesy of Bill Cotter of worldsfairphotos.com.

Like other exhibits at the fair, the Underground Home incorporated many novel accoutrements. A snorkel-like system pumped air into the ten-room house. The lighting allowed residents to pick the time of day and the season they wanted with just the turn of a knob—like “midnight at noon” and “summer in winter,” as Swayze bragged. He also installed “dial-a-view,” which let occupants pick the murals they would see through the windows. One of the choices was a knight riding a horse to a castle.

The Underground Home was billed as “sub-urban,” in keeping with the clever marketing that permeated the fair. But it was not like other exhibits. A glance at a bookshelf inside the home underscored the chief motivation for buying such a dwelling. One book was titled “Our New Life with the Atom.” Another was “Foreign Policy Without Fear.”

The Miami News ran a telling caption with its profile of the home’s interior designer, Marilynn Motto: “Her designs are enough to calm a subterranean dweller during an H-bombing.”

These reminders of a nuclear age seemed out of place at a fair with so many bright visions of “the world of tomorrow today.” The fair embraced a theme of “peace through understanding,” while the Underground Home was most appealing to visitors who didn’t think peace would last very long.

“The idea of an underground home in ’61 or ’62 was to protect you from the Soviets—the evil, nasty Soviets,” Dr. Walters says. “Along comes the Cuban Missile Crisis, and you realize we can blow ourselves off the planet.”

Swayze deemed his exhibit a success. Fifteen years after the fair ended, he published a book on underground living that described a parade of visitors roaming the Underground Home, all of them declaring, “This is a dream world.” He boasted that more than 1.6 million people had visited the home, a stunning total.

By most other accounts, the Underground Home was a flop. At a fair where many popular exhibits were free, it had an admission price of a dollar for adults and fifty cents for children. Some doubt that the home enjoyed so many visitors when other, more thrilling, attractions charged nothing at all. General Motors had set up a free ride called Futurama, where passengers witnessed scenes of a jungle, the moon and a futuristic city that had moving sidewalks and midtown airports. Walt Disney designed the equally impressive, and equally gratis, Magic Skyway ride at the Ford Pavilion.

Swayze’s bottom line may have also been hurt by the lack of souvenirs he sold. Only two were available at the Underground Home: an eight-page brochure on underground living, few of which survive today because few were probably bought, and an LP record by Grammy Award-winning singer Johnny Mann, a friend of Henderson, the underground home aficionado and Avon board member.

Also sold, of course, were the homes themselves, at the hefty price of $80,000 each, more than half a million dollars by today’s standards. But visitors, it turned out, were unwilling to radically alter their lifestyles and plunk down so much money on what amounted to an experiment. Near the end of the fair’s first season, the New York Times reported that not a single underground home had been sold.

After the fair ended in the fall of ’65, most of its attractions were demolished so the city could transform the sprawling space into what would become the 1,250-acre Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Only a few structures evaded the wrecking ball, and most of them remain today, including the Unisphere, the New York State Pavilion, the Hall of Science (later re-branded as the New York Hall of Science) and the Port Authority Heliport (now a catering hall dubbed Terrace on the Park). The rest had to be torn down by the exhibitors, as mandated by their contracts.

An image purporting to show the “demolition” of the Underground Home after the fair ended. Photo by Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos, Inc.

Some, however, believe that Swayze, wanting to avoid high demolition costs, removed furnishings from the Underground Home but left its shell intact, hidden beneath several feet of dirt.

“I doubt that Mr. Swayze did more than he had to,” says Bill Cotter, who has written several books on world’s fairs.

Cotter visited the Underground Home on one of many adolescent treks from Long Island to the fair, as part of a personal pledge to see every exhibit at least once. Now 60, he helps run a message board known as the World’s Fair Community, where Baby Boomers who attended the fair have united to reminisce. Many of them had never before been exposed to such culture and technology, so they rank their visits to the expo among the most memorable experiences of their lives. They recall eye-opening demonstrations of computers and picture phones. They remember waiting in long lines at the Vatican Pavilion to glimpse Michelangelo’s Pietà, walking through the Sinclair Oil exhibit to check out the moving dinosaur figures, and visiting the Belgium Village for a taste of a delicacy that would become known as a Belgian waffle.

One of the most popular topics on the message board is what became of the Underground Home. Lively discussions on the site have revealed two prevailing views: Some think that parts of the Underground Home may still exist, while others doubt Swayze left anything behind.

It’s clear where Cotter stands: “If you had a chance to just cover it with dirt and run like hell, or spend money to rip things out, which of the two options would you take?”

* * *
Dr. Walters wants to solve the mystery. She cannot turn to Swayze or Henderson, both of whom have died, and Swayze’s book, “Underground Gardens & Homes,” does not cover what happened to the Underground Home after the fair. It’s hard to definitively piece together the fate of the exhibit from newspaper articles and the official records of the fair, which are housed at the New York Public Library.

So Dr. Walters feels that she has no other choice. She must dig.

“It’s probably been roaming around in my head for at least five or six years,” she admits on a recent Sunday afternoon in the park, clutching a worn guide to the World’s Fair.

Dr. Walters did not attend the fair; in fact, she wasn’t even alive then. But in high school she became interested in American history after World War II, leading to research on the fair and eventually the Underground Home. She feels the home nicely bridges two eras: Its conception was rooted in the Cold War mentality of the 1950s, but it debuted at a world’s fair that is considered one of the most significant cultural events of the ’60s, attended by about 51 million people.

Dr. Walters landed funding a few years ago for another World’s Fair project after winning support from the University of Central Florida, where she teaches post-war U.S. history. She partnered with the New York Hall of Science and the Queens Museum of Art—both of which occupy buildings used at the ’64 fair—to create a virtual, Internet-based re-creation of the fairgrounds, known as “Come Back to the Fair,” which is slated to be unveiled soon.

To excavate the Underground Home, Dr. Walters plans to rely again on her university. She hopes her archeologist colleagues will guide the search, perhaps with financial backing from the university, grants and private foundations. (She has already secured grants for her virtual re-creation of the fair from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.)

With monetary aid, Dr. Walters says her team could rent ground-penetrating radar and scan for anything unusual beneath the dirt. If the crew detects something, they could dig holes large enough for endoscopic cameras that might reveal if the home is still structurally intact or even furnished, as some believe. Eventually, she hopes to utilize camera-enabled robots that would be easier to control.
For Dr. Walters, the project is largely an educational tool. She envisions opening the dig to streams of school children visiting the New York Hall of Science, which casts a shadow on the Underground Home site. Each of the children could have a hand in controlling the robots.

“Everybody thinks of archeology, and they think of going down to Mexico or Egypt or Jordan, but there are a lot of wonderful 20th-century sites,” she points out. “It’s not like something that’s two thousand years old, finding some Egyptian medallion or something like that, but it still gives you the same understanding of the process.”

She is currently developing an excavation proposal for the city Parks Department, which cares for the former fairgrounds, and she is eyeing the summer of 2014, the fiftieth anniversary of the fair’s opening, as the ideal time for a dig.

Winning city approval may take some convincing, though. Officials don’t think the Underground Home still exists.

Zachary Feder, a spokesman for the Parks Department, declined to comment on whether the city would approve an excavation, citing the lack of a formal proposal. In a terse email, he also wrote that the Underground Home was demolished after the fair “to the best of our knowledge.” As proof, he attached a black-and-white photograph that shows debris scattered on the ground above the exhibit. The caption describes the scene as “demolition.”

The picture, though, is not persuasive evidence of the home’s destruction. The shot shows only the surface, where most of the Underground Home was never visible. In fact, the photograph seems to support theories that parts of the home were never torn down: rising about a foot above the dirt are what appear to be three walls.

It’s not enough to convince Steven Quinterno, 22, who recently graduated with a history degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. This spring, Quinterno was watching “Men in Black 3” with some friends, and they began joking about the conspiracy theories propagated by the film franchise. In the first movie, in 1997, the New York State Pavilion was depicted as merely a ruse to mask alien spaceships. By the third one, secret agents zoomed past the Unisphere and met with a prescient alien at Shea Stadium, which opened in the park the same year as the ’64 World’s Fair.

Quinterno got to thinking. His dad had visited the fair and described its enormity to Steven, who couldn’t comprehend how the Underground Home might actually remain beneath the park. “How can something that was part of this gigantic, prominent festival just be forgotten?” he wondered. Quinterno went on to read several books on underground homes, including Swayze’s. He even tracked down Girard Henderson’s nephew, who politely said he didn’t know much about the Underground Home.

Quinterno also scoured the online database of the New York Public Library, where he found listings for records relating to the home. Busy studying for final exams, he asked a friend from Long Island to go to the library, scan the documents and email them to him in Pittsburgh. These papers, he believes, finally shed light on the official fate of the Underground Home: a pair of memos sent to then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in June 1966 listed the home among the exhibits that “completed demolition.” But Quinterno isn’t satisfied. Like Dr. Walters, he still wonders how thoroughly the fair corporation inspected the dismantling of exhibits. There were, after all, hundreds to tear down.

Quinterno, too, wants to excavate the site. He made clear that he does not wish to compete with Dr. Walters, but he feels he may have better connections to launch a dig. He figures that Carnegie Mellon might be in a stronger position to ship its own ground-penetrating radar to Queens than Dr. Walters’ university, a thousand miles away; Dr. Walters, meanwhile, is exploring the viability of renting equipment.

“It’s not something that I’m in a rush to claim or anything,” Quinterno stresses, adding that he senses a calling to find the Underground Home.

“There’s something down there,” he says with absolute certainty, “and it’s something of a time capsule.”

* * *
Digging for the Underground Home doesn’t make sense to everyone who went to the fair. Author Larry Samuel, who researched the exhibit for his 2007 book “The End of the Innocence,” doesn’t share the enthusiasm for excavation. He understands the passion people still feel for the fair—an emotion that he shares, having visited himself—but he believes the excavation would be a misguided attempt to re-live the past.

“You’re not going to get it back by saving the few little relics,” he says. Jokingly, he imagines some fair enthusiasts trying to pull the Underground Home up from the park and haul it away on the Grand Central Parkway with a semi.

That hasn’t happened yet, but some amateurs have tried to unearth the home with little more than a shovel and a crusading spirit.

About two years ago, John Piro, a contractor from Long Island, and Mitch Silverstein, a lab researcher from Nyack, secured a permit from the Parks Department to dig on the site. (They sought and received a blanket permit to dig in any city park, without revealing their motive.)

Piro, 63, who played in a band at the fair, had decided to search for the Underground Home after engaging in chatter about it on the World’s Fair Community site.

The permit allowed Piro and Silverstein to use only a small shovel. They thought that such a manual effort would take too much time and displace too much dirt, all of which they’d have to put back. Instead, the pair stuck a steel rod in the dirt and pounded on it with a shovel to see how far down they’d get.

Piro is gleeful as he recalls what happened. “We were hitting that baby all the way,” he says, referring to the steel rod. “And this baby—boom!—stopped at that four-and-a-half-foot mark. We definitely hit something.”

During the fair, the home was beneath about three feet of dirt, and Piro believes its remains were buried a little deeper—perhaps a foot-and-a-half deeper—after the expo. The home, he imagines, could still be down there.

“It’s the only pavilion that you might be able to go into,” he says. “If you broke into that encasement, there might be furniture in there. You don’t know.”

* * *
Online banter about the Underground Home also intrigued Trey Callaway, who grew up in Oklahoma but feels a deep bond to the fairgrounds. His parents went on several dates at the fair, and they joked that he was conceived there. Callaway even proposed to his wife at the Unisphere.

It’s not surprising that he picked the enormous globe for that romantic moment. It appears in thousands of family photographs from the fair, with smiling families lining up for a must-have shot. Not so for the Underground Home. It was relatively dark and not conducive to photographs; in the days before cameras had memory cards, a visitor didn’t want to waste a valuable exposure on a shot that might not come out. Besides, the tables and murals in the Underground Home weren’t nearly as picturesque as the Unisphere, or the General Motors or Ford pavilions.

Still, Callaway is captivated by the Underground Home. It has a powerful mystique—like a time capsule unseen for half a century. The fact that there are so few photos of the home itself adds to its allure. So Callaway decided to bring the story to the masses, without raising a shovel.

Six years ago, he became an executive producer and writer for “CSI: NY,” and he began thinking about how to work the Underground Home into an episode. “I knew pretty much from the first time I joined the show,” Callaway remembers. “I was determined to play with that Underground Home lore.”

Nearly five decades removed from public consciousness, the Underground Home made a comeback in an episode named “Manhattanhenge” in November 2009. The show picks up with detectives investigating the so-called Compass Killer, who was once an urban planner before his wife’s death drove him insane. Since the killer has an intimate knowledge of the city, he descends into the sewers beneath Queens, breaks through a wall and enters the Underground Home. From this secret lair, the madman plots his devastating crimes.

The show imagines the place as fully furnished and almost pristine. The “CSI” designers took some liberties with the furnishings of the Underground Home, like adding a gas-powered generator to explain how the killer has light down there. But much of the design was based on the original floor plans from the fair. Shaggy carpeting dated the living room to the 1960s, as did the period sofas, tables and lamps. Even a “dial-a-view” mural was included, this one with a vintage backdrop of New York City.

Acknowledging the passing of time at the Underground Home, the “CSI” team treated the bed sheets and wallpaper with chemicals to make them look older. But the home appeared mostly intact, with few visible signs of water damage and none of the furniture askew. Callaway doubts the real home has fared so well.

“Even if they left everything, it would be so heavily deteriorated that it would be beyond recognition,” he says. “The ravages of soil and water and all of that combined—if there is anything down there, it’s probably a muddy, soupy shambles.”

Talk of an excavation reminds Callaway not of his own work but of another small-screen moment.

In 1986, Geraldo Rivera hyped a TV special called “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults.” Capone, the notorious Chicago gangster, had supposedly stashed valuables below one of the swankiest hotels in the city, and construction crews were going to bust open the vaults for a live national audience. A medical examiner was on hand in case the workers discovered any bodies of Capone’s victims. The IRS came, too, hoping to recoup some of the back taxes that Capone owed.

“This is an adventure you and I are going to be taking together,” Rivera told the audience.

It was a colossal bust. The vault contained nothing but an old stop sign and empty gin bottles. To hold up his end of a bet, Rivera half-heartedly sang the first few lines of “Chicago” on the air. He later said that he was humiliated.

Dr. Walters has no plans of televising an excavation of the Underground Home, but she acknowledges that her dig could reach a similarly disappointing conclusion. She thinks Swayze probably carted away most of the furnishings from the Underground Home, so she is framing her excavation as something greater than the chance to unearth buried treasure.

“That’s not a good enough reason to try to dig up a section of the park, for the curiosity of people that are interested only in the fair,” she says. “For me, the real value is that we can teach kids about something that happened in their own backyard.”

In fact, Dr. Walters says that even she does not consider the home her favorite exhibit at the fair.

“I think the Underground Home is interesting, but to be honest with you, the coolest exhibits at the fair?” She trails off, pausing for a few moments. “I’m going to go with the stock ones. The GM and the Ford pavilions are tough to beat.”

Of course they are. Both were really, really tall.

Jackson Hts. Sidewalks Stained by a Messy Treat

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published August 13, 2012
The New York Times

On a stroll through the busy streets of Jackson Heights, Queens, Sahadev Poudel kept gesturing at the ground with disgust. He stopped on the sidewalks in front of sari boutiques and Indian grocery stores, pointing out stains that looked like dried blood.

“It’s all over the place,” said Mr. Poudel, 33, who immigrated from Nepal in 2004. “This is completely bad behavior that we brought from our hometown.”

The sidewalks of New York have long been blotted by black blobs where chewing gum met its demise. But the reddish-brown splotches that trouble Mr. Poudel are seemingly unique to the 74th Street commercial district, and they are causing friction among the South Asians who eat, work and shop there.

These are the marks of paan.

At a dollar each, paan has become a popular after-dinner treat in Jackson Heights. It is made by folding dried fruits, nuts and pastes into a betel leaf, a member of the pepper family. Some people like a sweet type of paan with candy-coated fennel seeds and rose petal preserves, chomping on it to freshen their breath or swallowing it to help digestion. Others go for paan with cured tobacco, despite warnings about blackened gums and oral cancer.

Whatever the mix, paan loses its flavor in a matter of minutes — leading to a messy end. To the chagrin of Jackson Heights shopkeepers, some passers-by spit half-chewed betel leaves and saliva onto the sidewalks, just as they did in their native countries.

“It’s now becoming an icon of Jackson Heights,” said Mr. Poudel, who runs an Internet radio station aimed at Nepalis in New York.

Paan dyes the saliva a reddish brown, giving it a bloodlike hue that may, in fact, be enhanced by traces of blood, since chewing tobacco can cause gums to bleed.

“It’s disgusting,” said Tala Haider, 16, who grew up in Pakistan and lives in Flushing. He said he occasionally bought sweet paan in Jackson Heights, but would never spit on sidewalks. “You’re seeing blood on the street,” he said, “and it just makes you sick.”

Spitting in public carries a fine of at least $200, said Alexandra Waldhorn, a spokeswoman for the health department. But shop owners say they have never seen anyone receive a violation.

Once paan spittle hits the sidewalk, the city does not come to wash it away. Kathy Dawkins, a spokeswoman for the Sanitation Department, said it did not remove stains, paan or otherwise, from sidewalks. But she promised that the city would “pay closer attention” to the issue.

The stains regularly set off debates in Jackson Heights, which attracts visitors from a mix of paan-chewing countries like Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Many are quick to lay the blame for the ubiquitous blemishes on any nationality but their own. Older immigrants privately scold newcomers for clinging to the bad habits of their homeland.

On a recent night, a green neon sign with the word “PAN” — a variation of the typical spelling — glowed in the window of the Kabab King restaurant at 37th Road and 73rd Street. At his stand inside the restaurant, Abdul Malek folded betel leaves for a steady stream of customers. The restaurant’s manager, MD Yousuf, estimated he sold paan about 100 to 200 pieces of paan each week.

Asked about the stains outside Kabab King, Mr. Malek denied that his customers spit in public. He then added that 95 percent of his customers are from Pakistan, not his native Bangladesh.

One of those Pakistani customers, Mirza Ali, said he stopped by Kabab King two or three times each week to pick up sweet paan. It is a two-hour round-trip drive from Mr. Ali’s home in West Babylon, on Long Island, but he said the unique flavor was worth it.

“It’s very good enjoyment,” Mr. Ali, 43, said with a smile.

Sidewalks are not the only victims of paan.

Shiv Dass, president of the Jackson Heights Indian Merchants Association, said customers sometimes entered his two clothing stores and unintentionally drooled the red juice onto his merchandise.

He cannot easily remove paan stains, so he ends up discarding most of the soiled clothes. “That stuff doesn’t come out,” he said.

Mr. Dass and Mr. Poudel have proposed signs that would discourage paan spitting, perhaps written in South Asian languages like Bengali, Hindi and Urdu.

Emad Choudhury, who moved from Bangladesh in 1978, said he wanted to educate newer immigrants about American social customs. Mr. Choudhury, a car salesman, is organizing a convention this month in Boston that he said would draw 5,000 Bengali immigrants from across the United States. It will be a good opportunity to spread his message.

For now, however, store owners are suffering the consequences of paan spittle. The employees at the Delhi Heights restaurant on 74th Street, not far from Mr. Yousuf’s stand, said that they scrubbed the sidewalk with bleach every day but that doing so did not always remove the stubborn spots.

“It doesn’t look good for the customer or anyone else,” said Suman Oli, 27, an assistant manager at the restaurant. “That’s a very bad habit.”

For Nepalese Salon Workers, a Cultural Hurdle to Overcome

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published May 14, 2012
The New York Times

From a stool barely a foot high, the Nepalese woman hunched over the wrinkled feet of an older woman, attending to them with care and proficiency. She immersed the customer’s feet in a small whirlpool, snipping and filing away.

“I didn’t even tell my friends what I did here because I felt so embarrassed,” the woman said, reaching for a pumice stone to remove dry skin from the bottom of the customer’s feet. “Now, no more.”

The Nepalese immigrant, Rambika KC, was eager for employment when she arrived in New York City about a decade ago. She was drawn to beauty salons, where many Asian immigrants had found jobs after acquiring the necessary licenses with only a few months of training.

She now owns a salon in Glendale, Queens, which bears a reminder of her homeland: a panoramic photograph of the Himalayas. But she still remembers her beginnings in New York, when having to perform pedicures was nearly a deal breaker.

Women in Nepal, especially Hindus, touch only their husbands’ or parents’ feet as a sign of respect, said Tara Niraula, an advocate of immigrants’ rights and a former administrator at the New School who was born in Nepal and is considered an expert on Nepalis in New York. To touch strangers’ feet is to show deference they have not earned, Dr. Niraula said, and to label oneself as low-class, or at least lower than the person whose feet are being handled.

Amrit Rai, minister counselor of the Nepalese mission to the United Nations, acknowledged that many traditional Nepalis would frown upon female pedicurists. “There are people who will say Nepali women should not do that job,” he said.

But Mr. Rai said community leaders in New York were encouraging the Nepalese women who overcame their culture’s aversion to touching strangers’ feet. “They are courageous women,” he said. “We are proud of them.”

Many Nepalese women who have thrived in New York’s salon industry credit their success to Mohan Gyawali, who was an engineer in Nepal and now runs two salons in western Queens. He estimated that he had trained about 400 Nepalis to perform pedicures, manicures and other beauty mainstays, and to navigate the licensing process.

“If immigrants come to a new place, they need a new skill,” Mr. Gyawali, 49, said between answering phone calls at C Spa on Metropolitan Avenue in Middle Village, Queens. “This is the entry point.”

It is not an easy transition. One of Mr. Gyawali’s employees, Srijana Shrestha, broke down when she realized the requirements of her new job. “I’m crying the first time I saw everybody doing pedicures,” said Ms. Shrestha, 26. She recalled thinking, “Oh my God, it’s so scary. I don’t like it.”

But customers alleviated Ms. Shrestha’s fears. When she touched their feet, they did not look down on her as she had expected they would.

Mr. Gyawali said his students were running over two dozen of about 50 Nepalese salons in the city, most of them in Manhattan. He said he was not troubled by the competition, viewing the other stores as job outlets for other Nepalis trying to make a living in New York.

Samjhana Khanal hired several Nepalese women to work at her beauty salon in Astoria, Queens, when it opened last November. Ms. Khanal’s standing as a young, female business owner would make her a rarity in Nepal, but she said she enjoyed running the salon far more than baby-sitting, which her relatives had suggested after she arrived in New York in 2007.

Ms. Khanal, 26, is an exception in another sense as well: she insisted that she had never felt uneasy handling strangers’ feet. She chuckled as she said her profession had worried only her father-in-law, who fussed that a woman of slight build like herself would be unable to effectively clean the feet of someone much larger.

She is prepared, though, to calm new employees who dread giving pedicures. She tells them that the customers are genial and do not look down on women who touch strangers’ feet. Indeed, patrons welcome the employees.

“They invite me to their birthday parties,” Ms. Khanal said with a grin. “They want to add me on Facebook.”

On a recent afternoon at Ms. KC’s salon in Glendale, Jessica Lewis and her fiancé, Joe Green, rolled up their pants for pedicures a day before their wedding.

Ms. Lewis said she had become a regular because the employees treated her kindly. As if on cue, the workers insisted that they would not charge Ms. Lewis that day. They asked that she accept the free pedicure as a wedding present.

Ms. Lewis was surprised when she was told that many Nepalese pedicurists were initially hesitant to touch strangers’ feet. She gestured to the woman ministering to her toes, which were separated by cotton balls, and said, “You would think she was born to do this.”

Bachata Circuit Brings World-Famous Stars to Hole-in-the-Wall Queens Clubs

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published February 21, 2012

At times barely visible due to machine-generated smoke, Frank Reyes serenaded hundreds of Latino couples whose bodies were bathed in the multicolored lights in a nightclub above a car dealership.

Women in tight dresses danced with men in blue jeans as Reyes, who bills himself as “el principe de la bachata,” sang the music that made him a household name in Dominican and Puerto Rican communities. His nickname means “prince of bachata,” an increasingly popular type of music defined by lyrics about heartbreak.

Reyes has released countless viral music videos and even played Madison Square Garden. Despite those credentials, he was performing at 3 a.m. on Wednesday, his voice drowning out the clacking of high heels at La Boom nightclub at 56-15 Northern Boulevard, in an area few would expect to host an international celebrity.

“You have to understand this music, bachata music, was born in small, little places for poor people,” said the concert’s promoter, Cesar Cabrera, adding that bachata singers enjoy intimate settings like La Boom. “Close contact with people — that’s what they like.”

Queens has become a fixture on the bachata circuit, thanks to Latino communities in Corona, East Elmhurst and Woodside. Madison Square Garden may still be the best spot in the city to catch Jay Z or Bruce Springsteen, but fans will find many of the world’s most famous bachata singers in Queens, playing clubs ranging in capacity from several hundred to about 1,500.

La Boom isn’t the only stop for bachata royalty. Reyes, for example, will perform again on Feb. 23 at the Jubilee Restaurant Lounge on 94th St. in East Elmhurst. Another bachata star, Raulin Rodriguez, will play Maracas New York nightclub on Jamaica Avenue in Richmond Hill on Feb. 19. Such concerts are weekly if not daily occurrences in the borough.

In the light drizzle outside La Boom before Reyes’s recent performance, Alexandra Ahumada said that Queens bachata concerts allow clubgoers to hang out with friends within a few feet of singers who create the soundtracks of their lives.

“Young people like to party a lot, and we like the concerts because you get to see the people that you listen to,” said Ahumada, 21, of Jamaica. “It’s actually a joy.”

Club performances also offer a release for bachata fans who say they would feel restrained in larger venues where crowds typically sit and watch a singer rather than dance.

“When I hear that music, I immediately need to, want to, my legs just force me to dance,” said Matthew Diaz, 26, of South Ozone Park. “You just grab the closest girl to you and get on the dance floor.”

Frank Reyes. Photo by Nicholas Hirshon.

Bachata originated in bars and brothels in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s. Many Dominicans frowned upon the sexually suggestive lyrics and still view the genre as the music for lower classes, said Deborah Pacini Hernandez, author of the 1994 book “Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music.”

But the rhythm struck a chord with younger audiences. Bachata broke through internationally after singer Juan Luis Guerra won a Grammy for his band’s 1990 album “Bachata Rosa.” The genre has since yielded a slew of stars whose posters hang on the walls of Latino households across the city.

Bachata’s most famous heartthrobs, such as Prince Royce and lead singer Romeo Santos of the band Aventura, now hit up venues larger than what Queens can offer, though they did play there often as beginners. Still, Queens crowds can hear singers just a rung below those superstars on a regular basis.

Most Queens clubgoers were born decades after bachata was created and won gradual acceptance, at least in the United States, so they may not realize the stigma still attached to it in the Dominican Republic, Hernandez said.

Others are too passionate about bachata music to care about the dismissive opinions of others. At Reyes’s concert at La Boom, men and women were still piling in after 2 a.m. Security checked their IDs beneath a black awning, and couples ascended an outdoor staircase to the second-floor club. They turned over tickets that had cost $30 in advance or $45 at the door.

Inside, dozens of men held up smart phones to record the performance, jostling for prime position. Women alongside the stage gleefully screamed for Reyes, extending their hands as if to touch him. He was beyond their reach, but smiled widely in return.

Playing at neighborhood nightclubs makes financial sense for bachata singers. In a typical month, Reyes can make $700,000 with about 30 to 40 parties at nightclubs, Cabrera said. Reyes could command higher individual rates by playing large venues, but Cabrera said the occasional nature of the concerts makes them less profitable as a whole for bachata stars.

Diaz’s brother, Dario, said he thinks the singers enjoy the intimate performances just as much as fans do. “They feel the same excitement looking out into the audience and seeing everyone dance,” said Diaz, 36, of Ozone Park.

He laughed when asked what else lures him to bachata concerts in Queens.“You love the selection of women that show up,” he said.

Series: Vanishing Vintage Queens

From February to March 2011, Nicholas Hirshon wrote a three-part series for the New York Daily News named “Vanishing Vintage Queens,” documenting the demise of middle-class hangouts such as diners and Masonic lodges in the New York City borough of Queens.

First Installment: Dealing With Their Losses

Published February 24, 2011

Bargains abound at the 99-cent store that opened on 37th Ave. last fall, replacing the Cavalier Restaurant in Jackson Heights.

But locals gripe that the deals are a poor substitute for what the Cavalier had provided – a place where friends met for the familiar faces and unique atmosphere that was a part of the community for half a century.

Some refuse to patronize its discount replacement, still longing for the Cavalier’s neon signs and camaraderie. “I get a sinking feeling in my stomach,” said filmmaker Celeste Balducci, 53, who has lived in the area for nearly 25 years. The 99-cent shop doesn’t “add anything to the neighborhood – no personality, no charm,” she said.

It’s a common refrain nowadays in Queens. The Unisphere symbolizes Queens, but the borough’s residents often feel more affection for the hangouts in their orbit of daily lives.

In recent years, Queens has lost a startling set of haunts associated with its middle class, such as diners, ice cream parlors, movie houses and bowling alleys.

The Daily News kicks off its Vanishing Vintage Queens series today to examine a trend that locals fear is fraying the civic fabric of the borough as the unique gives way to the generic. In coming weeks, The News will profile some storied places that have disappeared in the last decade. When locals lose sites that defined their neighborhoods, experts contend, their sense of place drops.

“It’s that feeling that you belong,” said Marci Reaven of Place Matters, which builds an online inventory of not only the city’s traditional historic places but also its beloved stomping grounds.

Neighborhoods are always evolving, inevitably leading to closures of some institutions. In Queens, some fell victim to market forces and rent hikes. Others waned in popularity as the borough became more diverse and new immigrants created their own hot spots.

The transformations aren’t all negative. Queens has gained many ethnic eateries, for example, that have become the pride of their communities.

But the last decade alone has seen so many deeply rooted establishments close – including the Cavalier – that some worry Queens is losing its identity.

Worse, those spots are being replaced with unexceptional offices, banks or chains, leaving a homogeneous look. Combating the trend has been difficult. Community groups urge their members to frequent longtime businesses. But many chains offer cheaper prices and longer hours.

To call attention to legendary hangouts, the fledgling Queens Hall of Fame plans to honor them with plaques or brochures.

“It adds to the community, it adds to the appeal to have those places that have a rich history,” said the hall’s executive producer, Laurence Christian.

But even that may not save some of the notable – if unofficial – landmarks in the borough. “There are many ways to harm a community,” Reaven warned. “One of the most serious ways is the loss of the places that are formal and informal gathering places.”

SIDEBAR: Devotees Say Loss of Niederstein’s Symbolizes the Wurst of Times

Six years ago, the German restaurant Niederstein’s still served platefuls of bratwurst and Wiener schnitzel for its hungry faithful in Middle Village.

Today, a cowboy hat outlined in red marks the spot where Niederstein’s stood on Metropolitan Ave., welcoming visitors to its fast-food successor, Arby’s.

Longtime residents still shudder when recounting the loss of the 150-year-old local institution after its purchase by Arby’s and demolition in 2005.

“That kind of ripped the gut out of us,” said Bob Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association. Since the sandwich joint replaced one of Queens’ most well-known eateries, he added, “Middle Village hasn’t been the same.”

Locals say the exit of Niederstein’s – where generations gripped beer mugs while celebrating birthdays and weddings – symbolizes about a decade’s worth of lost working-class hangouts in Queens.

The restaurant became a popular stop after funerals, too, given its proximity to multiple cemeteries. But it met its demise after a co-owner died. His slice of the property passed onto his estate and the land was eventually sold.

Author Jason Antos, who documented the transition in his 2009 book “Queens: Then & Now,” said Niederstein’s brought locals together for unique fare – whereas Arby’s does not distinguish the area.

“You lose the identity and heritage of the neighborhood,” he said. “It begins to look like everywhere else.”

Second Installment: Old-Time Diners Fade Away

Published March 10, 2011

The familiar names once beckoned customers across Queens on buzzing neon signs: the Bayside, the Fame, the Scobee and the Future.

The comfy atmosphere at these diners lured locals to their favorite booths, oversize menus and kitschy memorabilia on the walls.

Not anymore. Those four diners are among many to close in the borough in recent years – an indication, some fear, that the distinctive gathering spots are disappearing from Queens.

“Diners are such an important part of the Queens culture,” said Jack Friedman of the Queens Chamber of Commerce. “It’s where we grew up. . . . Everything was based around the diner.”

And it’s not just diners. Locals worry the borough is losing traditional middle-class hangouts that once provided a sense of place.

Now in its second installment, the Vanishing Vintage Queens series is exploring the loss of communal spots such as ice cream parlors, movie houses and bowling alleys. Some feel the demise of those unofficial landmarks has diminished local civic pride.

Michael Engle, co-author of the 2008 book “Diners of New York,” said the social lives of many residents seem to “die” after a local joint closes.

“They lose heart,” he said. “Some of them just stay home, which unfortunately is a shame. They lose touch with their community.”

The book’s other co-author, Mario Monti, who grew up in Maspeth, said diners appeal to the masses since they “don’t hustle you to get out.”

But nowadays they struggle to survive. Among casualties last year were the Bayside, the Fame in Jamaica and the Scobee in Little Neck.

Also troubling to community groups is that many properties lie vacant for months after a diner closes – or turn into a generic chain. A Hooters replaced the Future Diner, a popular date spot near the Fresh Meadows movie theater that closed in 2005. That has left a nostalgia for the “comfort factor that went beyond the comfort food,” said Richard Gutman, director of the Culinary Arts Museum in Rhode Island.

Experts trace the downfall of Queens diners in large part to a ravenous real estate market in which the typical diner plot – a sprawling structure with a parking lot – makes landlords salivate.

Deep-pocketed banks or chains are enthralled by the large square footage in dense New York City, offering a rent that most diners can’t match. So when a diner’s lease expires, the eatery’s run may end, too.

Changing demographics have also played a role. Some Greek immigrants who opened diners are retiring and unable to persuade their children to run the business. And new immigrants don’t feel attached to those diners as much.

In addition, national chains are poaching diner customers, while the health-conscious are shying away from generous portions, a diner staple.

“Stereotypical diner food is frowned on,” said Michael Stern, a co-author of the “Roadfood” book series. “It’s not stylish. It’s not nutritious. It’s too caloric.”

And many Queens residents are now traveling out of their neighborhoods for a bite. “You lose that kind of little small-scale ecology that living in a close, dense neighborhood gives you,” said Queens borough historian Jack Eichenbaum.

SIDEBAR: ‘Homey’ Feel Relic of Past

When Barbara Fortuna passes the TD Bank in Fresh Meadows, she remembers the site’s prior occupant, the Hilltop Diner, a 60-year mainstay whose booths bustled with regulars until it closed in 2005.

The daughter of the Hilltop’s co-founder, Fortuna grew up inside the Union Turnpike hangout, where she always ordered chicken noodle soup, a roast beef sandwich and fresh mashed potatoes for dinner.

Part of the property passed on to Fortuna. And six years ago, amid a messy dispute with the diner’s latest owners, she decided to lease instead to the bank.

“It was a very tough decision,” she said with a sigh. “It was heartbreaking getting rid of the diner.”

Residents bemoan the shuttering of the Hilltop, a popular gathering place for St. John’s University students, as part of a trend of disappearing diners in Queens.

“Diners are not the same anywhere now,” Fortuna lamented. “It’s not that warm, homey feeling anymore.”

After the Hilltop’s departure, fast-food chains popped up nearby. But despite the competition, a new diner, the Corner Stone, opened a month ago in a small strip mall across 164th St. from the bank.

Kevin Forrestal of the Hillcrest Estates Civic Association declined to predict the Corner Stone’s fate.

“It obviously doesn’t have the footprint,” Forrestal said, pointing out that the Hilltop had more space and its own parking lot. “We’ll have to see.”

Third Installment: A Fraternal Fadeout

Published March 22, 2011

A bronze statue of an elk, now green due to decades of oxidation, stands guard in Elmhurst in front of a landmark commonly known as Elks Lodge No. 878.

For generations, the clubhouse hosted charitable and social gatherings until the Elks, whose dwindling membership no longer warranted such a vast space, sold it to a church a few years ago.

The Elks still meet next-door at a smaller facility. But many point to the group’s exit from its Queens Blvd. base as a sign of a borough-wide downturn in fraternal organizations and service clubs.

Once signatures of many tight-knit communities across Queens, groups such as the Elks – known for camaraderie and charity work – are struggling to lure new blood and hang on to meeting spots.

“It’s quite a noble institution that has seen better days,” said Elks leader Lawrence Contratti, 67, of Long Island City.

Elks aren’t alone. Other fraternal groups like the Masons are struggling, too, as are service clubs such as Kiwanis, Lions and Rotary.

Locals fear that the weakening of such organizations diminishes civic pride, as does the demise of other middle-class institutions being profiled in the Vanishing Vintage Queens series.

“If Kiwanis Clubs weren’t in some of these communities, I think the communities will fail,” said Joe Aiello, 54, who runs the Glendale Kiwanis Club. “You won’t have the Halloween parades. You won’t have community days. How about all these families we feed on Thanksgiving and Christmas?”

Members say many factors contribute to the woes of the groups, which rely on volunteers hoping to better their neighborhoods.

Many immigrants – a large part of Queens’ population – don’t feel an attachment to the borough, and others are too busy to get involved. And as the ranks of members evaporate, so does the positive influence of a club in its community.

“If we had twice as many members, we could raise twice as many dollars,” said Frances Scarantino, president of the Rotary Club of Southwest Queens.Fewer members mean a decrease in blood drives, food pantries and scholarships.

“There’s just a range of little projects helping people in need that if they’re not being met by Lions or Rotary Clubs, they might go unmet,” said Peter Lynch, executive director of Lions Clubs International.

Others connect the downfall of groups such as the Freemasons to a suspicion of their rituals, like secret handshakes and passwords, plus meetings guarded by sword-wielding “tilers.”

But the organization suffers mostly from its lack of recruiting, said Mark Tabbert, a Freemason who wrote the 2005 book “American Freemasons: Three Centuries of Building Communities.”

“The fraternity got so comfortable and so large, and they just assumed everyone would join,” said Tabbert, also the collections director at the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Virginia.

Optimists contend the groups are down but not out. Some members are calling on the city and state to make their dues tax-deductible and exempt the fraternal organizations from onerous real estate taxes.

They all bemoan the trend of less community involvement. “Does it leave a void? I think inevitably it does,” said Skip L’Heureux of the Kiwanis Club of Richmond Hill-Woodhaven.

SIDEBAR: ‘Tombstones Lie’ All Over Queens

Cutting through blocks of single-family homes in Forest Hills, Metropolitan Ave. embodies the main drags in small towns across the United States, thanks to a library, a post office and banks.

That atmosphere was once also exemplified by the Masonic lodge – until troubled finances forced the owners to sell in 2000 to a bank that then razed the lodge for a parking lot.

Gone is the meeting hall where Freemasons organized and hosted dances, dinners and charity events that signaled a civic pride many say is disappearing across Queens.

All that remains is the lodge’s cornerstone, dated 1967, which was rescued by Jim Haddad, a Freemason who attended many functions there. He displays the memento in the yard of his Forest Hills Gardens home.

“The tombstones of fraternal organizations lie throughout Queens, which I suppose is appropriate given the number of graveyards we have,” said Haddad, 46. “It really is a problem.”

Freemasons still meet locally, including at the American Legion hall just blocks from the old lodge on Metropolitan Ave. But membership is dwindling.

Christopher Hodapp, a Freemason who wrote the 2005 book “Freemasons for Dummies,” connected the lodge casualty to an explosion of Freemasonry after World War II. “It artificially grew to a size that it couldn’t have ever sustained,” he said. “It’s shrinking back.”