With Scenic Homes and a Rich Heritage, Addisleigh Park Is Thriving
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Manhattan is home to the nation’s most famous black neighborhood, Harlem, but Queens is home to what may be the loveliest, Addisleigh Park, in the western section of St.Albans. Developed in the ’20s and ’30s as an enclave of Tudor and colonial single-family homes on large lots, Addisleigh Park attracted affluent blacks away from Manhattan — including Fats Waller (thought to be the first African-American to move in), Count Basie, John Coltrane, Milt Hinton, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, James Brown, and dozens of others.
Yet, as resident and contractor William Bailey said: “No one knows about this neighborhood. But why not? How many neighborhoods have this kind of heritage?” Indeed, the heritage is extraordinary. Not only did seemingly every New York jazz great live there at one time or another, so did sports giants, including Babe Ruth in his prime, Joe Louis, Roy Campanella, and Jackie Robinson, who lived there during the traumatic years between 1949 and 1953 when he was integrating major league baseball.Race is seldom far from conversations about the neighborhood, whether talking about its past or its future.”It was the most affluent black community in the world for many years,” a resident and historian, Clarence Irving, said. A study last year concluded that it remains more affluent than the surrounding white neighborhoods.
Racially, Queens is in some ways the unknown borough, a place of impressive achievements that are simply not recognized by many New Yorkers. “African-Americans came to Queens, but particularly southeastern Queens, in large numbers,” a historian, Jeff Gottlieb, said. “Those from the American South liked the detached homes and spacious lawns. During the prosperity of the Eisenhower years, they put down deposits in St. Albans, Laurelton, Springfield Gardens, Cambria Heights. Sometimes, as in Hollis, this precipitated white flight. But Queens was receptive, and blacks were able to buy houses at reasonable prices. Then they kept on buying.”
Mr. Bailey, who moved to Addisleigh Park from nearby and very upscale Jamaica Estates, would like to see the neighborhood’s historical legacy emphasized, in part to enhance property values. “Property here is undervalued,” he said. After renovating the five-bedroom, two-bath Tudor house on Linden Boulevard and 114th Road, where he has lived for the past three years, Mr.Bailey is selling the house for $660,000 — a good buy. A three-bedroom, one-bath colonial on Sayres Avenue, one block from the park, just sold for $399,000, according to broker Diallo Stevens.
“The whole neighborhood is a relative bargain compared to, say, Bayside or Douglaston,” said the president of the Addisleigh Park Civic Association, Gregory Mays. Resident and broker Milton Hensley of HC Realty bought his Tudor house in October 1994 for “300 and change.” While houses on his block now sell for “600 and 650,” he believes his house would sell for $1.2 million or more if it were in Jamaica Estates or Garden City. Race is often considered one of the main reasons for this price differential. “Prices are low because this is an African-American community,” said state Senator Malcolm Smith, who has lived for 13 years in a center-hall colonial house formerly owned by Lena Horne. “A stereotype has been driving people’s perceptions.” He noted that the Queens Jazz Tours have helped the market by drawing attention to Addisleigh Park and “motivating groups of other ethnic persuasions to move in.”
Like many residents, Mr. Smith would like to see some form of landmark or historic designation. A spokeswoman for the Landmarks Commission, Elisabeth de Bourbon, said the agency will be conducting a survey of all of the houses in Addisleigh Park within the next year, “setting it on a course for further consideration as a historic district.”
Both residents and brokers point out that buying a house in Addisleigh Park isn’t easy. Roger Scotland, a policy adviser to the mayor and resident of the neighborhood, recalled that for a long time if “you wanted to get into the neighborhood you would go to the Civic Association and get a list of houses that might be coming up for sale.” Broker Bill Jones noted that “not a lot of people move out, and when they do their properties don’t stay on the market for long.” Even though he is a broker, he found out about the house he now lives in by word of mouth. Mr. Hensley, who has sold about 15 homes in Addisleigh Park, said he has never seen a for-sale sign.
Residents today are fiercely protective of their property values — and of one another.The president of the Civic Association, said,”We encourage people to meet each other. The more people know each other, the more they’re inclined to look out for each other and each other’s home.” Although crime is down 77% in the 113th precinct since 1990,single-family detached homes are by their nature attractive targets for burglars.The pastor of St. Albans Congregational Church, Henry Simmons, said break-ins have worried some of his parishioners, particularly seniors, who feel vulnerable. (Mr. Gottlieb credits the church with successfully fighting a resurgence in crime and drugdealing in the 1970s.)
In the end, today’s residents like the neighborhood for the same qualities that mattered decades ago — it’s lovely, peaceful, and isolated. When saxophonist Illinois Jacquet died in 2004, obituaries often quoted his remembrance of why he moved to Addisleigh Park, which he liked to call a “monument to black achievement.” “Charlie Parker and all those cats would knock on my door and want to talk,” he said. “They’d be coming from out of town, and I couldn’t get no rest there.”
Similarly, musician Arthur White — a guitarist for Alicia Keyes who bought a house two doors away from his mother’s house, having known the previous owners — likes the quiet when he’s not touring. “Sure it’s a little distant out here, but you get to have your own space. A backyard. You don’t have people running around all hours of the night.”