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Queens historian appears in print, on TV

As is the case with nearly all New Yorkers, the neighborhood where city historian Barry Lewis was born has since been completely transformed since his birth.

"I was born across from the old Madison Square Garden on 50th St. And the spot where I was born actually no longer exists," he said. "It's half-condo, half-parking lot today which is really so New York, when you think about it."

And Lewis himself is really so New York. This weekend, in fact, he's pulling a double shift as city historian extraordinaire. He appears this Friday, Dec. 10, on Channel 13 in a 8:30 p.m. re-broadcast of "A Walk Through Harlem With David Hartman and Historian Barry Lewis," the third and latest installment in the ongoing popular PBS walking tour series.

And tonight, Dec. 9, at 7:30 p.m., you can also catch Lewis in person at the Forest Hills Barnes & Noble, 70-00 Austin St., speaking about "Kew Gardens: Urban Village in the Big Village," a book he's written about the town in which he has lived since 1970.

"I am very lucky to be doing what I love to do for a living," says the historian about his busy schedule, "It's an avocation."

Lewis, though born in Manhattan, grew up in Woodhaven, attending school at P.S. 60, another New York City structure which has since disappeared from the landscape - with good reason.

"It was a little, wooden school house, one of the last in the city - a sort of Victorian era charmer - a complete fire trap. People used to say that we'd all go up like toasted marshmallows, if the building ever caught fire," Lewis recalled, adding with a chuckle. "Of course, as a kid your perspective is completely different - we were like, ooh, wow, toasted marshmallows! Cool!"

After studying sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, Lewis headed for the Sorbonne in Paris, France where he lived for two years, finding himself drawn to the study of its architecture. Arriving back home in New York after two years, Lewis was inspired to further his study of architecture, volunteering his time as a tour guide of the Soho historic district. This effort also marked his first involvement in the drive toward historic preservation, assisting the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture, a group united to stop city planner Robert Moses from erecting an expressway that would devastate downtown.

Since the mid-70s, Lewis has taught the course, "The City Transformed," an ever-changing survey of city architecture and history, at Cooper Union. He also teaches architectural and interior design history at the New York School of Interior Design, has lectured for various academic institutions (Bard Graduate Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Harvard School of Planning), and has written about city history for the "New York Walks" guide book as well as the "Berlitz Guide to New York."

In 1998, off-screen expertise eventually led to Lewis' on-camera involvement in Channel 13's "Walk Down 42nd Street with David Hartman," a television tour of the city's most famous street, which was followed by a walking tour of Broadway.

"The response to the shows are just

incredible," said Lewis, crediting the professionalism of both David Hartman and the Channel 13 video team as well as the interest of viewers curious about the city in which they live.

"The response to the show illustrates that people care about New York and want to know more about it, about what has changed and what has remained the same," said Lewis, who is equally excited about his upcoming installment with Hartman, covering Harlem.

"Harlem is so amazing. You come out of the subway and you see it's the city on a totally different scale. It's all town houses and blue skies. The sidewalks are wide. It's almost gracious... never a word you would think to use in describing New York City."

The next installment in the Channel 13 series is an ode to Brooklyn, to be aired sometime next year. In addition, Lewis's labors of love appear on "City Close-Up, with partner Mary Butler, a video series for PBS focusing on disappearing neighborhoods in New York. So far, Lewis and Butler have produced shows on Jackson Heights, Queens; Fordham Road in the Bronx; St. George on Staten Island; Crown Heights in Brooklyn; and Manhattan's Upper West Side.

And disappearing neighborhoods provide Lewis with endless subject matter, because day by day the face of the city changes.

"We filmed the 42nd Street Times Square special in early 1998. By the time it aired, later that year, there were two skyscrapers that hadn't been there before," commented Lewis who also remarked on sanitization of the area with the closure of the street's notorious strip of porn shops.

"It's funny. I was walking there after the special had aired through the arcade and the multiplex and its Disney-type environment and its like it's this faux New York, just a few feet away from the real thing."

"New York re-invents itself constantly. That's its nature. The people who move into the grungiest areas of Tribeca - the first thing they do is form civic associations to get rid of sex clubs and discos and force truck drivers up to the Bronx," said Lewis.

"New York belongs to those who can afford it. It always has. But, the city's vitality ... it's not in Manhattan. If you cut off Astoria, if you ignore Williamsburg, you don't have New York, you're just left with a high-rise country club."

" People in Manhattan today aren't New Yorkers. I always joke that the largest ethnic group in Park Slope are the Upper West Siders... the artists, the intellectuals who left Manhattan, because they couldn't afford it. If you take away Queens and Brooklyn today, there is no New York."

Lewis, despite loving Manhattan, has never lived there and is happy to have chosen Kew Gardens, which he describes as " New York with trees, space and light."

"Kew Gardens is a carefully constructed refuge for modern people," he said. "You spend all day in an office with faxes and phones. You need to come home to a place of r & r. These places were urban neighborhoods with a country feeling."

In his book, Lewis tells the tale of Gardens. Originally a golf course belonging to neighboring Richmond Hill, the land was developed into a suburb that bloomed under careful, consistent aesthetic controls governing its development. This emphasis on pleasing uniformity in design, also placed great value on creation of shared public space such as parks, green grass meridians, and space kept clear for gardens galore.

Divided into chapters on its beginnings, its private homes, apartment buildings, commercial structures and public spaces, "Kew Gardens" offers a detailed architectural and sociological study of the suburb. Lewis also liberally sprinkles his book with trivia about famous celebrities, past and present, who have lived in Kew Gardens (Charlie Chaplin, Art Garfunkel, Rodney Dangerfield) as well as trivia about the infamous goings on in the town (such as the famous front page murder of Kitty Genovese.)

And, forever the focus of Lewis is the changing landscape of Kew Gardens, including facts about famous structures in the town that were torn down. For example, there was the Kew Gardens Inn, at Queens Boulevard and Kew Gardens Road, built in 1920 and torn down in 1982 (today replaced by a skyscraper) and the Kew Gardens Country Club, built in 1916 and demolished in 1936 (replaced by the Austin Theater.)

"Overall, it's a pretty straightforward history of Kew Gardens," said Lewis, adding that the key reason for the book's publication is a drive toward the preservation of its history. Proceeds from its sale benefit the book's publisher, the non-profit Kew Garden's Council for Recreation and the Arts, which is fighting for the suburb's landmark status.

"In recent years, bit by bit, developers and private home owners have been finding anything green and ripping it out. Bit by bit, that which is unique about Kew Gardens is disappearing.

"It's funny. About 20 years ago, if you said you lived in Queens, you were considered out of it and that's been our edge," said Lewis. "I can see all the independent films here in Queens that you can see at the Angelika (in Manhattan), except there's no line. I can't think about what movie I'm going to see more than 10 minutes before I see it."

"Kew Gardens can quickly become anywhere U.S.A," warned Lewis.

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