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Bell Boulevard’s latest evolution a far cry from its farmland roots

Bell Boulevard has come a long way from its beginnings as Bell Avenue, a rural road that divided the farm purchased by shipping magnate Abraham Bell in 1824.

Farmland covered most of Bayside and Auburndale in those days, according to Joan Wettingfeld, a board member at the Bayside Historical Society and columnist for the Bayside Times.

“It’s changed so much,” said Wettingfeld.

In the 1930s, Bell Avenue was renamed Bell Boulevard in accordance with the new street numbering system established in Queens, said Wettingfeld.

Once a street that resembled old New England towns filled with small family-run businesses — such as A. Kraus & Sons, established in 1914 and still selling paint and wallpaper — Bell Boulevard has been transformed by high rents that have changed the face of its tenants.

“It’s mostly a restaurant strip now,” said Wettingfeld. “It used to be more like a village.”

A count of properties on Bell Boulevard between 38th and 43rd avenues found 21 bars and restaurants, not including ice cream or bagel shops or food establishments on side streets.

But through all the changes, Bell Boulevard remains the focal point of Bayside even with new immigrant populations and commercial development.

The Players

The latest major change to come to the boulevard was the purchase and transformation of the old Bayside Movie Theatre building on 39th Avenue into the Bell Towers shopping center.

The center is owned by a group of Bayside businessmen who have formed a company known as Orpheus Realty, said Herb Suib, who along with attorney Terry Triades is part of the organization.

“They bought the building and maintained the integrity and architecture of this building,” said Suib.

The theater was originally built in 1929 by United Artists, a company founded by silent film stars Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, to show movies as well as vaudeville acts, said Suib.

A Love My Shoes shop moved into one of the retail spaces last fall, and a UPS Store and Curves gym opened for business recently.

“We only took people that were going to be there long term,” said Suib, explaining that all the tenants hold 20- to 25-year leases.

An acupuncturist, a dentist’s office and 39 East, an upscale fusion eatery from the owners of Papazzio and Erawan, are all under construction.

“We gave the community stores that they needed, stores that they’re happy with, and we didn’t change their beautiful building,” he said.

Though many properties on Bell Boulevard are owned by realty companies with anonymous-sounding names — such as Commercial Sites, Bell Boulevard Realty BRB Management Co. — some buildings have been passed down through generations of families.

The Francis X. Hatton Funeral Home has occupied three buildings on the street since 1936, most recently at 36-46 Bell, where it built its own home in 1960 on the former site of two homes owned by the Bell family.

The Hattons were from Whitestone, but Francis always preferred doing business on Bell, said Dennis M. Hatton Sr., who has carried on his father’s business with his brother Robert.

“He always liked Bell Boulevard better than Northern because it was less commercial,” said Dennis Hatton.

The home’s proximity to several churches also made its location ideal, said Hatton. The building cost $80,000 to construct and was built by L. Riso & Sons, which eventually became The Briarwood Organization, one of Queens’ largest developers.

The Hattons were one of the first Catholic funeral homes in the area, but as Bayside has grown more diverse, so has the clientele.

“We do everything now, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist,” said Hatton with pride.

The Newcomers

New York Academy’s business cards say it all: We will send your child to Stuyvesant.

The standardized-test preparation center is one of several that have popped up on Bell Boulevard that cater to mostly Korean-American students trying to get into one of the city’s top three public high schools: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech. Students are selected for slots solely on the basis of their performance on a special entrance exam.

The academy moved to an office above McDonald’s on 42nd Avenue and Bell Boulevard in January after 10 years in Flushing, said David Park, the director.

“The base isn’t Flushing anymore,” said Park about the Korean community’s migration to more prosperous areas over the last decade. “We follow that.”

Park emphasized that his center serves students of Indian, Bangladeshi and Russian origin as well as whites and Koreans, although the latter group makes up the majority.

“A lot of them live right in this area,” said Park, who commutes to Bayside from his home in Manhattan. Byong-In Choi, his business partner and the center’s principal, lives in Bayside.

U.S. Census figures from 2000 show that in the 11361 zipcode that covers Bell Boulevard Asians make up 24 percent of the population, whites 64 percent, blacks 4 percent and other groups 8 percent.

Park said Korean parents, like many immigrants, emphasize education as a way for their children to get ahead in American society. Gaining admission to a prestigious high school is seen as a path to opportunities the parents never had, said Park.

“It opens so many doors,” said Park, himself a Stuyvesant graduate in his 30s whose parents did not go to college.

Another business that has become ubiquitous on Bell Boulevard is Orion Telecommmunications Corp., or OTC, a pre-paid calling card company with about a dozen offices on or near Bell.

The company has five-year leases on all its offices and recently took over the former Associated supermarket for its sales headquarters, training manager Dom DiMartini Jr. told the TimesLedger in February.

“We do not plan on moving,” said DiMartini this month. “I imagine we’ll be here for another five years.”

The company briefly considered taking over the old Sperry Gyroscope building in Lake Success, L.I., a former United Nations headquarters, but OTC’s chief executive officer, Peter P. Sicilian Jr., wanted to stay close to home in Bayside, DiMartini said.

Bell Boulevard also has plenty of shops and services, as well as a railroad station used by employees coming from all over the New York metro area, he said.

“It’s a safe place to be. It’s got great restaurants,” said DiMartini. “There is everything right here.”

‘It’s a Different Generation’

Ossi Maiwald opened Westi’s Quality Meats on Bell Boulevard and 41st Avenue in 1967 because it was “an up-and-coming area,” said his son Steve Celt, 36.

These days the commercial strip between Northern Boulevard and 35th Avenue is a mix of national chain stores and mom-and-pop establishments like Westi’s, the oldest tenant on the block, according to Celt.

“There’s not many left that were here from the beginning,” said Celt, who took over the store after his father’s retirement two years ago. Maiwald still owns the building that houses the Crazy Moose Saloon.

In the early days of Westi’s, Bayside was a place where Germans, Poles, Jews and Italians were the majority, housewives would come into the store to buy meat for dinner every day and the customers would stop and chat awhile.

“They’ve grown older, they’ve died, they’ve moved,” said Celt of the old clientele. “It’s a different generation.”

Westi’s still has its share of loyal customers seeking prime cuts of meat and cold cuts, but there are now fine condiments and prepared foods on the shelves in addition to pork chops.

“We had to change to adapt to the times,” said Celt, a former chef at exclusive restaurants on Long Island who has transformed his father’s butcher shop into a gourmet deli.

These days two-income families are the norm, life is faster-paced and people are more likely to pick up some food and leave rather than talk, said Celt.

“It’s just a different diverse culture here,” said Celt.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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