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East Elmhurst home to many luminaries

From humble beginnings as swamp land adjacent to the Flushing Bay and then as an upper-class colony for working-class craftsmen of European descent and wealthy mansion owners, the neighborhood sandwiched between LaGuardia Airport and Northern Boulevard blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s into a haven for upwardly mobile middle-class black families from across the city and nation. A litany of luminary figures in African-American history - artists, activists, performers, politicians and sports stars - have at various times called the enclave of quiet, tree-lined streets and mostly single family houses their home. There's a history unsung by public markers, monuments of memorials. For the time being, their presence and contribution to the Queens neighborhood they called home lives on for the most part only in the collective memory of old-timers who fondly recall encounters with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Mays and Malcolm X."Nobody has taken the time to do this around here in the neighborhood other than the Louis Armstrong house," local historian Andrew Jackson said of historic preservation and marking efforts. Jackson, executive director of the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center in Corona, is working on two projects documenting the history of Queens and East Elmhurst.Armstrong's house in nearby Corona - today a museum - is a prominent part of the Queens Jazz Trail. But fellow music legend Dizzy Gillespie's house, just a block away, goes unnoticed, as do dozens of homes of prominent figures in neighboring East Elmhurst.Willie Mays lived briefly on Ditmars Boulevard while playing for the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds and his first wife, Marghuerite, remained for decades running a popular Astoria Boulevard bar. Ella Fitzgerald lived just a few doors down, Jackson said. "Someone told me that she lived there, so I went up and knocked on the door and asked," Jackson recalled. "She said, 'Yeah, baby. I'm Ella.'"I ran down the street like a little kid who'd just found a thousand dollars. (The other children), they never believed I met somebody famous." Harry Belafonte also lived on Ditmars Boulevard."It's a proud feeling. It's a good feeling," Gwendolyn Reddish, a resident for more than 45 years, said of the neighborhood's history.Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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