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In May 2006, two months after the 350th anniversary of European settlement, Borough President Helen Marshall gave her “conditional” approval to a controversial plan to rezone 368 blocks of Greater Jamaica with the goal, she said, of making Jamaica “a far more beautiful place than it is now.”
From native settlement to humble village to bustling township to regional center, Jamaica was about to embark on yet another transformation by reinventing itself again.
In 1814, Jamaica incorporated as the first village in Queens County. It is near the northern border of the former Town of Jamaica, whose history goes back to the ice age. As the ice sheet advanced, it pushed a large mound of debris at its edge. About 10,000 years ago, as it began to retreat, the ice left a range of low sand hills along Jamaica’s northern border.
To the south, a flat sand plain formed where runoff flowed into the ocean. The melted water caused the ocean to rise and drowned meadows that became a series of wide salt marshes along the shore, the largest being Jamaica Bay. The water table remains high because a number of small springs feed streams and ponds that drain slowly, especially after rain.
Every European settlement in Queens started near a Native American settlement. Here, footpaths met, the land was already cleared and fresh water was always nearby. The town’s name came from the Jameco Indians, who lived near a “beaver pond” — perhaps Baisley’s Pond.
Seeking to trade animal skins for locally manufactured wampum — used as currency even after European settlement — tribes from hundreds of miles away walked to the main road: Jamaica Avenue.
European settlement started March 21, 1656, when Gov. Peter Stuyvesant granted a group from Hempstead the right to set up a town. It seemed a number of governors wanted to review that charter and each time collect a fee for doing so. As late as 1788, Jamaica was still awaiting final recognition as a town.
The monopoly of the original settlers, Puritans who came from New England, was broken when, after one of the periodic outbreaks of yellow fever, the colonial government fled from New York to Jamaica. It tried to replace the Congregational pastor with an Anglican minister. Fighting started for the next 20 years and was only resolved when two separate churches were established.
At this time, the pastor of the town church, the Rev. George McNish, organized his congregation into one of the first Presbyterian churches in the country and encouraged the other town churches on Long Island and New York to follow suit. It was felt that the churches could only resist the authorities if they organized themselves into a large body.
Jamaica prospered during the 19th century as the county seat of Queens and, according to some accounts, had the first post office in either Queens or Brooklyn. The town was celebrated throughout the nation as an important part of the thoroughbred racing circuit. Belmont Park remains a legacy of that tradition.
By 1913, the Long Island Rail Road made the Jamaica Station the hub in its system, and within a few years the town was the premier shopping center for much of Queens.
Outside Long Island City, it was the financial heart of the borough. The first self−service supermarket in the country, King Kullen, opened in 1930 on Jamaica Avenue. The town retained its position well into the 20th century as the center of commerce, government and entertainment for a good portion of Queens, Brooklyn and Nassau County.
The Greater Astoria Historical Society is open to the public Wednesdays 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturdays noon till 5 p.m. at Quinn’s Gallery, Fourth Floor, 35−20 Broadway in Long Island City.
For more information, call 718−278−0700 or visit astorialic.org.
©2009 Community Newspaper Group
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