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QueensLine: Woodhaven’s founder wanted to create an independent city

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With unlimited energy and a vast pool of capital, he embarked on a grand scheme that envisioned a new metropolis that boasted industry and factories, fine residences, beautiful parks and, as its centerpiece, a great port on Jamaica Bay. Because his dream city lay east of New York City, he decided to name it “East New York.”

In 1835, Pitkin began buying the farms and hired a surveyor to lay out streets and lots. The western portion, in Kings County, would be devoted to commercial activities. To the east, across the county line in Queens, he laid out a great residential district. That section he called “Woodville,” which he chose, in the flowery rhetoric of the time, “for its simplicity and beauty and in honor of nature’s noble woods.”

When news broke the following year that the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad began laying track, Pitkin was quick to note its right of way through the middle of his community on maps circulated to potential investors.

But the Panic of 1837 destroyed his dreams overnight. Credit and money vanished. It was impossible to launch a building boom. Although he valiantly tried to keep his dream alive, East New York as a great independent city died.

He focused his limited resources on Brooklyn and abandoned development in Queens. It took 15 years before he could recover.

At mid-century, the area was all but empty. A few homes stood on Woodhaven Boulevard and at its junction with Rockaway Plank Road — today Rockaway Boulevard — stood a hotel and saloon near the turnpike’s toll booth. He managed to get the rail line, which became part of the Long Island Rail Road, to stop at Woodville in 1850.

When it was discovered another post office in New York had the same name, a group of farmers met at a schoolhouse in Jamaica School District 6 July 30, 1853, and resolved to call the community “Woodhaven.”

Over the years the hamlet slowly grew. Pitkin, in the spirit of contemporaries like Conrad Poppenhusen (College Point) and William Steinway (Long Island City), was involved not only in real estate, but philanthropy and manufacturing.

His fortune seemed to have recovered, for with a million dollars he started the Pitkin Institute, a trade school to teach poor men and boys about the mass production of boots and shoes. He later founded the East New York Boot & Shoe Manufacturing Co.

Pitkin might have been financially secure and a local legend in his community, but he never realized his dream. When he died Sept. 2, 1874, at 80, he still owned many acres that stood empty, never sold or developed. His grave, marked by a magnificent monument, is on the highest ridge in Cypress Hills Cemetery, more than 170 feet above the sea and dominating a magnificent view of the two villages he founded.

For more information, call 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.

Posted 6:28 pm, October 10, 2011
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