NOTE: This story was originally published on an earlier version of this site, in April of 2011. The actual exploration took place in December of 2010. There’s an update at the end.
Something I’ve always liked about exploring is how a single thread of information can lead one on a self guided research project, bringing you closer into the details than you ever anticipated might be possible. One single thread of information can be a key to opening many an unlocked door.
During my photo shoots of the Maspeth freight yard for both Brooklyn Queens Freight and Yard Job NYC, I often noticed a set of houses high on a hill overlooking Newtown Creek. The location of these homes, surrounded by industrial buildings, just seemed completely out of place. The only reference I ever found to them online was on Kevin Walsh’s fantastic page about the neighborhood – known locally as Laurel Hill.
One day after shooting graff at the new aggregate customer that took over most of Maspeth’s freight yard, I happened by the area on routine patrol and had a gut feeling something wasn’t quite right around here. I kept coming back to the area, and one fine day this last winter I hit the brakes. The houses were now boarded up. Immediately curious, I went all up and around the property, finding that the rear door of the blue house was completely torn off. I proceeded with caution inside. NYC was just hit with a blizzard 2 days before, and there were no footprints. Either the weather knocked off the boards or someone got inside before the storm and might still be bedded down inside.
This is always the dangerous part of the exploring game, especially with recently abandoned houses. I’ve walked in on many of them over the years only to find them full of squatters. Most are squatters are friendly and just ask you never to mention them online, a rule I’ve always followed without being told. The fine art of keeping your mouth shut feels like a dying trade these days, but I digress. Pay attention. Don’t break out the flashlight right away. Listen. is that a voice down the hall or just water dripping? “Hello?”
Lurking around, I find no one. What I do find though are many left over items, suggesting whoever lived here either moved on and got a better deal, leaving a lot of junk behind, or left in a big hurry. The windows and doors are actually boarded up with wooden street repair signs (which I later learned was care of the NYC DOT). This produced a strange orange glow in the few rooms that had any light at all. The search began: how do I find out more about who lived here? All the debris had to hold an answer somewhere.
I found my single thread in the form of some files left over in a filing cabinet. I noted the name: Akhtar Choudri. Within this small pile were certificates – one for a real estate sales course, another automotive mechanics, and a third for a Amateur boxing championship in Lahore, Pakistan. Most of these documents were spread out across a date range 30-40 years in the past, so for all I knew than man had passed away by now.
I took this small thread of information back home with me. I wanted to know more about who lived here. Googling around one night, this one thread became a thick rope, and at the end of that rope was a firsthand look into NYC history in the making. Within weeks, the houses were bulldozed. Finding this rope would have been a bit harder after the fact…
What the destruction of these modest houses represent is the first step in NYS DOT Project I.D. No. X729.77 – the replacement of the antiquated Kosciuszko Bridge. The full plan for this work is found in this pdf file (accessed Jan. 2011). This replacement bridge will result in the complete demolition of the old structure, as well as the addition of a footpath and bicycle lane. Replacing the bridge will also entail the construction of a parallel span just east of the existing one. The construction of this span will necessitate the demolition of several buildings and at least 3 homes – the homes I happened to be poking around in…
The houses were build in 1925, and overlooked the old Phelps Dodge factory. The company closed the plant permanently in February 1984, due to high costs and changing markets. The plants final products, which they had been producing throughout the twentieth century, were copper, silver, gold, copper and nickel sulfates, and small amounts of selenium, tellurium, platinum, and palladium. There are very few photos the old Phelps Dodge factory online, though as usual Arrts Archives pulls through. Phelps Dodge was, of course, one of the LIRR’s largest customers (back when LIRR handled their own freight business). (Check out the additional old topographic maps and railway photos on his site – great stuff).
The houses themselves are positioned a little strangely. Each was built on a hill with steps down to the street, and no sidewalk. This is rather puzzling, as you’d expect homes built in the 1920s to have required a sidewalk being built as well. Public records show the Choudri family bought the homes in 1987, with a mortgage of a mere $50,000. When you consider that these houses and the land they are on were valued at $470,000 as recent as last year (2010), one can easily say that yes, that real estate course Mr. C’ took clearly paid off in the end.
So what became of the Choudri’s? Were they upset to lose their homes to a bridge construction project? Not at all it would seem. In my searching around I found an amazing NY1 news video which featured – you guessed it – Akhtar Choudri himself. The news story appeared at this URL, which is no longer active: http://www.ny1.com/?ArID=68898&SecID=1000; It gives you an overview of the bridge project and its impact on the homes and businesses of Laurel Hill. The story mentions that the work will begin in 2011 – and here we are today, 2011 – with this being the first visible change in landscape associated with the bridge replacement project. In the video, Mr. Choudri explains how he wants his property to be bought out by the state, to move somewhere else and not have to deal with the construction noise. I hope that’s what indeed happened.
So there you have it. 2 old houses, and a thread of a lead, which developed into the above post. Fun times all around. I’ll miss passing by these unique old homes, though at least we can say they were bulldozed for a good cause – a desperately needed improvement to NYC’s transportation network.
Update, April 26, 2017:
The first new Kosciuszko bridge is finally set to open this week. The grand opening will be a light show and speech from current NY governor Andrew ‘the snake’ Cuomo, who will no doubt be patting himself on the back for a project that began literally years before he came into office, as evidenced above.
The project was in fact delayed for awhile but proceeded quickly once underway. From the four original options, the New York State DOT decided to build two parallel bridges. The first span taking the footprint of these homes and several small warehouse and factories which were all demolished in 2013. I’ve explored and photographed nearly all of these buildings in depth, content which I aim to put forward some time in the future.
After the new span is opened, the old span will be demolished to provide a footprint for the second span to be constructed.