The Laurel Hill Houses, RIP

Author: Control , Date Posted: 2011-04-19 21:19:41
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. I didn't know much about them. 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 the 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. Clearly someone had already been here. I proceeded with caution inside.

This is always a dangerous 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 friendly and just ask you never to mention them online (I never have). But you have to be on guard, especially on an unplanned solo trip such as this one.

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. 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 data range 30-40 years in the past, so for all I knew than man had passed away by now.

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...

Current History:
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. 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. Much more can be found out about Phelps Dodge here (Queens Library Collection), though this paragraph sums them up well: The company closed the plant permanently in February 1984, due to high costs and changing markets. The plantís final products, which they had been producing throughout the twentieth century, were copper, silver, gold, copper and nickel sulphates, 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).

Little seems to be known about these very small old houses. 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. Perhaps there were other buildings on this property before the modest homes were built? 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 they land they are on were valued at $470,000 as recent as last year, 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 this most amazing NY1 news video which features - you guessed it - Akhtar Choudri himself. This is really a much watch/read story in my opinion, as it gives you an overview - (from 4 years ago yesterday!) of the bridge project and it's 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 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.

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