Gothamist’s Guide To Richmond Hill And Ozone Park
When people speak of Queens as “the World’s Borough,” they’re talking about the Queens of Ozone Park and Richmond Hill, where Caribbean, West African, South Asian, and Hispanic communities live cheek by jowl on street grids built out by generations of immigrants from central and eastern Europe.
Walking the residential streets around Aqueduct Racetrack in Ozone Park, you can still see traces of the suburban sensibilities that led developer Benjamin Hitchcock to convert hundreds of acres of what was then farmland into an idyllic community for New Yorkers priced out of Manhattan in the 1880s. The neighborhood name may make little sense to today’s New Yorkers, but at the time “ozone” suggested the health benefits of brisk sea air; similarly, the area’s original nickname “the Harlem of Brooklyn” only makes sense when you remember that in the late 1800s Harlem was a sleepy, well-to-do Italian neighborhood, and that there was not yet any such place as “Queens.”
The story of neighboring Richmond Hill is similar: Developers bought 400 acres of farmland in the 1860s and sold it to well-to-do families who went on to construct the majestic Queen Anne houses that line the streets near Forest Park, fashioning the area into what an American Institute of Architects tour has called “the Hamptons of those days.”
That was then, though. In the intervening decades, the area has seen successive waves of immigration from a dozen or more countries, with families attracted by detached single-family homes and comparatively cheap rents. These new arrivals transformed the area into first a patchwork of ethnic enclaves and then, more recently, a community whose genuine diversity isn’t limited to the restaurants on a commercial strip. The area is home to faith centers for the city’s Muslim, Sikh, and Catholic worshippers, and the Liberty Avenue corridor hosts not only gatherings of the city’s Guyanese community but also a street festival for the traditional Hindu festival of Diwali. It’s a legitimately unique place—the New York that New Yorkers love to brag about.
“Ozone Park is like the melting pot inside the melting pot,” said Sam Esposito, president of the Ozone Park Residents Block Association. “Over the years every nationality has been represented. It gives us residents a chance to learn about new customs. We all get along and we all work side by side.”
Sibyl’s Bakery and Cafe
The midday line at this Guyanese bakery frequently stretches out the door, but don’t be deterred—it moves fast. Patrons come in to pick up pastries, tarts, or to-go containers of savory rice and bean dishes, then depart just as quickly as they arrived. Founded in 1976 by the titular Sibyl, an immigrant from Guyana, the restaurant is now managed by her son Viburt Bernard, aptly nicknamed “Cooky.” If you desire a sweet after your pepper pot or curry, try peanut putch, a sort of peanut butter smoothie.
13217 Liberty Ave, Richmond Hill
Mandirs and Gurdwaras of Richmond Hill
Alongside the gabled roofs of Richmond Hill’s landmark victorians you’ll find a newer, more distinctive architectural trend: multicolored domes belonging to both the local mandirs, or Hindu temples, and gurdwaras, or Sikh houses of worship. The mahogany-colored brick and white trim of Tulsi Mandir on 111th Street gives way to a compressed onion dome with an extra-tall “stem,” making it look almost like a miniature version of the two domes atop the block-long Sikh center farther south on 117th. The real standout, though, is the white trapezoidal shikhara dome atop Shri Lakshmi Narayan Mandir on Liberty Avenue; it’s one of the oldest forms in Indian architecture, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find another in New York.
Trinciti Roti Shop
Located well away from Ozone Park’s main commercial corridors, across from an elementary school on a largely residential block, this Caribbean-Indian joint enjoys legendary repute among locals. On weekends the wait times can get long, but it’s worth it, regardless of what you’re coming for. There are roti of every kind, but also doubles (smaller fried dough sandwiches) and aloo pie (fried dumplings stuffed with meat). A particular standout is the “bake and shark,” a Trinidadian street-food sandwich with ample shark meat.
111-03 Lefferts Blvd, South Ozone Park
New York isn’t always the most attentive caretaker of its 400-year history. Case in point is the Triangle intersection in north Richmond Hill, which was first laid out as the neighborhood’s commercial center more than 150 years ago. The legendary Triangle Hofbrau restaurant went up on the flatiron triangle of the intersection in 1864, around the time the first Victorians were going up, and it remained the heart of the German-immigrant neighborhood for more than a century even as the city built two sets of train tracks around it. The building is still there, but, incredibly, the front has been buried behind a new building that houses a barbershop and an insurance brokerage. Walk around the Triangle and you can still see the fixtures of the old German brewery poking out over the top.
Venturing out to new restaurants isn’t always about finding the best food. Case in point: Don Peppe, a century-old white-tablecloth Italian place in Ozone Park. Noteworthy for being blown up not once but twice on the television show Entourage, the restaurant has a long history of patronage by Mafia figures, including Genovese chief Ciro Perrone, who died in 2011. After being acquitted in a racketeering trial that included recordings of Perrone meeting in the back of Don Peppe, Perrone reportedly treated seven jurors to dinner at the restaurant. The pasta with white clam sauce is a standout, so dense it generates its own gravitational field; the marinara sauce cries out to be consumed on its own, by the spoonful out of a tureen.
135-58 Lefferts Blvd, South Ozone Park, NY 11420
Victorians of Richmond Hill
Everyone knows you can go to Ditmas Park to see Victorians, but the Victorian houses of Richmond Hill are purer, more colorful, and more dignified. Having gone mostly untouched since their original construction, they have fewer of the extra-large eaves and Roman columns you find in Ditmas Park and Midwood. These houses were built in the “Queen Anne” style, with gorgeous wooden wraparound porches and “painted lady” colors like pewter blue, dark green, and light yellow. The turrets alone would be worth the price of admission (if there were any), rising up from between second-story porches and topped with decorative spires called finials. Turn off Myrtle onto any street between 110th and 118th, and you’ll soon find yourself slipping into another time.
Mia Halal Food
If you can manage to squeeze your way into this microscopic restaurant just off the central Ozone Park intersection of Cross Bay and Rockaway boulevards, you’ll find surprisingly good falafel and chicken skewers. The service experience ranges from indifferent to combative, but the gyro platters especially are worthwhile, and everyone in the neighborhood knows it—it’s sort of like eating inside a halal cart, shoulder-to-shoulder with chefs and other patrons. Plus, then you’ll have eaten at the restaurant behind this commercial.
105-07 Cross Bay Blvd, Ozone Park
Jack Kerouac’s Homes & Haunts
Just off Cross Bay Boulevard at 133rd Avenue is the apartment where the famed Beat writer Jack Kerouac spent his early years; in his journal, he later recalled the home, writing that he had a dream “in my queer house in Ozone Park… that very house that sometimes rattles and is set on the edge of the world instead of Crossbay Boulevard.” He moved there with his mother and father in 1943 after leaving the Navy, and lived there until 1949, working at the time on his little-read first novel The Town and the City. Later on, well after he and his mother had moved north to Richmond Hill (94-21 134th Street), he retained the nickname “Wizard of Ozone Park” among his Beat friends Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. The famously prodigious drinker would also recall going across the boulevard to the now-closed Glen Patrick’s Pub (in Kerouac’s time called McNulty’s) to fill up a tea kettle of draft beer for his mother—presumably an experience that informed his later habits.
Kerouac is said to have plotted his famous road trip (which began at the Rockaway Blvd A train) in the family’s Ozone Park home, and then wrote On The Road (during a “three week writing spree”) in the Richmond Hill home (though some say he was with Joan Haverty, his second wife, at 454 West 20th Street at the time). He also worked on Maggie Cassidy, The Subterraneans and Book of Dreams in Richmond Hill, according to Pat Fenton, a local Kerouac fan who used to give tours in the area, and had pushed to landmark the sites in the past. (Check out Fenton’s tour of Kerouac’s Queens here.)