SUNY Press, 216 pages, hardcover, $21.95
Hundreds of books every year feature New York as either their subject or their setting, but it is usually the boroughs of Manhattan or Brooklyn who get all the literary love. The list of books featuring the borough of Queens is miniscule by comparison. John Guare’s play The House of Blue Leaves (1966, 1994), M. Dylan Raskin’s memoir Little New York Bastard (2003), Akashic Books’ anthology Queens Noir (2008), and Matt Burgess’ Dogfight: A Love Story (2010) are among the best literary works to take Queens as their setting, but they don’t all necessarily paint the borough in the best light.
Enter editor Nicole Steinberg, on a mission to give Queens the respect it deserves. The anthology she has lovingly assembled, Forgotten Borough: Writers Come to Terms with Queens, features a cadre of fine authors including Arthur Nersesian, Margarita Shalina, Ron Hogan, Mark Swartz, and others. While it is difficult to distinguish the line between fiction and memoir in many of these pieces, the underlying respect — and even love — these writers express for Queens comes through in every sentence.
In “Ethelerie’s Blank Check,” Arthur Nersesian tells how an afternoon excursion with friends to Rockaway Beach turns into an adventure across Queens when the foursome find themselves stranded by the New York blackout of 2003. With the wit and subtle humor for which Nersesian is known, he relates each episode of their adventure. From sleeping on the beach and hitching a ride with a kindly stranger, to negotiating payment for a meal with a blank check and searching for a bus back to Manhattan, Nersesian offers readers not only a tale of urban adventure, but a snapshot of Queens from the perspective of a lifelong New Yorker.
Describing the seaside neighborhood of Rockaway and its evolution over time, the description of a single house brings the focus starkly to the present: “His rundown house had a big official-looking sign taped to the door that read WARNING: Mold Contamination Detected.” Negotiating a ride across the borough from the elderly man living in the house in exchange for a favor, the foursome learn a bit of Queens’s history when the landmark they took to be Martin Luther King Park turns out to be Rufus King Park. This confusion not only teaches an interesting though little known tidbit of Queens history, it also creates a dramatic tension that carries through to the story’s conclusion.
Margarita Shalina’s “The Maspeth Holders” offers a similar treatment of Queens, relating two historic events in the borough’s evolving character. The markers long denoting the boundary between Queens and Brooklyn, the Maspeth Holders — also known as the Brooklyn Union Gas Tanks — are two lumbering structures capturing the essence of the neighborhood in which the author grew up, and where she lived at the time of writing. The demolition of these two structures in the summer of 2001 to make room for redevelopment marks a shift in the character of the borough, as neighborhoods made up predominantly of abandoned and decaying manufacturing facilities are flattened and replaced with new structures. As the author and her friend stand watching the holders come down, we get a sense that the transformation the character of the borough is going through is also a change in the author’s character as well. That September, the collapse of two other prominent New York landmarks will change not only the author, but the entire character of the city of New York.
“The Sunnyside Shuffle” is a tale relating a history of Ron Hogan’s living arrangements with his wife, and the various trials they endured in their first apartment. From so-so hot water, to a building-wide bedbug infestation, the tale Ron relates is one to which anyone who has rented an apartment for any length of time would be able to relate. What makes Ron’s story special is his description of the neighborhood, and his attachment to it.
The short story “Accent Reduction” by Mark Swartz takes us to the seedier neighborhoods of Queens, where we learn that in the glitz and glitter of New York nightlife, danger lurks in unexpected places. A pair of con-artist brothers is working to pay off debts owed to a local gambling kingpin when things go awry between them and the sexy bait they use to lure unsuspecting suckers into their swindles.
Forgotten Borough represents the strength of the literary community not just of Queens, but of all of New York. It’s a great collection jam-packed with stories, essays, and poetry by an array of authors who all merit further attention.