Recalling “The Village” Days of Forest Hills

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     “Forest Hills was a suburban type community with a great deal of neighborliness. The shopping area (centered around Austin Street) was referred to as ‘The Village,’ where merchants were mom and pop businesses, and I knew many owners by name,” said North Carolina resident Richard Delaney, who was born in 1936. Earlier this month, he took a trip to his native home and captured the glory of what 1930s to 1960s-era Forest Hills life was like.

      Until 1962, Delaney lived in the Holland House at 73-37 Austin Street with his brother Harold (born 1923), a WWII veteran, his sister Dolores (1928 – 2016), a homemaker and retail employee, his mother Anne, a homemaker, and his father Harry, a textile banking executive. Delaney graduated from Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in 1950 and Iona College in 1958. He would later achieve a 30-year radio career, taking him nationally and to Australia.

   After stepping foot inside the Holland House this month, Delaney chatted with Keith, the doorman, toured a friend’s apartment, and conversed with the 98-year-old resident of his childhood apartment, who he knew since his youth. He recalled a defunct valet service and a tailor named Louis DeFino, who pressed and altered residents’ clothes. He added, “The Holland house had a recreation room, where I had my christening party.” Delaney referred to the Tudor Gothic meets Art Deco building, completed in 1929, as “Benjamin Braunstein’s crowning achievement.” He pinpointed neighboring residences, which were also designed by Braunstein and among Austin Street’s earliest, which included Sutton Hall, Tilden Arms, and The Wakefield. 

    The Forest Hills of yesteryear offered undeveloped lots. Delaney recalled, “In the warm weather, my parents would roast hot dogs with their neighbors, where the Windsor House building now stands.”

  For children, lots represented “a field day.” “Our favorite lot was across from the Holland House, where Austin Gardens stands today. It went from Tilden Arms to the Austin House, and in the middle was a tennis court, mainly used by Forest Close and Arbor Close residents.” That was where Delaney would play touch football and ring-a-levio.

   West of Continental Avenue, developments were seldom. He explained, “Parker Towers was an immense lot, where we used to play baseball. Where Gerard Towers stands, it had a wooden house where you could stay in the winter to keep warm. You also did outdoor ice skating on Austin Street and played tennis in the summer at no charge.” Across from the 75th Avenue subway was another barren lot, which extended to the Grand Central Parkway. He said, “We used to pitch tents and roast marshmallows in those woods.”

    Delaney reminisced about other childhood traditions, which have long vanished. “In the summer, we all looked forward to the ‘Good Humor man’ coming down Austin Street and we’d run out with our dimes. We went roller skating down Austin street, which you could never do today. Also, a truck which had a machine that sharpened knives would come around a couple times a year, and parents would send their children out, but that would be dangerous today.” 

   WWII had quite an effect on local culture. On the east side of 71st Road between Austin Street and Queens Boulevard, the community erected the “Forest Hills Honor Roll,” which featured his brother, who served the US Army (1943 – 1946) in the European Theatre. Delaney said, “It featured everyone who was in service and was broken down by branches of the armed forces.” 

  Delaney and his family were regulars at a popular meat market owned by Gus Ermish and then his son Warren at 26 71st Road, but the average local business was also affected by the war. Delaney said, “Meat was rationed during the war. You had to have coupons, and you were limited as to how much you could get.”  

   Evenings were not always peaceful, and locals would hear sirens. “Air raid tests were every once in a while, and if your light wasn’t off, a volunteer air raid warden at 73rd Road and Austin Street would shine a flashlight into your window.” 

    Saturdays at the Forest Hills Theatre benefited the war and then offered perks for children. He explained, “Kids would bring old pots and pans in a small red wagon for a WWII scrap drive. Then at the kiddie show for 10 cents, you could watch 10 or 15 cartoons including Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. They had 2 serials such as ‘The Lone Ranger,’ and then either a Disney film or a western, and sometimes a scary movie such as ‘Frankenstein.’” He then chuckled, “We would be there from 9 AM until 2 PM and come out with red eyes.” 

    Delaney resurrected the memory of standout family businesses, such as Sutton Hall Pharmacy at 73-01 Austin Street, where he enjoyed BLT sandwiches and milkshakes. He said, “It had a soda fountain and little wooden booths and tables. One of the pharmacists, ‘Mr. Dee,’ whose real name was Drapkin, was one of the nicest men you could imagine.” Although a chain, the L-shaped Woolworth’s at Continental Avenue and Austin Street was considered another great soda fountain hangout.  

    Lillian Kass Gowns at 73-07 Austin Street was a landmark apparel shop. “Mr. Kass did alterations as Mrs. Kass helped ladies select the right dress.” Another couple owned Markwordt’s at 71-41 Austin Street. “Mr. and Mrs. Markwordt lived over their high-class greeting cards and gift store that sold vases and china.” Another mark of a bygone era could be found at Thomas Shoe Repair on 72nd Road. “You can get your shoes shined and your hat blocked. Everyone wore fedoras in those days,” said Delaney.    

   Perhaps one of Delaney and his brother’s most adventurous memories occurred during the 26-inch Blizzard of ’47. “There was so much snow, we took our sleds to White Rose Market (71-49 Austin Street), and when they plowed Queens Boulevard, there were mountains on the islands, even into April.”

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