Where the Lines Cross
Mark Mentovai

On the first glance, everything about this neighborhood seems fairly characteristic of any other residential neighborhood in Queens. It’s not until the fifth or sixth glance that the anomalies become apparent. The blocks just west of the intersection of Woodhaven Boulevard and Dry Harbor Road are an example of what happens when old merges with new, when modern planning is imposed on existing development. It’s an example of what happens when the lines cross.

Even the identity of this neighborhood can be called into question. Officially, it’s within the Middle Village postal boundaries, but it’s a stone’s toss from Rego Park. As a matter of fact, one of the best vantage points to get an overview of the odd alignments of the streets and structures in this neighborhood is just across Woodhaven, technically in Rego Park. Not surprisingly, an about-face from this point reveals yet another example of old meeting new.

Uncomfortable with terming the neighborhood either Middle Village or Rego Park, I’ll take the name of the street that cuts through it and call it Dry Harbor. Fitting: when we try to force new on old, we’re left with a bizarro world where harbors are permitted to be dry without risking a citation from the Paradox Police.

The intersection of Dry Harbor Road and Woodhaven Boulevard

Grid Alignment. A walk down Dry Harbor Road reveals that it keeps that name only for a small stretch through the neighborhood. To the south, it aligns itself with yet another grid and gives itself a round number, 80th Street. In Queens, numbered “streets” and “places” identify predominantly north-south paths, while “roads” and “avenues” are used for their east-west counterparts. In the Dry Harbor neighborhood, the road is not aligned with the grid, and wouldn’t be able to maintain any single number. Because Dry Harbor Road crosses a few streets, places, roads, and avenues, it’s no surprise that it does so at an angle.

Apartment buildings viewed from Dry Harbor Road

Building Alignment. As it turns out, the angle phenomenon has a very real impact on land use. Looking at the buildings on Dry Harbor Road and adjacent streets, it’s evident that builders faced a serious problem. Buildings with walls that meet at perfect right angles are the easiest to design and cheapest to construct, but with plots that necessarily aren’t rectangular, the walls must meet at odd angles, or valuable property space will be wasted. The compromise was to retain inexpensive right angles but to use more of them, so buildings contain one or more L-shaped bends. When a development of similar buildings like this is viewed as a group, their walls appear as a staircase whose steps meet the property edge at one side and recede from it at the other; the risers then bring the staircase closer to the street again so that the next step is able to repeat the process.

Two- and six-family housing units

Housing. Leaving the apartment buildings for a walk through the residential streets north (or west?) of Dry Harbor Road, three distinct styles of housing are visible. Each block is the site of only one of these styles, and the styles seem to indicate the relative age of the block: old, new, and in-between. The oldest style is made up of small, identical, single-family homes. Later structures are near-identical two-family homes, which appear slightly larger, but provide less livable space since the home is split between two owners. The newest housing further extends this concept, providing a single long two-story building subdivided for six families. We can imagine the developer who dreamed up this concept, theorizing that if two families are better than one, three must be better still, but since three was too obvious as the next evolutionary step, six would buy an advantage over the competition. In one extreme case, the same six-family design is duplicated as many times as possible down both sides of a single block.

Facing one-way traffic on 85th Street

Traffic Flow. Not surprisingly, most of the streets in Dry Harbor are one-way, like similar residential streets in much of the rest of the borough and city. 85th Street is one such thoroughfare, but there’s a catch: although it’s consistently one-way, the definition of “way” is not consistent. In Dry Harbor, south of Eliot Avenue, “way” means northbound. North of Eliot Avenue, “way” carries the opposite meaning. Approaching Eliot from either direction, vehicles are greeted with oncoming traffic and “Do Not Enter” signs. This appears to be an effect of taking the existing Dry Harbor grid, which continues north of Eliot, and splitting it by imposing new arbitrary boundaries.

The slight curve of 84th Street

Curved Streets. Mapmakers refuse to acknowledge it, but some of the streets in Dry Harbor curve almost imperceptibly in some areas, such as 84th Street. This is not something that would be expected of a rectangular numbered grid, but as it turns out in the case of 84th, is something of a necessity. The grid south of Dry Harbor Road is aligned slightly differently from the grid north of it, the curve on 84th is present to allow what is now called 84th on both sides of Dry Harbor Road to be better aligned with one another. Without the curve, the two sections of 84th Street would be embarrassingly half-connected.

The smallest triangle in Dry Harbor

Triangles. In extreme cases, the oddly interacting streets form blocks in the shape of small triangles. Some of these triangles are so small as to be used for only a single property, as is the case of the triangle formed by 61st Drive, 82nd Place, and Caldwell Avenue. Here, Caldwell is a road perpendicular to Dry Harbor Road, so it also cuts through the numbered grid on a diagonal. At the other end of the extreme, parts of the grid have been omitted to create larger triangles for larger developments. The space created by the acute intersection of Dry Harbor Road and Woodhaven Boulevard is one such example, where the numbered grid was either never built or built and removed. It is now used for senior housing, a nursing home, and large apartment buildings.

One of many paved alleys, overhead cables present

Alleys. Running through some blocks in Dry Harbor are alleys, providing access to the rear of properties on either side, although they do not appear to be incorporated into any of these properties. These narrow paths are paved and lined with utility poles, but are not officially streets. At one point, before the numbered grid was imposed, these alleys may have been actual streets, used by previous generations of homes.

Manhole covers on Dry Harbor Road

Utilities. The streets closest to Woodhaven Boulevard, although not the location of the newest housing developments, are missing utility poles. Electricity and communications are provided through underground cables. Most of the rest of Dry Harbor, though, receives its power and communications services through overhead cables strung from utility poles. Many blocks have these cables running behind the properties, rather than along the street. In some instances, a single pole with bundles of cables radiating in all directions provides a single block’s power and communications hub. Meanwhile, on Dry Harbor Road, ten manhole covers are clustered together in a space less than 50 feet long. Presumably, these are needed to tie together the formerly independent systems from both sides of the road.

Land Use. In spite of all of the oddities in Dry Harbor, the land is used remarkably well in terms of maximizing density. “Common-wall” housing developments provide tight packing of families that wish to own their own property. Rear alleys unofficially provide additional space with access to properties, useful for parking. Parking is also increased around the small triangles: even the smallest triangle, with room enough for only a single property, is easily large enough for fifteen cars to park around. Slight realignments of streets allow for flow between one grid and the next, even if they are not perfectly rectangular.

Given the circumstances, Dry Harbor demonstrates that new can effectively be forced upon old without resorting to the demolition of history. Certainly, there will be anomalies, but it is the knowledge of these exceptions that separate residents of the neighborhood from nonresidents, providing a common tie necessary for a residential neighborhood of this density. A commercial or mixed-use Dry Harbor would have been a definite failure, but for residential purposes, the neighborhood has done as well as could be imagined, considering all of the obstacles that stand in the way when the lines cross.

Pick a different trade.

Mark Mentovai
2002 February 14
2005 February 22