Part of OnEarth's Answers from the Past month, in which our contributors explore how contemporary thinking on sustainability has been influenced by wisdom handed down to us from previous generations. Read more here.
The walk from the subway to my house in an industrial neighborhood on the border of Brooklyn and Queens is rarely pleasant. Big rigs noisily block intersections; delivery vans parked helter-skelter on the sidewalk force me into the busy street. At the corner, where strange-smelling fumes billow from a factory vent, I hold my breath as I wait for the walk signal. Dead birds lay where they fall after crashing into warehouse windows. Feral cats dodge trucks, often unsuccessfully. Each day I step over their remains and monitor their decay.
The unbroken pavement stretches on for at least a half mile before the leafy top of a silver maple pops over a gate, casting a rare bit of shade onto Flushing Avenue. You can see the foliage for blocks, and I’m always happy to be heading toward it—and the small farmhouse with the gambrel roof, green shutters, and white-picket fence that I’ve come to call home. A child learning how to categorize objects might say this is the one building that doesn’t belong in this part of town. And she’d be right—sort of.
First built around 1662, the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House—where my boyfriend Keith and I have been caretakers since May—was here long before the factories and warehouses. In fact, it’s the oldest-remaining Dutch colonial farmhouse in New York City. All this month, OnEarth writers have been exploring ideas in sustainability by seeking “Answers from the Past.” Well, I live in a place that gives me a special look into how cities evolve, how Americans once lived, and what progress really means.
For centuries, the Dutch Colonial was part of a working farm. But as time went on, the owners sold off small parcels of land here and there and carved up the initial 108-acre property among family members. Finally in 1912, Gertrude Onderdonk Schoonmaker sold the family home, three years before her death at the age of 90. By then, industry had been rapidly intruding on the fields of Gertrude’s childhood, and soon after the sale, the farmhouse itself transformed into a glassworks. (In certain parts of the yard, you can still see broken shards of colorful glass peeking through the soil and grass.)
For the next 60 or so years, the Onderdonk property served several industrial purposes: lumberyard, steel storage, greenhouse manufacturing. One company even fabricated small spacecraft parts for NASA’s Apollo program. Strange to think that something produced in this 17th-century home might have ended up on the moon.
But back on Earth, the Onderdonk House fell into ruin and vandalism after the last industrial owners deserted the home in 1973. “This neighborhood was really not a good place to be back in 1970s,” historian George Miller told me. Squatters broke into the home, and soon the colonial farmhouse blended in with the area’s general décor of urban decay. The following year, the New York City Housing and Development Administration scheduled the Onderdonk’s demolition.
A handful of residents, who later formed the Greater Ridgewood Historical Society, had a different idea. Where the city saw an unsafe, run-down house, the community saw an opportunity to conserve the last bit of agrarian heritage on the landscape. After fundraising and gaining support from local politicians, the GRHS bought the Onderdonk and saved the 300-year-old home from the wrecking ball.
Second chances, however, rarely come easy. In January 1975, a short time after the police forcibly removed the group of squatters from the home, someone lit the Onderdonk on fire. The gasoline-fed flames consumed much of the building’s wood and historic design details, such as the mantels over the fireplaces and the sloping roof. Once again, the city called up the bulldozers to raze the Onderdonk. And once again, the community came to the rescue.
Luckily, enough of the stone farmhouse remained to make a case for restoration. And importantly, meticulous notes on the house—taken in 1936 by a government program called the Historic American Buildings Survey—gave architects what they needed to return the building to its colonial splendor.
As our country’s 200th birthday approached, the Onderdonk made the short list of places to be funded by the Queens Bicentennial Committee. Six years later, with the help of city, state, and federal grants and a lot of local fundraising, the farmhouse opened to the public. The troubled neighborhood had needed a place for residents to throw church picnics, to take pride in, and to simply gather. This is exactly what happens at the Onderdonk today.
Where the city saw an old, unsafe house, the community saw an opportunity to save the last bit of agrarian heritage on the landscape.
Just about every time I walk out my attic apartment door, something’s going down in the museum or out in the yard. Several times a month, school field trips, youth groups, or Girl and Boy Scouts take over the grounds for quick lessons in early American self-sufficiency. (Last month, I came home to a house teeming with 400 Brownies learning how to build a campfire.) On summer weekends, the music from festivals, weddings, and birthday barbecues reverberates off the warehouse walls surrounding the two-acre farm.
During one party last June, I was on my hands and knees in the garden at the top of the property when I realized I was being watched. I looked up to see a third grader hanging over the fence. She got straight to business. “Can I help you? You should say yes. My momma says I’m a big help. She always says it. I’m good at it,” she asked very directly. “Sure…,” I said.
I wasn’t surprised when seven other boys and girls dropped their wiffle balls and Frisbees to join my new little friend. She was a clear leader—a future CEO, I remember thinking—and I know when you invite one child somewhere at a party, you invite them all. But how long these kids stayed in the garden and actually went to work made an impression on me. For over an hour, they filled pots with soil, asked me which plants were weeds (they were extremely enthusiastic about pulling them up), and fought over whose turn it was to carry the bucket of water, which we drew from a spigot on the side of the house. Like little ducklings covered in dirt, they followed me up and down the hill, spilling water all the way. I rewarded them with a peek inside the chicken coop. Again, they couldn’t get enough.
City kid or country kid, we all carry around a bit of agrarian heritage within us. And places like the Onderdonk help us tap into it—if only for an afternoon. What any of these young visitors do with what they learn here is up to them, but three decades worth of field trips has given them a chance to think about their homes and cities a little bit differently—not only about how things used to be, but what they could become.
The National Register of Historic Places officially declared the Onderdonk a “place worthy of preservation” in 1977, but to the community members who fought against its destruction, this strange old house on the corner was already a landmark. By saving it, they helped secure a foothold in the neighborhood’s future. This stretch of Flushing Avenue is no longer such a bad place to be.
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