2009-10-14 / Star Journal

WWII Begins With U.S. Neutral In September 1939

Get into a conversation with a long-time Queens resident and you're likely

to discover a subscriber

of the Long Island Star- Journal, a daily paper that informed the community about local and world news until it folded in 1968. A banner across the Star-Journal masthead reminded readers that the newspaper's name came from the merger of the Long Island Daily Star (1876) and the North Shore Daily Journal--The Flushing Journal (1841).

Welcome to September 1939!

Seventy years ago, on September 1, 1939, Star-Journal headlines screamed “Nazis Launch War on Poles; Warsaw Asks British Help”. As Hitler’s blitzkrieg into Poland was underway and the rest of the world nervously waited to see how England and France would respond, here in Queens residents took the latest developments in stride.

President Franklin Roosevelt did little but appeal to Europe’s big powers not to bomb open cities and civilians. President Franklin Roosevelt did little but appeal to Europe’s big powers not to bomb open cities and civilians. By September 4, Germany, Britain and France were officially at war. News emerged hitting close to home: the Germans sank the British steamship Athenia off the coast of Ireland. Among the passengers were seven people from Woodside, Elmhurst, and Sunnyside. The Star-Journal eventually reported that three were later listed as either dead or missing.

However, other travelers on American flag vessels who arrived in Queens expressed a general feeling of being safe (America would not enter the war for another two years). Passengers crossing to Europe reported hearing of numerous ships torpedoed. In some cases, vessels were briefly diverted from their courses to help in searching for crews. Social activities on returning vessels were curtailed because refugees fleeing Europe, who bunked in ballrooms, often doubled the ship’s normal passenger load.

Yom Kippur observances that year took on a particular note of poignancy. The text of Rabbi Joshua Goldberg’s sermon at the Astoria Center of Israel was reprinted in its entirety. Yom Kippur observances that year took on a particular note of poignancy. The text of Rabbi Joshua Goldberg’s sermon at the Astoria Center of Israel was reprinted in its entirety. Not without a sense of foreboding: the Star-Journal reported that the question most frequently asked was: What course of action would our country do to stem this grave threat to humanity? President Franklin Roosevelt did little but appeal to Europe’s big powers not to bomb open cities and civilians.

A Star-Journal editorial criticized President Roosevelt’s response. The speech the President gave on Germany’s actions “lacks the lucidity” to which Americans “were accustomed in Rooseveltian utterances”. The editorial further stated, “inner confusion…is reflected in the procession of rhetorical generalities. We suspect that the President feels the tug of conflicting emotions and opinions on his mind”. Though it stated that it morally opposed Hitler and his actions, it was clear the paper was in line with the isolationist mood of the country at this time.

Yom Kippur observances that year took on a particular note of poignancy. The text of Rabbi Joshua Goldberg’s sermon at the Astoria Center of Israel was reprinted in its entirety.

Despite the heady events unfolding on the world stage, the Star-Journal still found space to note the effects of rapid development taking place in its vicinity. It specifically cited the “gradual disappearance” of local landmarks that were “sharply emphasized by the razing of the old Astoria Hotel” at the base of Astoria Boulevard, as well as the imminent demolition of the Nelson Memorial Chapel on Star Square in Long Island City. The Journal weighed in with: “The old Astoria Hotel had become such an accepted part of the Astoria scene for old timers that it will be a long time before they will pass the empty site without a feeling of nostalgia for the rollicking days of yore.”

Long Island City residents, too, would feel amiss as the city slated their very own Nelson Chapel at Queens Plaza to be torn down. Not only was the chapel a beloved local church, but it also served the community as a motion picture theater and even as a storehouse for prizefighting equipment (among which was the actual ring used in the famed Tunney- Dempsey match in Chicago). Interest in restoring the chapel as a place of worship was led by the late Bishop Charles Nelson, “a picturesque and respected figure” who was a carpenter by trade –and an avid boxer on the side!

The Nelson Memorial Chapel had a varied history behind it. A church occupied the site as early as 1876, eventually making way for another one in 1892 (the building the good Bishop eventually restored in 1928). In 1909 the church was combined with the Grace ME Church at Hunter’s Point; thereafter, an African American congregation occupied it. After this congregation left, it became a community center where the locals came together to view motion pictures. After Bishop Nelson died in 1934, a tiny group of congregants continued to use his church while the city took measures to improve the surrounding area. Along with its mounting internal debts (with its rent, the church couldn’t even afford its own minister,) the church was saddled with higher city taxes and simply couldn’t make ends meet. The city took over its property for a parking lot.

The Star-Journal ran an ad many today would appreciate: it announced that Tri-Borough Beverage, distributors of Cold Keg Beer, was to move to Astoria Boulevard (its present location). The public was cordially invited to visit its “new and larger quarters” by mid month after the company settled in.

On a more serious note, overdevelopment seemed to be the most pressing issue on people’s minds 70 years ago.

Under orders being prepared by Housing and Building Commissioner William Wilson, no construction permits would be issued for multiple dwellings in the borough, unless the Queens Sewer Bureau certified that the area already had a sewer system adequate to meet the increased load. Borough President George Harvey admitted that millions of dollars were needed to meet even present needs. It seemed that every community had overloaded sewers. Flushing, Bayside, Whitestone, Forest Hills, College Point, Elmhurst, Astoria, and Long Island City clamored for relief.

Commissioner Wilson also voiced enthusiasm over the borough’s intention to limit the footprint covered by an apartment house. This campaign, led by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, Borough President Harvey, Cleveland Rodgers, a member of the city planning commission, and James Burke (the liaison with planning and future borough president), was directed against widespread clustered apartment housing construction. Both elected politicians and city officials led the fight, which many felt threatened the borough’s suburban and residential character. The investment of thousands of small one- and two-family homeowners was at risk.

According to J. Franklin Perrine, chief engineer of the Queens Sewer Bureau, “I see the need for stricter zoning regulation if Queens is to be preserved as a residential borough. I am thoroughly in favor of reducing the building coverage of land. My experience has shown me that builders can preserve their property’s value by refraining from utilizing too much of the land for construction.”

Agreeing with Commissioner Moses that prompt action must be taken to safeguard the borough from the fate of The Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan, many believed they were ruined by a lack of long–range city planning. Slums developed throughout much of these areas with indiscriminate apartment house construction. Wilson added that no more exemptions or variances would be granted.

That’s the way it was in September 1939!

The Greater Astoria Historical Society, located in the Quinn Gallery, 4th Floor, 35-20 Broadway, Long Island City, is open to the public on Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. and on Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718- 278-0700 or visit www.astorialic.org. Visit the Society’s online gift shop, too.

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