Irina Reyn, Rego Park and the Central Queens Lit Scene

I still haven’t found a copy of What Happened to Anna K., a novel based on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina taking place in modern day Manhattan and the Bukharian Russian-Jewish immigrant neighborhood of Rego Park, Queens. It’s by Irina Reyn, whom you can learn much more about in this interview with Kevin Kinsella over at Maud Newton’s place.

According to Dan Cryer’s review in Newsday, Reyn’s book involves a hip Manhattanite who falls in with the tightly knit Bukharian community in Rego Park (where I live). I am not a “Bukh” myself, but I am fascinated by these neighbors of mine. Here is a photo I took of a wild scene I walked into one evening on the way home from work. Apparently they were celebrating the arrival of a Torah to their synagogue on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park in the old movie theatre near the Dunkin’ Donuts and Knish Nosh.

I’m a fool for classical retellings, so I’d probably like Irina Reyn’s book in any setting, but the Rego Park connection clinches it for me. I’ve long felt an artistic spirit on these familiar blocks. The most literary spot in Rego Park is probably the house where Art Spiegelman grew up, and just a few blocks over from that is the house where the Bunkers and Stivics lived. The Ramones grew up on the border between Rego Park and its slightly richer neighbor Forest Hills, Simon and Garfunkel’s little town, and just north of Forest Hills is the town of Corona, where little Paul and some kid named Julio apparently got into trouble in a schoolyard, or so we’ve heard. (Forest Hills is also proud of Helen Keller and Geraldine Ferraro).

Louis Armstrong lived in Corona, and at the end of his life Malcolm X brought his family to East Elmhurst, next to Corona, for a safe refuge in New York City (his enemies burned the house down). But the most literary spot in north central Queens is Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, where the beautiful and doomed Shea Stadium stands directly over the famous “ash piles” — a garbage dump landfill — described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.

Oh, there’s more literature in Central Queens. Katharine Weber is from Forest Hills, and I’m pretty sure Austin Street gets a shout-out in Triangle. Jack Kerouac lived in Ozone Park and Richmond Hill. Joseph Cornell lived out east on Utopia Parkway, near where the Taco Bell is now. Most of Goodfellas took place in Central or South Central Queens. Spiderman lived on Ingram Street in Forest Hills, and there’s a Woodhaven Boulevard mention in the first Spiderman movie. The Wiz was filmed in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. There was a good story about the Rego Park little league fields in Akashic’s Queens Noir. Oh yeah, there’s tennis.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: forget about Brooklyn. Queens, for over ten years the most ethnically diverse county in the United States of America, has the biggest and widest literary heart in New York City.

And no, you won’t see Paul Auster walking down the street in Rego Park or Forest Hills. But we have better restaurants, and that’s the truth.

13 Responses

  1. I love New York and I’ve only
    I love New York and I’ve only been there four times that I can remember. Queens has a much richer literary history than I realized!

  2. I was born and raised in
    I was born and raised in Brooklyn but went to a Catholic high school in Elmhurst, so I can show a little bit of love for Queens. I also worked at the Cypress Hills Cemetery (which covers ground in Brooklyn and Queens) for a few summers, which served as the setting for one of my favorite comics when I was a kid (way back in the early 90’s), Ghost Rider. Unfortunately, the real-life cemetery was far less exciting than the comics made it out to be.

    And if you’re ever in Corona on a hot day (not many left), check out the Lemon Ice King.

    One of the funnier recent Queens sightings has been in the HBO show Entourage, which claims that its main characters are Queens boys despite the fact that they’re all Yankees fans.

  3. Um, that’ll make you pretty
    Um, that’ll make you pretty unpopular on Queens Blvd, Mickey Z. Lets go Mets!

  4. Nothing against the Mets,
    Nothing against the Mets, Levi. I’m old enough to have rooted for them during the 1969 miracle and I loved watching them beat Boston in 1986.

    Oddly, like me, most of my old Queens buddies preferred the Yanks.

    This year, if the Yanks can’t pull off a miracle of their own, I’m hoping the Cubs erase a 100-year curse.

  5. Mickey, I know Queens folk
    Mickey, I know Queens folk like you exist. I was more amused by the fact that the show doesn’t really address the Bronx/Queens Mets/Yankees thing while simultaneously having its characters flaunt their Queens-ness to the HBO-watching world at large. Most of my friends in Queens are Mets fans, but that might have something to do with how close Elmhurst is to Shea.

    And if you like post-season ball, you might want to switch over to the Mets this year. 🙂

  6. What Bill said! (and thanks
    What Bill said! (and thanks for the kind words Bill)

    I remain optimistic (hopefully more hopeful than hopeless) about the Mets this year.

    Speaking of Mets-ish stuff, there’s an amazing Italian deli called Mama’s (technical name is I think Leo’s Latticini) in Corona-the Mets liked it so much they opened a branch in Shea. The wall behind the counter has a bunch of celebrity photos of people who have ventured out there for fresh mozzarella (Queens does have better Italian delis than Brooklyn, I’ll give you that).

    I’ve even heard stories of cops arresting criminals and treating them to lunch before they head back to the station-it’s that good!

  7. Yes, Austin Street does get a
    Yes, Austin Street does get a mention in Triangle, but in my first novel, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, the middle third of the book is set in a place very much like Forest Hills Gardens.

    Thelma Ritter used to give Nestles Crunch bars at Halloween.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!