Fortified New York

Four out of the five New York City boroughs are either an island (Manhattan and Staten Island) or part of an island (Brooklyn and Queens are two of the four counties that make up Long Island).  The Bronx is the only borough that is part of the US mainland.  As a result, the waterways surrounding the city are an intrinsic part of its identity and served an important economic function in its history.  Yet the waterway system made the city vulnerable to attack so fortifications were built at strategic points along its harbors.  This week’s challenge instructed me to spend time in a city park and while Flushing Meadows Corona Park may have been an obvious choice, instead I chose Fort Totten Park to learn more about the city’s military history.

Located on 60 acres in Bayside, a neighborhood in the northeastern-most section of Queens, Fort Totten was built in the mid-19th century and along with Fort Schuyler in the Bronx, served to protect the eastern entrance into New York harbor via the East River through Long Island Sound.  It complemented the fortification of the harbor from the south at the mouth of the Narrows, with Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn and Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island.  Today, a small section of it still houses the US Army Reserves and the US Coast Guard.

One of the highlights of my visit was a self guided tour of the water battery, which was built in 1862 as one of the US government’s responses to the attack on Fort Sumter and the subsequent outbreak of Civil War in 1861.  After checking in at the refurbished Visitor’s Center, I accessed the battery at a nearby entrance that led me into a long transport tunnel lit by a single file of light bulbs along its ceiling.  Walking through the tunnel felt like going through an old-fashioned wormhole in slow motion because when I emerged on the other side, I came upon an eerily abandoned unfinished fort from the past.

Walking amidst the large granite blocks and bluestone floors was reminiscent of my exploration of the buildings at Machu Picchu in Peru.  Arched cannon rooms and walkways, numerous doors that led to hidden rooms and little crannies, stairwells that raised or lowered you to another level, and windows that peered out onto the water made it feel like a maze.  The blocks, although universally sized here, reminded me of the large boulders smoothed out and tightly fitted together by the Incas to create the buildings of Machu Picchu.  This place would be a photographer’s dream as light and shadow interplay well with the structure’s architecture. In all of my exploration, I did not encounter another visitor even though I saw a couple enter the tunnel just five minutes ahead of me.

Since the battery is adjacent to the water, it affords excellent views of Long Island Sound, Nassau County, and the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges that connect Queens and the Bronx.

Throgs Neck Bridge in Foreground & Whitestone Bridge in Background

View of Long Island Sound & Nassau County

Decades of neglect have left the battery and many of the buildings at Fort Totten in a state of decay.  In some parts, nature has taken over.

Batteries Built in 1885-1903 that Housed Disappearing Guns

To see incredible pictures on the state of a decaying building, check out this photo essay on Fort Totten’s Army Hospital.  There is hope for some of these buildings to return to their resplendent beauty.  Below is the former Commanding Officer’s house and today it is the Parks and Recreation Department’s northeast Queens headquarters.

The Gothic revival building below is known as “The Castle”.  It was once the Officer’s Club is now home to the Bayside Historical Society.

Replica of the Archaeological Site

Bayside Real Estate Brochure in the 1930s. A 2-story, 3 bed house on a 40x100 plot cost $5,890-$6,290.

I highly recommend a stop at “The Castle”. On the day of my visit, Margaret, a friendly employee offered me a quick and dirty “ten cent” tour. After showing me the lay of the land, I lingered to view the exhibits on display. Committed to remembering and explaining the history of the building and the neighboring area, permanent exhibitions inform visitors of the archeological digs of the area, the Native Americans who lived here, as well as the development of Bayside.  Special exhibitions such as “The Women of Bayside” currently on display, highlight the contemporary events and people of the neighborhood.  The society hosts lectures and events and the building is even available for rent by the public.

Union Soldier Uniform

Fort Totten was designated a NYC Historic District in 1999 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In 2003, it was transferred to the City of New York with the exception of the 77th Army Reserve. In addition to the army reserve, the park is also home to the NYC Parks and Recreation, Fire, and Police Departments as well as the US Coast Guard. The park accommodates all ages and interests. Park Rangers offer historical tours of the battery, architectural tours of the buildings, and even take children on birdwatching tours! You can walk, run, and bike throughout the grounds and in the summer, a public pool is available for use.

To learn more about events at Fort Totten Park or any of NYC’s public parks, pick up the free quarterly magazine by the Urban Park Rangers, “Outdoors in NYC”.  It is a useful guide that sorts information by borough, date/time, then activity.  You can also access a copy online.  I am struck by the incredible breadth of activities available to the public, the majority of which are free!

Fort Totten Park
Cross Island Parkway & Totten Avenue
Bayside, Queens
Visitors Center:  718-352-1769
FREE / Hours: Dawn to Dusk
www.nycgovparks.org/parks/forttotten

The Bayside Historical Society
Thu – Fri:  10 am – 2 pm
Sat:  12 – 4 pm
Sun:  11 am – 2 pm
$3 Suggested Donation
www.baysidehistorical.org

7 train to Main Street, Flushing,
followed by the Q13 or Q16 bus to the last stop
— OR —
LIRR Port Washington Line to Bayside,
followed by the Q13 bus to Fort Totten

Doubles, Mauby, Aloo Pie, Oh My!

The best part about Queens?  Hands down, the food, because the incredible variety of options reflects the rich diversity of the borough’s people.

Out of curiosity, I recently listed all the cuisines I’ve ever had in Queens:  American, Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Brazilian, Argentinian, Egyptian, Israeli, Central Asian (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, western China), Afghani, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Veitnamese, Thai, Chinese (including the regional flavors of Dongbei, Shanghai, Sichuan, Hong Kong), Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Malaysian, Indonesian, Polish, Czech, Greek, Cypriot, Bosnian/Balkan, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Irish.

That’s 37 cuisines from around the world, yo!  37!!!  And there’s still so much more to try!

The third week’s challenge charged me to eat in a neighborhood I rarely visit.  After contemplating my options, I decided to not only go to a less familiar neighborhood but to also try a cuisine I’ve never had before: Indo-Caribbean.  I headed to Richmond Hill with a well-established West Indian population particularly from Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago.

I selected Singh’s Roti Shop after doing research online and getting recommendations from friends.  Dishes and drinks I’ve never heard before–doubles, aloo pie, buss up shot, salt fish and bake, mauby, sorrel, sea moss, and peanut punch–I wanted to try.

Upon entering Singh’s, my senses were immediately overloaded.  The huge line extended from the counter to the door, at least 40 feet.  To while away the time, people in line and families seated at tables watched TV transfixed.  It played music videos of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and various West Indian artists while the sound blared from floor speakers.  The television jockey seemed to suffer from ADD because he changed the video every 2 minutes, never completing any one song.  During my 30 minute wait, I observed what seemed like satisfied customers leaving with bags…and trays, MULTIPLE TRAYS, of food.  If impatient New Yorkers are willing to wait long, then the food must be delicious.  I got excited!

When I reached the counter, I saw at least 10 Singh employees taking orders and dishing out food.  I asked my server a question but the high glass counter filled with numerous to-go containers prevented eye contact and the loud blaring music made it really hard to hear each other.  I asked for clarification on the menu and I got a “hold on”.  She suddenly disappeared to the kitchen, returned minutes later, and proceeded to take another customer!  I tried to get her attention. Heck, I tried to get anyone’s attention but all were busy.  After another 7 minute wait, my server yelled “next” and I went back to her and asked why she didn’t serve me.    She came up with this crazy line about how long the line was and that I had to wait.

And then, I LOST IT.

I got all New York on her, ActionJoJo-style!  Despite my yelling still sounding like a whisper thanks to the loud music, she begrudgingly took my order….which she eventually got wrong.

Clockwise from center left: aloo pie, doubles, sorrel and mauby (drinks), chicken roti.

I got doubles, an aloo pie, a roti chicken and to drink I decided to try sorrel and mauby. The roti chicken reminded me of its Malaysian cousin, chicken roti canai sans the coconut milk in the curry. The West-Indian roti is far thicker and bigger, which makes it heartier to absorb the delicious sauce.  Without coconut milk in the curry, it was less creamy but still full of flavor.  Shaped like a tapered submarine sandwich with a slit on its side, the aloo pie surprised me.  I did not expect the consistency of the fried dough to remind me of an Italian zeppola filled with a mixture of chickpeas and potatoes instead of ricotta cheese.  My favorite by far was the doubles, a chickpea curry filling between two pieces of baras bread.  The juxtaposition of the hearty and spicy creaminess of the chickpeas between the thin soft pieces of baras made the dish delicious partly because of taste and mostly because of texture.  I came to understand how it is a popular snack food in Trinidad:  light enough to not make you feel full but heavy enough to tide you over until your next real meal.  The sorrel was essentially a fruit punch but the mauby was more complex:  earthy and herby, akin to a non-carbonated homemade root beer that started semi-sweet and ended with a bitter aftertaste.

Flags of countries from the region

Now that I’ve sampled West Indian cuisine, I would definitely eat it again.  Much of the population of Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago descended from Africans and Indians who arrived as slaves or indentured workers.  Even the Chinese ended up in these countries, which is why you’ll see lo mein, chow mein, and fried rice on the menu.  I tried to sample the “Singh’s Special Fried Rice” for comparison but they were out.

I would not suggest going to Singh’s if you are a first timer like me unless you are accompanied by someone who knows how to order.  I would’ve been better suited going to a sit-down restaurant serviced by wait staff who could answer my questions and explain the menu.  If you have any suggestions of places like these, leave them in the comments!  I’ll wait to go back to Singh’s until I’m far more familiar with the menu.

Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar
131-14 Liberty Avenue
South Richmond Hill, NY  11419
(718) 323-599

A train to Lefferts Boulevard
M-Thu 6am-12am; Fri 6am-2am;
Sat 5:30am-2am; Sun 5:30am-12am
www.singhsrotishopnyc.com