By Victor G. Mimoni
From a mile-long dirt road dividing Abraham Bell’s farm in the late 1820s, Bell Avenue developed over the next two centuries from quiet Main Street USA for the village of Bayside into a vibrant commercial boulevard — with arguably the most diverse restaurant row in Queens.
Bayside has evolved into one of the city’s premier residential communities with a thriving business association and Bell Boulevard — renamed in 1930 — ties it together from Little Bay to the Grand Central Parkway.
But the heart of the community is still “the Village,” stretching along Bell roughly from 39th Avenue to Northern Boulevard, and it has its own booster organization, The Bayside Village Business Improvement District. The BID only covers 39th to Northern, while the Bayside Business Association covers the greater Bayside area.ï»¿
It was the coming of the Long Island Rail Road in 1866 that led to Bayside’s growth and established its hub at the station plaza along 41st Road. By the Roaring Twenties, the main drag boasted a movie palace, The Capitol Theatre at 39th Avenue, the Bayside National Bank at Northern Boulevard and a variety of shops, stores and restaurants.
Even then, exotic fare could be found in Bayside. The Bell Tavern, near 40th Avenue, catered to the latest dining craze — billing itself as a “Chinese and American Restaurant — Special Luncheon and Dinner Every Day.”
By then, however, the country was reeling under the weight of the Great Depression and Bayside was no exception. The theater was closed and numerous shops shuttered over the years, but as the country recovered, so did the boulevard. The Bayside Times reported that on Nov. 7, 1941, “stars of stage, screen and radio attended the gala opening of the new Skouras Bayside Theatre.”
Changing times changed the face of Bayside and Bell Boulevard. Some longtime residents wistfully remember the Charmet Dress Shop — now a nail salon — and Kurtzberg’s Stationery Store — now a health spa — both across from the plaza. What was once Tannenbaum’s, a Boy Scouts and camping outfitter two blocks south, is now a golf shop and law offices. The United Cigar Store, one block north of the plaza and one of four in the village during tobacco’s heyday, is now a McDonald’s.
America’s love affair with the automobile also wrought change. Limited parking in the area proved burdensome to many nearby residents and some merchants. Shopping centers, cineplex movie palaces and supermarkets with their parking lots lured consumers away from neighborhood venues — the old movie house finally closed its doors forever in 2001.
The village strip now boasts multiple Irish pubs and Italian restaurants; bars for liquor, wine and tapas; and, of course, fast food — since 1933, the White Castle has served up “sliders” at the gateway to Bayside Village at Northern and Bell boulevards.
A growing Asian population has made its mark with salons and shops — and on diners’ tastes. Restaurants offer fare from Thailand to Korea. The former Lailla restaurant, which had served Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine, will open in coming months as Daidokoro, serving mainly Japanese grilled skewer dishes, according to proprietor Eddie Yang.
The parking meter may have done as much as anything to change Bell Boulevard into the nightlife and restaurant capital of Queens. But the success of eating and drinking establishments has put pressure on other merchants. Although dinner hours extend past parking restrictions, many restaurateurs say their lunch trade suffers because of one-hour parking and aggressive ticketing.
A proposal to extend the time limit on metered parking from one hour to two hours between 39th Avenue and Northern Boulevard was the subject of heated debate at a recent Community Board 11 hearing — with some storekeepers and local residents objecting to what they called the reduced turnover of parking on the boulevard. The measure was approved, however, despite significant opposition.
Even with the shaky economy, construction and renovation continues in Bayside Village and while some stores fail, others take their places, continually changing the face of Bell Boulevard.