Jamaica is one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the United States. Like much of Queens, the fastest-growing borough of New York, entrepreneurial newcomers from around the world have found a home in this vibrant district.
During the past three decades, more than 5,000 immigrants per year have moved into the area. As a result, an estimated 32 percent of the people in Jamaica speak a language other than English. Jamaica has become the quintessential New York community, reflecting the city’s reputation as a tolerant, diverse “melting pot” of dozens of peoples and cultures.
In addition, millions of people have access to Jamaica through mass transportation—both the Long Island Railroad and New York City Transit—making Jamaica central to a skilled well-educated labor force. A little known fact: There is a larger population of college-educated workers within 45 minutes of Jamaica than either Wall Street or White Plains.
Jamaica Avenue was an ancient trail for Native American tribes from as far away as the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, coming to trade skins and furs for wampum. It was in 1655 that the first settlers paid the Native Americans with two guns, a coat, and some powder and lead, for the land lying between the old trail and “Beaver Pond,” later called Baisley Pond. Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant dubbed the area Rustdorp in granting the 1656 patent. The English, who took it over in 1664, renamed it “jameco,” the Carnarsie word for beaver. And so, Jamaica was born.
Colonial Jamaica had a band of 56 Minute Men that played an active part in the Battle of Long Island, whose unfortunate outcome led to occupation by British troops during most of the Revolution. In Jamaica, “George Washington slept here” is indeed true—in 1790, in William Warner’s tavern. With independence, changes came rapidly to the area. When Rufus King, an author of the Constitution, returned from 7 1/2 years as ambassador to Great Britain, he bought the old Smith farmhouse and renovated it into a stylish home reflecting his Federalist tastes. Once the centerpiece of a 122-acre farm, the home housed three generations of the King family, including John Alsop King, elected governor of New York in 1856.
By 1776, Jamaica had become a trading post for farmers and their produce. For more than a century, their horse-drawn carts plodded along Jamaica Avenue, then called King’s Highway. The Village of Jamaica was incorporated in 1814; a year after the public school system was established with $125.00 for the first year. By 1834 the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad Company had a line into Jamaica. Jamaica Avenue, then Fulton Street, was, in 1850, a plank road with a toll gate; in 1866 the tracks were laid for a horse car line. Twenty years later those tracks were the first in the state to be electrified.
In the years following the Civil War, Jamaica grew rapidly. The 1875 population of 780 jumped to 3,922 five years later. By 1898, the year Queens was incorporated into New York City, 6,500 people lived in Jamaica. By 1910 that number topped 58,000. Business and residential development accelerated in the 20 th century, with the 1918 extension of the elevated transit lines (with a nickel fare!), which enabled people who worked in Manhattan to live in Jamaica. The Long Island Rail Road Station was completed in 1913.
Between 1920 and 1940 Jamaica Avenue commercial real estate boomed. The district included fine department stores, Gertz and Macy’s, and later May’s; the first modern supermarket, King Kullen; and a Spanish Baroque movie palace called the Loew’s Valencia Theater. The 1937 opening of the IND Subway under Hillside Avenue linked Jamaica with Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Prospect Cemetery and the Chapel of the Sisters
159th Street and Beaver Road
Founded in 1668, this is one of the oldest colonial cemeteries in New York, housing the graves of Revolutionary War soldiers and Egbert Benson (New York’s first Attorney General). The landmark 1857 adjoining chapel is being renovated as a performance and arts space and will enjoy new life as part of the York College campus. The renovation has received key support from Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, and Councilman Leroy Comrie.
Jamaica Avenue at 153rd Street
King Manor, the oldest house in Jamaica, is the focal point of the historic 11-acre King Park. The house takes its name from the 18th and 19th century statesman Rufus King, who signed the United States Constitution, spoke out against the spread of slavery, and served as a senator from New York for 19 years. King attached the 18th century Dutch-style house to the Long Island “half house” on the property. In 1810 King further expanded his home by adding a Federal-style dining room and two bedrooms. This landmark is one of the oldest historic house museums in the country.
First Presbyterian Church
89-60 164th Street
Two companies of Revolutionary War “Minutemen” were led by members of this church. The 1813 sanctuary was moved from Jamaica Avenue around the corner to this site in 1920 on a mule-drawn trailer made of logs.
Grace Episcopal Church
155-03 Jamaica Avenue
Completed in 1862, this handsome landmark is actually the third Grace Church built on this site. Founded in 1702 as the official church of the British colonial government, the surrounding graveyard holds the remains of Rufus King, as well as other elected officials and gentry of that time.
St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church
94-20 160th Street
This distinctive brick Romanesque Revival church was built in 1857-58 with a tall central campanile. The church was built by Anders Peterson, a Danish-born contractor who later built the First Reformed and Grace Episcopal Churches in Jamaica, both completed in 1863. St. Monica’s was designated a landmark in 1979. The church’s facade was saved following a destructive storm and has been incorporated into a modern day-care center on the York College campus.
First Reformed Church (The Landmark Project)
153-10 Jamaica Avenue
A Classical Revival church was built on the site in 1833, but was destroyed by a fire in 1857. The new brick Romanesque Revival church, constructed in 1857, has round arches, a massive form, a basilica plan, broad gables, and high flat brick walls. The sermons were in Dutch and English into the late 19th century. The landmark church has been converted into the Jamaica Performing Arts Center managed by Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning.
Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning
161-04 Jamaica Avenue
Built in 1896, this neo-Italian Renaissance style building has lower floor deep rustication, a strong entablature over the lower floors, and a wrought iron railing crowning the entrance. Home of Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, this vibrant landmark building houses a 1,650 square-foot visual arts gallery, a 99-seat proscenium theatre, painting and dance studios, a ceramics studio, a computer lab, and a music studio.
89-56 162nd Street
Built in 1925, this former firehouse was renovated by Greater Jamaica Development Corporation. GJDC owns and operates the landmark building, renting it as offices for two non-profit organizations.
The Borough Office Building
90-04 161st Street
Built in 1929 and designed by the architectural firm Dennison and Hirons, this art deco building is a striking structure with bronze doorways and polychrome terracotta floral designs set into a limestone facade. The eight-story building was contributed in 1980 by Fred C. Trump.
The Tabernacle of Prayer (former Loews Valencia Theater)
165-11 Jamaica Avenue
The Loew’s Valencia Theater, designed by John Eberson, opened in 1929 and was Queens’ major first-run theater for nearly 50 years. The beautiful space has a ceiling filled with moving clouds and twinkling stars along with graceful arches, statuary, and a fish pond in the lobby. Since 1977, the landmark building has served as the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People.
Jamaica Business Resource Center
90-33 160th Street
Step back into classic 1930s New York in this little-changed block of Jamaica. Renovated in 1934, this building was outfitted with a new art moderne facade while the interior was transformed into the restaurant and nightclub, La Casina–still the only known example of an art moderne nightclub in New York. An exquisite renovation of this landmark was completed for the Jamaica Business Resource Center’s offices.
York College, City University of New York
94-20 Guy Brewer Boulevard
York College, the City University of New York’s newest senior college, offers baccalaureate degrees in the liberal arts and sciences, accounting and business, communications technology, computer science, social work, teacher education, and various health professions. It is the first CUNY school to offer a comprehensive program in aviation studies, and is the only CUNY senior college offering majors in gerontology, biotechnology, information systems management and a master’s degree in occupational therapy.
The campus is also home to the regional office and laboratory of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. For more information, visit http://www.york.cuny.edu.