Adrienne Onofri is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in travel and culture. She is also a licensed NYC sightseeing guide and the author of two books, Walking Brooklyn: 30 Tours Exploring Historical Legacies, Neighborhood Culture, Side Streets, and Waterways and Walking Queens: 30 Tours for Discovering the Diverse Communities, Historic Places, and Natural Treasures of New York City's Largest Borough.
Adrienne will be joining us to talk about Walking Queens on April 21 (at Queens Library at Woodside), April 30 (at Queens Library at Ridgewood), and May 28 (at Queens Library at Briarwood). We were happy to speak with her about her book and Queens' hidden treasures.
You've lived in Queens for more than 25 years. What role has Queens Library played in your life?
Libraries everywhere have played a big role in my life. I love them — they're truly democratic institutions. The first time I was ever in print was a "human interest" photo in the local newspaper of me and my sister looking at books in the library when I was about two. And my very first job, when I was 14, was at a library in Rockland County, where I grew up. I've made ample use of the community libraries in Queens — for borrowing books, videos and periodicals, of course, but also attending musical performances and other special events. I did some research for my book at Queens Library, and I include libraries as points of interest on the walks — whether it's for their historical significance, like the Astoria and Woodhaven branches, which were originally Carnegie libraries; or for their noteworthy collections, like at Central Library and Langston Hughes in Corona; or for their art or architectural detail, like the Richmond Hill branch and its WPA mural. Or a combination of those things — the Poppenhusen branch, which is on the College Point walk, both has an interesting history and is architecturally distinctive. I'm thrilled that my neighborhood will soon have the most state-of-the-art library in the city. I live in Elmhurst, where a new four-story library is being built with amenities like a glass-walled atrium and gardens and a computer center and children's rooms. I happen to live equal distance to the Jackson Heights library, so I really have two local branches.
When you were doing research for your book, were there any hidden gems in Queens that still surprised you?
So many places in Queens, even its important historic sites and large parks, could be considered hidden gems just because they haven't been visited by a lot of New Yorkers, let alone tourists. But I'll focus on the ponds and lakes of Queens as one answer to your question. Walking around them can feel like a real nature getaway even though you're not far from busy city streets, and it would probably surprise a lot of people just how many there are. You can find them in both Kissena Park and Bowne Park in Flushing. There's also Strack Pond in Forest Park, as well as Golden Pond in Crocheron Park in Bayside, Oakland Lake and Windmill Pond within Alley Pond Park, Baisley Pond in Jamaica and Aurora Pond in Little Neck. Most of these bodies of water originated as glacial formations, and you might see turtles, frogs and all kinds of birds (including heron and egrets) in them. Flushing Meadows also has two lakes, which many people miss who just come to the park for sports or to see the World's Fair structures. You can go past the Unisphere and walk across a bridge over the highway to reach Meadow Lake; there are separate entrances for Willow Lake, which is basically within a nature preserve.
Lonely Planet has named Queens the number one travel destination in the U.S. What do you think of all the attention our borough is getting?
Well, it's good for my book sales! And it's satisfying, as both a proponent of Queens exploration and a resident of the borough, to hear people amend their prejudices and (inaccurate) preconceptions about Queens. The way things go in New York, this surge in popularity does raise concerns about it getting overexposed, overpriced or insufferably trendy. But there are a lot of interesting, historic and scenic places in Queens — and it can't be beat for dining and cultural immersion — so for now we say, "Welcome, tourists and Manhattanites/Brooklynites!"
What’s the most recent book you’ve read? Who are some of your favorite writers?
In conjunction with writing my book about Queens, I've been reading other books set in Queens — among them the novels Dissident Gardens; Dogfight, A Love Story; and Good Neighbors; and Ha Jin's short-story collection A Good Fall. I've started but haven't yet gotten through We Are Not Ourselves. I also read a book of essays, poems and stories called Forgotten Borough and the memoir Cartwheels in a Sari, written by someone who grew up as a disciple of Sri Chinmoy (based in Queens). And I re-read The Great Gatsby.
Your previous book was Walking Brooklyn. Be honest — which borough is better? (At least when it comes to walking tours!)
I'm opposed to New York City provincialism and wish everybody would willingly go to boroughs other than the one they live in. That said, I am loyal to my home, Queens. I wouldn't necessarily tell people it's "better" than Brooklyn — that's a matter of personal taste — but it's just as worthy. You do have to work a little harder for it — that is, perhaps take a bus to a neighborhood (a number of them in Queens are not on a subway line), so doesn't that make it more desirable? And Queens will probably exceed your expectations to a greater degree. But in both books, I aimed to present all different aspects of life in each borough and sights notable for many different reasons — be it history, nature, architecture, pop culture, news headlines, ethnic heritage, etc. — and that variety makes both places excellent for walking tours.