“STEINWAY, the vicinity of Steinway Street, was named for William Steinway, Manhattan piano manufacturer who in the early 1870’s established a branch factory here on a four-hundred-acre site along the Bowery Bay. He was motivated by the desire to remove large numbers of his employees from the influence of labor organizers and to provide additional production facilities. Around his plant he laid out a company town with a kindergarten, a free library, a bathhouse, a park, and athletic fields. The firm of Steinway and Sons still operates a factory in the neighborhood.”
-New York City Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to the Five Boroughs of the Metropolis
(Works Progress Administration, 1939)
The article below is one of a series of Field Trips on Urban Omnibus that revisit sites documented in the New York City edition of the Federal Writers’ Project’s (FWP) American Guide Series. The Guides were a Depression-era, Works Progress Administration (WPA) project to create travel guides to the 48 states (of the time) plus Alaska, Puerto Rico, and Washington DC, as well as 1,200 additional books and pamphlets recording American cities, roadways, folklore, and oral histories.
The Guides are not only one of the most comprehensive accounts of the United States at a specific historical moment, but they also provide a particularly interesting lens through which to view our present. This series of UO Field Trips is inspired by an online project called The American Guide, which encourages and collects similar documentation of contemporary America using the original FWP publications as a springboard. In the first of this series, Jonathan Tarleton went camping in Floyd Bennett Field. Here, Tarleton visits the Steinway & Sons piano factory in a corner of Astoria, Queens, and uncovers hints of the former sprawling company town in a neighborhood formerly known as Steinway.
I have never known much about pianos. I grew up in the kind of milieu where piano lessons were a common requirement of youth, but I (regretfully) never took any. My experience with their keys was confined to an idle, atonal plodding in the middle school music room. Yet, I still knew of Steinways. The brand is one of those stand-ins for an ideal, endangered craftsmanship of both beauty and function, fixed in the popular imagination.
I certainly had this ideal in mind when I ventured up to the Steinway & Sons factory on my bike. It is now situated in what is generally referred to as Astoria, Queens, though as the WPA New York City Guide and other sources point out, the area surrounding the factory was once a town unto itself. Many maps still bear a reference to the neighborhood as Steinway, or Ditmars-Steinway for its main thoroughfares, though I would imagine that the history of the district as a company town, eventually swallowed by an expanding Long Island City, is lost on many a visitor and resident alike.
Steinway & Sons purchased an expanse of land along the Bowery Bay in 1870 in response to the growing commercial success that demanded increased production as well as the desire, mentioned in the WPA Guide entry quoted above, to remove workers from the perceived rabble-rousing of organized labor. The Upper East and Upper West Sides were still relatively bucolic at the time. The scene that the increasingly famous piano man found in Queens was similar, shown in drawings of the newly completed factory as an open landscape interrupted only by the new development and ships off the coast.
What grew was in many respects a quintessential company town: a village that removed the necessity to venture outside its bounds by bundling work, home, commerce, transportation, and leisure into a concentrated area. With no specific destination within the bounds of the former town in mind (generally considered to be enclosed by the East River and Bowery Bay to the north, Ditmars Boulevard to the south, 31st Street to the west, and Hazen Street to the east), I biked north toward the waterfront. Crossing 20th Avenue, I entered an industrial district full of low-slung, non-descript brick squares, pocked with metal grates and broken up by truck yards, and promptly ran smack into the Steinway factory at the corner of 38th Street and 19th Avenue.
In clear contrast with the image the Steinway name elicits – glossy black wood and delicate curves emitting a resonant tone – the factory’s exterior is decidedly unexceptional. Unlike many information factories of today – the Apples, Googles, and Facebooks – the beauty embedded in the Steinway empire is not manifest in the architecture of its home, and had it not been for understated flags and signs, the only clue to the remarkable craft in process inside proved the dulled whir of a sander, almost indistinguishable from the drone of motors elsewhere. On this trip, I was locked out, but I would return at a later date for a tour of the factory, which proved as mesmerizing as Christopher Payne’s photographs of Steinway’s piano makers at work.
From the factory, I began my reach into the rest of the former village, which proved indeed to have the layout of a company town, strict in its segregation of land uses. Industry and manufacturing lie between the water and 20th Avenue, south of which sits a residential district broken only by a few parks and businesses along Ditmars Boulevard and Steinway Street (distinct from Steinway Place, which runs only alongside the factory). While I was not able to confirm how land use in Steinway evolved from its founding in 1870 to the issuance of the city’s first zoning maps in 1916, it’s certainly conceivable that the initial layout of the village turned neighborhood was simply codified by those first zoning designations. Zoning maps from 1916, 1961, and today all show a relatively unchanged picture, which leads me to believe that the layout of the district today is very close to that of the original village, albeit densified by significant infill over the years.
Like many waterfront neighborhoods in the city, Steinway is completely cut off from the bay. Rising behind the Steinway factory, the Con Edison’s Astoria Energy plant and the Department of Environmental Protection’s Bower Bay wastewater treatment plant block any glimpse of the water just beyond. I caught only a tiny glimpse of the bay — wavering under the Rikers Island Bridge — through three fences at the edge of the DEP property. Embedded in the field of monotonous brick of the industrial zone rests one particularly curious interruption that does provide a view of the water: I had read about the Steinway Mansion before arriving but did not expect to encounter it as I turned from the waterfront stretch onto 41st Street. A low brick warehouse, home to a scaffolding supply company, gave way to a grassy hill, the turret of a house poking up above. 41st rises and curves on one of the only hills remaining in the otherwise flat grid of manufacturing, the cracked asphalt leading to the unkempt, uninhabited, and up-for-sale former mansion of the William Steinway, an effective advocate for it’s own candidacy as a haunted house.
The mansion may be the most architecturally significant house in the village, but the remaining worker housing, nestled among other residential buildings, has the industry-surrounded mansion beat for neighbors. Spreading out from the intersection of 41st Street and 20th Avenue, original townhouses remain in good shape, and stretching east, west, and south from there is a hefty residential area replete with blocks of one to three story single family homes. Each house has a front yard and most some sort of space in the back, which on the north-south streets between 20th Avenue and 20th Road, open onto an alleyway. Having spent many formative years in North Carolina, it all looked very much like a denser configuration of the mill houses supplied in company towns throughout the Ole’ North State.
Street life in this residential area during the day was subdued. A few folks were out running or walking their dogs. Traffic consisted of students from Ferrari Driving School (perhaps a testament to the slower pace of the area), some delivery trucks, and private cars. Apart from the faint thrum of industry downhill, Steinway was hushed. The pace picked up slightly on the commercial corridors of Steinway and Ditmars, where I encountered a few multifamily dwellings. I saw a school, a few playgrounds, and churches. The town’s first, Steinway Reform Church, still sits in Victorian splendor at 41st Street and Ditmars Avenue. In this part of the neighborhood, the company town-feel of Steinway remained, a highly distinct environment from the bustling thoroughfares and tenements of Astoria proper of which I am familiar.
Despite the similarity of the district’s layout to that of its company town past, businesses in the Steinway neighborhood do not employ all the residents of the area. US Census Bureau data for 2007-2011 show that the average commute time for residents in the five census districts (111, 113, 121, 123.01, and 135) that comprise Steinway was approximately 39 minutes. Only about 25% of the Steinway & Sons factory employees live in Astoria or the adjoining neighborhoods of Long Island City and Woodside.
As I rode away, passing into wider, faster streets lined with apartment buildings, stores drawing in passersby from the sidewalk, it still felt like I was leaving a self-contained village of sorts. But I was surely not escaping the sphere of Steinway — the family or the business: I would bike past a 7 train stop, which passes under the East River into Manhattan through a tunnel the Steinways built. I ended up having dinner just off Steinway Street farther south on its route through Queens. I thought how the weather would be perfect for a trip to the North Beach amusement park on the Bowery Bay that Steinway & Sons had built for its workers — had it not been supplanted by LaGuardia Airport many years ago. And the trip certainly made me want to listen once again to the sounds of a piano, sounds that this neighborhood and its craftspeople continue to grant the world.
Unless otherwise noted all photos by Jonathan Tarleton.