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Geography of Queens, New York

The hills, kettle lakes, and tidal marshes of the borough known as Queens


Rockaways from Jamaica Bay

View of the Rockaways from Jamaica Bay

Photo (c) Juni Saf

Queens is a borough of New York City. That's its political geography, but its physical geography is shaped by its location on Long Island, a terminal moraine. Queens is part of Long Island, which was formed by glacier retreating, leaving behind eroded sediment, know as a terminal moraine. The human landscape is of urban and suburban, mainly residential and commerical, but with industrial sectors.

Physical Geography of Queens, New York

Across the center of the borough, a ridge line roughly defines where the glacier had made its farthest point south. The ridge extends through Forest Park, Briarwood, Jamaica Hills, Hollis Hills, Holliswood, Jamaica Estates, Glen Oaks, Maspeth, and then into Brooklyn, along the Jackie Robinson Parkways.

Hillside Avenue's name is no coincidence. THe avenue is at the base of a hill, to its south the land runs flat to Jamaica Bay. South of the ridge, the land flattens out, to sea level where it meets Jamaica Bay. Neighborhoods like Richmond Hill are mostly flat; the hill being the farthest north of the neighborhood.

Farther south, the Rockaways are a peninsula separating Jamaica Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. Sand tends to accumulate at end of Rockaway at BReezy Point. Whereas Long Beach and other beaches on the island east of the Rockaways lose sand to prevailing current, Breezy's houses are father from the ocean every year.

Kettle Lakes

In Alley Pond Park and Forest Park, there local bodies of water are remnants of the glacier. "Kettle lakes" are noted for their round shape. Other areas were kettle lakes in the past, now drained, including areas of Forest Park.

Alley Pond Park is a long stretch from Little Neck Bay to Queens Village and the center of the borough. Its varied landscapes give you a sense of most of Queens.

Homes and building in some neighborhoods like Jamaica Hills have experienced intensive settling, making houses uninhabitable. Though there may be other factors, paved over kettle lakes may have affected.

Tidal Marsh - Jamaica Bay

Right on the edge of the nation's busiest airport, is one of the largest stopovers for birds on the east coast. Jamaica Bay is the stomping grounds every fall and spring for thousands of birds migrating along the Eastern seaboard.

Tidal marsh is part salt, part freshwater, supporting a wide variety of wildlife. It's a mix of water and landscapes with shallow waters, seasonal flats, and small island.

Once an important oyster fishery, Jamaica Bay's water quality degraded severely since the early 1900s with raw sewage diverted straight into its tracks. Water quality has become better in recent years, but rising water levels have flooded many of the small islands and flats, destroying bird habitat.

Marsh lands and Waterways in Queens

Many parts of Queens were once marsh lands, such as Flushing Meadows. Throughout the borough swamps have been drained and cleared. However, the land in those areas is often still susceptible to flooding.

The western flank of Queens is separated from Manhattan by the East River. Only a river in name, the East River is an extension of the Long Island Sound, connecting that waterway to New York Harbor. The water is brackish, and has definite tides and currents.

The north shore of the borough is a string of bays and bluffs leading to the Long Island Sound. The principal waterways here are Flushing Bay and Little Neck Bay, both home to commerical and recreational watercraft.

Newtown Creek is the border with Brooklyn along Long Island City and Maspeth. Brackish at its mouth on the East River, the creek is fresh water at its source. It's called a creek, but the waterway is quite broad. It has been an important conduit for industry and remains heavily polluted.

Dutch Kills and English Kills are two smaller waterways that join Newtown Creek. (Dutch Kills is also a neighborhood in Long Island City). "Kills" is derived from Dutch colonists who settled the area in the 1600s.

Human Landscape of Queens, NY

In general eastern Queens is a suburban area, with residential areas developed in the early to mid-20th century, single family homes predominate. Central Queens has seen a significant shift from pre-planned communities of early 20th century to a more densely settled practice. Housing types in the area can vary dramatically from row houses, mansions, McMansions, apartment buildings, and single-family houses. Areas of long human settlement, such as downtown Flushing and Jamaica tend to be more densely populated.

There are a few areas of notes in the history of planned development in the 20th century. Forest Hills, Jackson Heights, and Sunnyside Gardens were all experiments to a certain degree in suburban housing structures, opening up former farms lands to city dwellers. The impact of the Queensborough Bridge opening and the IRT (now #7) subway line upon these areas and all of Queens was huge.

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