Residents of Woodside, Queens, love where they live. They crow about the sense of community, the safeness, the good schools, etc. To the uninitiated, though, you have to squint a bit to see the charm. Woodside is notably lacking in green spaces or grand structures, and the housing stock is so ramshackle and just plain ugly, it could make Williamsburg look good. (Admit it: Williamsburg is homely.) But I've come to appreciate the place over the years. It is homey, and, as New York nabes go, completely without pretensions. Also, though its Irish roots show most vividly, it is a melting-pot community in the best sense. And the 7 line elevated tracks that cast its downtown in shadow give the place a distinctly old, working-class New York air.
ORANGE HUT: We're going to start way out at the northern end of Woodside, at the Northern Boulevard stop of the R and V trains, where Northern meets 54th. Here is the singular Orange Hut, one of the best breakfast-and-lunch-only diners in the city. Also one of the cheapest. It began life as a White Tower Restaurant in 1930.
PLAYBILL: Walk down 54th Street to 37th Avenue. Turn left and walk a number of blocks to 61st Street. Turn right here and you'll see a two-story, brick building with a familiar, big yellow sign on it saying "Playbill." This is where the theatrical publishers make the programs that serve Broadway and Off-Broadway shows every day.
ST. PAUL'S EPISCOPAL CHURCH: Walk along 61st to 39th Avenue. The sad, boarded-up church on the corner is St. Paul's, a Gothic Revival wooden church that was founded and built in 1874, when Woodside was little more than a kind of frontier town. It was—unbelievably—never landmarked, and suffered a terrible fire in December 2007. Its situation hasn't improved much since then. But at least it hasn't been razed.
STATION CAFE: Keep walking on 61st Street, under the LIRR tracks. Just as you reemerge into the light again on the other side, you'll see this dive to beat all dives. The squat building with red-metal siding and a perpetually drooping awning has stood its ground here for 80 or more years, making sure Woodsidians are not denied beer at 9 AM. God bless its heart.
STOP INN DINER: Pause at the corner of 61st and Roosevelt Avenue, the center of life in Woodside. Across the street is a diner with a punning name, the Stop Inn. It doesn't look like much, but most everyone in Woodside pays a call on this place once or twice a week. It's a standard diner, with fewer frills than most. But it truly grows on you. There has been an eatery at this corner since 1935, when Ray's Diner opened.
V&V BAKERY: Turn left, back into the shadows of the elevated train tracks. A few yards east is the tiny V&V Bakery, which has baked bread and treats on this site for at least 40 years. Family owned as far as I can tell.
ST. SEBASTIAN CHURCH: Turn around and walk up Roosevelt Avenue to 57th St. Here is St. Sebastian's Church, the hub of Irish-American religious life in Woodside. It's not very beautiful, but it's what they've got. The structure opened in 1952. If you turn around and look past the nearby public square, you can see the associated St. Sebastian School, which is a few decades older. It stands on the site of the old Kelly family mansion. According to Forgotten New York, "Kelly's son, John A.F. Kelly, pursued a career as a journalist and co-founded a newspaper with his sister, Maria, published out of Brooklyn. The paper was eventually bought out by the Brooklyn Times, but Kelly stayed on as a columnist. At this time Kelly was living in Brooklyn, but he wrote a column called Letters From Woodside about life at his parents' estate, which he called Woodside." And that's how the neighborhood got its ironical name. (No woods about now.)
DONOVAN'S: Directly across the street from St. Sebastian's is a sprawling, one-story, white-sided building. Donovan's is Woodside's heart, if you ask me. It's been here since the 1960s, which, by Woodside standards, makes it fantastically old. And though Woodside has many, many Irish Pubs, this is its ur-Pub. It is absolutely comfortable inside. There are many rooms, but stick to the oldest of them, straight to the back as you enter, with the fireplace. Donovan's is renowned for their burgers, so give one a try. The Shepherd's Pie is good, too.
MICHAEL SPILLANE: OK, a bit of a detour here. Turn left (south) on 54th Street to Queens Boulevard. Cross over and turn left to 59th Street, and turn right to No. 47-50. On May 13, 1977, Michael Spillane, former leader of the Westies Gang, was murdered outside this building, where he lived. Spillane had fled Hell's Kitchen for Woodside when his authority in Manhattan was brutally challenged. The move didn't save him, though.
NUNZIATO FLORIST: Get yourself back to Roosevelt, turn left and walk to No. 5128. The family-owned Nunziato has been around since 1901. The cramped, oddly shaped building, forever enveloped in darkness, is a poignant sight. City Councilman Eric Gioia is a scion of the Nunziato clan.