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New York Observed

Taking Root in Memories

Uli Seit for The New York Times

SECRET GARDEN In a corner of the city's most prosaic borough there flourished a hidden, enchanted world inhabited by the author, below left with her brother Danny.

Published: September 4, 2005

BETWEEN the ages of 6 and 11, I played in an enchanted place guarded by a giant copper beech tree. Its branches rose over the eaves of a rambling house full of hidden corners. Its leaves rustled above a backyard that still slopes and meanders in my memory, past a wisteria-shaded arbor to a tangle of raspberry bushes, beyond a glittering goldfish pond to a dark sweep of hemlocks.

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Lester Bernstein

For more than four decades, I did not go back to see what remained of this improbable childhood Eden, in Whitestone, Queens, an unfashionable section of New York's most prosaic borough. Even in the 1950's, our old brown-shingled corner house set on half an acre of land was an oddity amid the neighborhood's row housing and tidy lawns. When my family sold it and left for a Manhattan apartment in 1960, part of the land went to a developer.

I assumed that the place had ceased to exist outside my imagination. But there it took root and eventually became the setting for "Magic by the Book," a fantasy adventure for children. Last spring, when I was invited to give a reading at the Whitestone branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, I steeled myself for a pilgrimage to whatever was left of my childhood home.

"Magic in Queens?" a New Jersey friend had jeered. Like many people, he envisioned the borough as an unmagical clutter of ugly on-ramps, where the bigotry of television's Archie Bunker mixed with an immigrant hubbub of 150 different tongues. Others wondered aloud why a family named Bernstein had chosen to buy a house in what was then a mainly Irish and Italian neighborhood.

We arrived there by a circuitous route, after four years of living abroad, at a point when home had almost become an exotic concept to us. House hunting in 1955 with four young children and one salary, my parents nearly despaired. Then they met a doctor's widow determined to save the old-fashioned place in Whitestone where she had raised her own children. Just to keep the property intact a few years longer, she sold it to us for $20,000, a bargain even then.

In 2005, it seemed doubtful that the house was still standing. With real estate prices soaring, such places were being bought to be demolished. My parents had driven by in the spring of 2004 and spotted a browning Christmas wreath on the front door. The place looked neglected, they said, as though just waiting for the wrecker's ball.

But they were wrong. An Internet search turned up the owner, a professional photographer named Harry Zaverdas. In an e-mail exchange he reassured me. Yes, developers kept calling, and the property he bought 10 years ago for $250,000 was now valued at more than $1 million. Yes, major repairs were needed, and his do-it-yourself restoration was progressing slowly. But he had no intention of selling.

"When I first bought the house, on July 14th, 1995, I had this passionate desire to find out everyone who owned it and even more, who had it built," Mr. Zaverdas wrote. From property records and old newspapers, he learned that it was the first house on the block, built in 1908 for a woman named Harriet Brewer. One clipping referred to it as Mrs. H. C. Brewer's $10,000 house.

Ever since F. Scott Fitzgerald's harrowing evocation of "the valley of ashes" - the Corona garbage dumps - in "The Great Gatsby," the image of Queens has struggled under a cloud of cinders and car exhaust. But Whitestone was settled before the Revolutionary War, and when the house was built, the borough was still dominated by rolling farmland and ferry landings, still kin to Fitzgerald's "fresh, green breast of the new world."

Transformation, however, was less than two years away. In 1909, the Queensboro Bridge opened, ending the county's isolation. In 1910, the railroad inaugurated the Penn Tunnels under the East River, and virtually all of Queens came within Manhattan's commuting zone.

During my return visit last spring, on the drive from downtown Flushing to the Whitestone library, auto body shops and highway underpasses deepened my misgivings. The library itself was unrecognizable, and no wonder: the foundation stone said 1970. But Mr. Zaverdas had come to the reading and was ready to lead me back in time.


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Photo: Boy shows muscle, 1950
Photo: Boy shows muscle, 1950