St. Thomas the Apostle School students interviewed residents, merchants, civic leaders and lawmakers. Their film will be screened Monday at The Cinemart theater in Forest Hills
BY LISA L. COLANGELO / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
A group of Woodhaven schoolkids dug deep into their neighborhood’s roots to produce a documentary that celebrates the rich history of their hometown.
That journey took 28 sixth- to eighth-grade students from St. Thomas the Apostle School on Jamaica Ave. and 87th St. to a historic neighborhood watering hole, an old-fashioned candy store and even a funeral parlor, where they interviewed residents, merchants, civic leaders and lawmakers.
The hour-long film will premiere on Monday in a private screening at The Cinemart in nearby Forest Hills, one of the few neighborhood movie theaters left in Queens.
When the group visited Neir’s Tavern, a bar on 78th St. that dates to 1829, seventh-grader Salma Salla found herself riveted.
“When I started this project, I didn’t know anything about Woodhaven,” she said. “Now, I want to learn more.”
Salma was part of a team of students who interviewed Neir’s owners, Loycent Gordon and Alex Ewen, about their transformation of the sleepy corner bar — where Mae West performed and Martin Scorsese filmed parts of “Goodfellas” — into a vibrant space for musical jam sessions and readings.
Other crews interviewed Margie Schmidt, who still makes hand-dipped chocolate at her family’s eponymous Jamaica Ave. shop, as well as City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley as she sat by the Forest Park Bandshell and carousel. There was even a trip to the Walker Funeral Home.
“History was always my first passion,” said teacher Patti Eggers, who is overseeing the project. To help the kids put Woodhaven’s history into perspective, Eggers compiled lessons that juxtaposed a neighborhood timeline with world events.
“A lot of the kids were interested in the fact that Jackie Robinson played at Dexter Park because of segregation,” she said, referring to the longtime Negro Leagues ballpark on Jamaica Ave., now the sight of a supermarket and some homes. “He could not yet play in the Major Leagues.”
Ed Wendell of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society donated copies of local author Vincent Seyfried’s neighborhood history book for the students to use as a guide.
“One big missing piece of education is that real hyperlocal history lesson,” said Wendell. “You are not going to read in general history books about how your neighborhoods and your surroundings came to be.”
Wendell said teaching kids and residents about local history is especially important when debating issues such as whether or not to transform the abandoned rail that runs through Forest Park, Woodhaven and other neighborhoods into a Highline-type park called the QueensWay.
“You need to understand the history of that piece of property, but you also need to understand the history of transportation in that community,” he said.
Wendell and Eggers, who are planning to collaborate on other projects, hope the experience encourages students to continue their exploration.
“Woodhaven isn’t just a small town,” said Jessica Antal, 13, who worked on the documentary. “It’s a bigger town once you get to know it.”