Long Island City (Queens) tour
Queens in flux: great views of Manhattan, waterfront parks, industrial heritage, historic district, and embedded arts community. Also, a riot of new development.
Lonely Planet called Queens the United States's top tourist destination in 2015. This tour focuses on what New York magazine in 2017 said was the fastest-growing neighborhood in the USA. In November 2018, Long Island City was named a location for Amazon's second headquarters (though it pulled out), In 2021, the New York Times pronounced LIC the neighborhood with city's fastest-growing Asian population.
Note: we can combine Jackson Heights, Sunnyside, and Long Island City--truncating each--into one "Slice of Queens" introductory tour, probably about 6 hours including a stop for lunch.
The jumble of Long Island City in far western Queens just south of the Queensboro Bridge presents echoes of the past, like working lofts and a gem of a historic district (the fourth-best block in the city, to Time Out NY).
But it’s more notable for furious growth, with booming new office, residential, and hotel development at Court Square and Queensboro Plaza, not necessarily great architecture, and high-rise housing along the waterfront, including Queens West and Hunters Point South, the site once planned for the Olympic Village.
Much remains in flux, which is why LIC might be considered multiple sub-neighborhoods. The Amazon announcement, as well as a report (my coverage) on the unexpected transformation of LIC into a high-end residential neighborhood, raises questions about equitable growth.
Long Island City tour highlights
The stunningly situated Gantry Plaza State Park incorporates old gantries used in rail shipping, before the under-river tunnel. It retains an iconic (if relocated) Pepsi sign. Other manufacturing buildings in the area have been converted to residential or new commercial use. However, the legendary Five Pointz graffiti mecca is a ghost, replaced by new development (with a strained homage to the art).
Though the number of artists has declined somewhat, there are still several buildings filled with artists' studios, stalwarts in the annual LIC Open Studios weekend in May. LIC contains several arts destinations, notably MoMA PS 1 and the Sculpture Center, which we pass on our tour, (Technically in LIC, but further afield, are the Noguchi Museum and Socrates Sculpture Park.)
The historic manufacturing district, which took advantage of transportation--the Queensboro Bridge, the Midtown Tunnel and subway and rail lines--has declined, as new development rises.
Today, Long Island City is full of juxtapositions, with the borough's tallest building near a classic courthouse and the refurbished schoolhouse that's now MOMA PS1 Queens.
Vernon Boulevard, the main shopping street and closest to the subway, retains its historic scale, even as it gains many new businesses, including restaurants, teahouses, and bars.
The waterfront, with its new parks, towers, and stunning views, is a short walk away. This is the most "Brooklynized" part of Queens, for better and for worse, echoing some of the history and experience of Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and DUMBO, as well as Battery Park City in Manhattan.
Long Island City is vast, and typically this tour does not go north of the Queensboro Bridge. We can extend north if we have time and energy. Also if time, we can add a tour of adjacent Sunnyside, or at least "LIC East," the portion of Long Island City east and south of the Sunnyside Yard.
Distance from Midtown Manhattan: 15-25 minutes, by subway/taxi, also accessible by East River Ferry
Basic tour length: 2.5 hours (see fees)
Starting place: Varies, but typically Court Square; we can start at your hotel or Queensboro Plaza, as well
Ending place: Varies, but typically waterfront
Highlights: History, architecture, new development, waterfront views, parks, arts institutions
Before tour: Visit Sculpture Center or MoMA PS1
After tour: Local food/beweries; take NYC Ferry to Greenpoint, Williamsburg, DUMBO, Wall Street, or East 34th Street
Potential tour extensions: more LIC above Queensboro Bridge, some of Sunnyside & LIC East, Jackson Heights, Greenpoint, Williamsburg. (The latter two are accessible via the NYC ferry, as well as the subway.)
Why I like leading this tour: I've visited LIC steadily since 2009 and have seen it change. I enjoy devising a route through sections and streets that are dramatically different. Plus: the waterfront is spectacular.