Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sign Safari: Cross Bay Boulevard

On a recent Sunday before Thanksgiving I ventured out to a far away place I'd never really been before: Howard Beach.  Since December 2003 this place-name has been familiar to many as the southern terminus of the AirTrain serving JFK International Airport.  My accomplice and I, however, came for the neon.  So while most of our fellow disembarkees wheeled their suitcases off the A train and headed for the tarmac, we turned and headed toward Cross Bay Boulevard.

New Park Pizza, installed c. 1960. (T. Rinaldi) 

Joe Kunkel of Franklin Neon had tipped me off to three old signs here that he thought I'd like to see.  Joe thought right.  The short hike from the A train brought us first to New Park Pizza, at 156-71 Cross Bay Boulevard.  New Park has occupied this corner since 1956.   Its wonderful neon sign, I was excited to discover, is the work of the LaSalle Sign Corp. of Brooklyn, whose surviving works include the Papaya King sign at 86th and 3rd in Manhattan.  "Pizza pie is original," I am told by Justin Langsner, LaSalle's third-generation proprietor, of the big pizza pie with flashing plumes of steam at center.

LaSalle's other surviving works include the Papaya King sign on Manhattan's Upper East Side.  (T. Rinaldi)

New Park has the unfortunate distinction of having been the scene of the tragic hate crime that put Howard Beach on the map back in December 1986 - 25 years ago this month.  (Long story short: a racially-motivated scuffle between patrons resulted in the death of a 23-year-old black man, prompting a period of heightened racial tension throughout the city.)  The incident is recalled in director Spike Lee's 1989 film Do The Right Thing.  The film's dramatic climax takes place in the glow of a fictitious neon sign heralding Sal's Famous Pizza – a subtle reference, perhaps, to the New Park (though the sign in the movie bears a distinct resemblance to that of the V&T Pizzeria by Columbia University in Manhattan).   

Neon sign over Sal's Famous figured prominently in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. (T. Rinaldi)

The bad business of '86 is but a distant memory at the New Park today.  Maybe it was just my state of feverish hunger after a day spent gallivanting amid the ruinous splendor of the nearby Bayside Acacia cemetery, but I found the pizza at New Park to be exceptionally pleasurable. 

New Park Pizza. (T. Rinaldi)

Sufficiently fortified, we saddled up for the short march over to our next destination, the fabulous Lenny's Clam Bar.  Some readers may remember Lenny's for its charming televised advertisements that graced the late-night airwaves throughout the tri-state area back in the 1980s. Lenny's is easy to find, thanks to a force-multiplying assemblage of neon signs that make its presence known up and down the boulevard. The joint was jumping, valets busy shunting shiny cars in and out of the little parking lot next-door. I suggested a glass of wine at the bar, but my traveling companion complained of a late-onset hangover (5pm).  We decided to come back on a quieter night.

Full-tilt neon at Lenny's Clam Bar.  (T. Rinaldi)

From there it was on to the other Lenny's of Howard Beach: Lenny's Pizza, at 164-02 Cross Bay.  I had hoped to report on a New Park-versus-Lenny's taste test challenge; sadly, this was not to be, as Lenny's burned down just a few weeks before our visit.  We found the windows boarded, signs dark. Of the signs, there are two: one older, facing the side street, and a more recent number fronting the boulevard.  The newer (and I suspect the older) is (are) the work of Super Neon of Bensonhurst.  The good news is that both signs have survived the fire intact and will hopefully live to glow another night.  Meantime, we concluded our Howard Beach neon safari with some unfinished business on Cross Bay Boulevard.  

Get well soon, Lenny's Pizza!  (T. Rinaldi)


• Cambridge Liquors' great vertical sign on 39th and 8th in Manhattan glows anew.
• Casa Oliveira Liquors' 80-year-old swing sign in Greenwich Village is wearing a new coat of paint.
• Mayfair Chemists' relic sign has vanished from Seventh Avenue South.
• Thanks to Project Neon for a great lecture at LandmarkWest! this Monday.


  1. That's so great about Cambridge Liquors — I've been wishing they'd hurry up and fix their sign. And great photos from Howard Beach!

  2. Thanks Kirsten! Cambridge Liquors is one of the best around!

  3. Here is another Queens sign that's pretty cool: