Curated Collection: Foundations of Queens

This collection celebrates those who were active in building the Queens community through education, construction, and development.

P.S. 171 Peter G. Van Alst

Peter G. Van Alst (1828 – 1900) was a surveyor who helped to build the roads and infrastructure of western Queens.

Van Alst was born in Dutch Kills on May 28, 1828, and was a member of the large extended Van Alst family, a prominent Dutch farming family who moved to the area in the early 1700s and resided there until the 1870s, when they spread out and moved elsewhere. Van Alst received his education at the District School and the Astoria Institute. He apprenticed as a surveyor for a few years, and worked independently until 1872, when the city legislature appointed him to serve as a commissioner, surveying and supervising the construction of several roads in Long Island City, Queens.

In 1874, Van Alst and three fellow Long Island City citizens comprised the First Ward Improvement Commission, which was in charge of raising the grades of Jackson Avenue from Vernon Avenue to the courthouse from three to eight feet, which profoundly affected the daily life of the city. Van Alst’s job consisted primarily of constructing maps, which revealed detailed organizations of street lines, grades, and sewage lines of the Long Island City area.


“Van Alst Playground,” New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, accessed April 24, 2023,

“Peter G Van Alst Memorial,”,

P.S. 166Q The Henry Gradstein School

Henry Gradstein (1905 - 1971) was a Jewish Russian immigrant who taught at New York public schools up until his death in 1971. He lived in Kew Gardens , Queens, for a number of years. In 1971 Gradstein was the principal of Public School 152 Woodside Queens. Prior to this, he had also been principal of Public Schools 5, 14 and 166, all in Queens. Before becoming principal, Gradstein had taught social studies in Central Commercial High School.

Gradstein graduated from City College and Brooklyn Law School. He also served as a lieutenant in the Army Air Force in World War II.


"Henry Gradstein, Principal. Of P.S. 152 in Queens, Dies," New York Times, August 21, 1971,

"Henry Gradstein,",

"Henry Gradstein in the 1940 United States Federal Census,",

Rainey Park

Thomas Rainey (1824-1910) a resident of Ravenswood, Queens, was one of the main contributors to the bridge across the East River between Manhattan and Long Island City. Rainey spent 25 years and much of his fortune on this bridge. The project was initially highly favored by the community, but it lost momentum in the financial Panic of 1873. Due to this, the burden of organizing and refinancing the company fell on him, first as treasurer in 1874, then as president in 1877. However, the project once again lost steam in 1892 . After the consolidation of New York City in 1898, the project gained new momentum and the bridge was finally built at Queens Plaza, a few blocks south of the proposed location. On opening day in 1909, Rainey realized his dream as he crossed the new bridge with Governor Charles Evans Hughes. The new bridge entitled the "The Queensboro Bridge," fulfilled its promise by tying the Borough of Queens into Greater New York. For his efforts, Rainey received a gold medal inscribed “The Father of the Bridge.”

In 1904, the City of New York acquired several acres of waterfront property. The concrete “sea wall,” built where the park meets the East River, was completed in 1912, by which time Rainey had passed away. To honor his public spirit, the city named the property Rainey Park.


"Rainey Park," New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, accessed June 21, 2023,

"Thomas Rainey (1824-1910)," Michael Brown Rare Books, accessed June 21, 2023,

P.S. 175 The Lynn Gross Discovery School

Lynn Gross was the president for the Community School District 28 Board of Education in Queens, New York. Gross was first elected to the board in 1976. She died in 1998.

P.S. 195 William Haberle

William Haberle was an active member of the Rosedale community. He was one of the founders of the Rosedale Civic Association. Haberle was serving his second term as president of the association at the time of his death in 1953. One of his main concerns in the community was overcrowding and lack of sufficient schools. At the time (1950s), some children in Rosedale had to attend schools in neighboring communities. To solve this, Haberle fought to have a new elementary school built. The school, P.S. 195, was approved and completed after his death. The Rosedale Civic Association petitioned to have the school named after him to honor his efforts.


George Robinson, "F.Y.I.," The New York Times, October 26, 2003,

J.H.S. 216 George J. Ryan

George J. Ryan (1872 – 1949) was the President of the Board of Education in Queens in the 1930s. In the 1940s, after his time as president, he advocated for a school in Fresh Meadows, a newly built community after World War II. Plans for the construction of this school were announced in 1952. In honor of his contribution, the school was named after him.

Ryan was born and raised in Queens and spent his entire life there. Aside from his role as Board President, Ryan was very active in Democratic politics, and was also president of Long Island City Savings Bank and the Queens Chamber of Commerce.


Ron Marzlock, "M.S. 216: the school Fresh Meadows needed," Queens Chronicle, April 2, 2009