The Ghosts of Gotham Greens

By / Photography By Clay Williams | January 24, 2017
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It was the year 1902 and all was not well in America.

President Theodore Roosevelt stepped off the train in Smedes, Mississippi in hunting gear fit for a gentleman: a corduroy coat, blue flannel shirt and leather leggings—an ivory-handled hunting knife hung from his side. Roosevelt’s signature brown slouch hat sat atop his head; a stylized reminder of the war at hand. The president needed a vacation.

He had accepted an invitation from Mississippi governor Andrew Longino, who was up for re-election against a vocal white-supremacist. The governor hoped this hunting trip would position him as an oppositionist; Roosevelt hoped to trap a bear on the first day. The local guide tied one to a tree, its skull smashed with a rifle, and implored the president to take the kill shot. That’s where Roosevelt drew the line.

This scene of sportsmanship and symbol of political unrest swept the nation after appearing as a sketch in The Washington Post. Inspired by his sensibility to abstain from an easy prey, Rose Michtom sewed what would forever be known as the “Teddy Bear” and set it in the window of the candy store she owned with her husband. The plush toy became an instant classic, allowing the two to open the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company, which found its factory home in Hollis, Queens.

Long after Michtom’s death, the company (later renamed Ideal Toy Company) continued to create some of the most iconic toys of the 20th century, including the Rubik’s Cube, Magic 8-Ball, and Patti Playpal. During a tour of the toy factory in 1959, the lifelike doll would appear to amuse Frol Kozlov, a Soviet Union first deputy premier, along with his observation of Ideal Toy Company’s large female labor force. On 4 a.m. flight out of Idlewild Airport in Queens, the powerful member of the Kremlin wrote a message to then-Vice President Richard Nixon, noting the hospitality he experienced in Hollis, among other organized industrial visits in the US. He suspiciously stated his trip as “useful” and credited this cordiality between the two countries as an advancement toward world peace.  

Nixon would continue making history between the Cold War antagonists amidst the high waters of his own political controversy. The years following his resignation from the presidency were some of the worst for the residents of New York City with Abe Beame as mayor and the city owing over 450 million dollars in debt. After pardoning his predecessor for crimes committed against the American people, the newly-appointed President Gerald Ford said he would deny any federal assistance to save the city from bankruptcy. The next day The Daily News published “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” on its cover.

New York needed a hero

Back at the toy factory, George Willig, a 27-year-old rock climber from Queens, was working on a new action figure for Ideal. “Electroman” faintly resembled “The Flash” comic-book character Wally West with his red jumpsuit, lightning bolts and rubber boots, yet his only real powers were equivalent to that of a stun gun. Perhaps, however, this was what Willig had in mind when he created Electroman’s built-in headlamp that flashed light to detect when the good guys are in trouble.
On Thursday, May 26, 1977, Willig took a day off at the Ideal Toy Company to attend to take care of some “personal business.” Originally he wanted to call off on Wednesday, but he had already agreed to donate blood at Ideal. Willig didn’t sleep well the night prior, nonetheless waking up around 5 a.m. to fix himself some steak and eggs for breakfast. He tied a blue bandana around his neck packed a honey sesame seed bar for a snack, then headed to Manhattan with his brother and friend. Four hours later, to the delight of downtown observers, Willig had successfully scaled all 110 floors of the South World Trade Center Tower.

The climber-turned-toymaker waved to the crowd of thousands below before he was arrested and served with a $250,000 suit for willful wrongness. Newspapers praised him as a folk hero and officers on the scene asked for his autograph. Recognizing what Willig had done for the city’s moral, Mayor Beame called Willig to drop the original charges. They settled on a more feasible fine–at the rate of a penny per floor–which Willig handed over in a dollar bill and a dime. He received a receipt for his records, his crime deemed a civic duty. He was the hero Gotham both needed and deserved–a la Electroman, Willig shined a light on an otherwise dismal lower Manhattan.

The fame that followed quickly became too much for the Ideal Toy designer and he left his home on 193rd Street to move out west. But he wasn’t the only one making a name for himself in Hollis. Two blocks from where Willig crafted his equipment for the climb, a young crew from Queens was experimenting with a different kind of high.  

It’s not all “Ideal”

As the '80s approached, marijuana was still at the height of its popularity. Bucket hats were about to make it big—blunts were rolled in basements. Between their Boy Scout troop and hip-hop hangout on 195th St., Kevin Byrd witnessed his neighborhood friends nurturing their roots in rap. Within walking distance of where these def jams came to be sat the Ideal Toy factory. Byrd worked there as an entry-level employee over the summer, sneaking around to see how the toys were made—then quit in solidarity with a friend who was about to be fired by a foreman on the spot. But it wouldn’t have mattered if he stayed.

In 1982, Ideal executives made the decision to move out of the neighborhood. Ideal had capitalized on the post-baby boom and joined the New York Stock Exchange, valued at $71 million. It had outgrown its original space five years earlier and opened an additional factory in Newark, New Jersey to provide jobs in an area it identified as anxious for employment. Now the company that once employed 1,500 people in Queens would call it quits altogether in the city.

Byrd didn’t know what happened to the toy factory. Next thing he knew it was gone. He called it common of large companies—to pick up and leave black communities without telling anybody. No longer would employees in Queens be able to take toys home to their families on Christmas, a treasured tradition for many. Newark would find new life as Ideal’s only factory; the executives would enjoy an almost 80 percent tax break.

An ongoing history in Hollis

Fast forward to 2017 and America has just concluded arguably the strangest year on record.

The nation is still divided and plagued with apparent racism. A woman’s role in the workforce has not progressed beyond being questioned. Though Nixon is dead, the country is again under the watchful eye of Russia. Corruption within the Democratic National Committee continues. The twin towers are gone; the man who recently scaled a building in Manhattan received a mental evaluation instead of applause. Adidas is still around, but Run-D.M.C. hung up the mic awhile ago. The Ideal Toy Company has since been sold.

The factory no longer smells like the burning plastic Byrd distinctly remembers. It appears almost empty except for storage. Everything seems the same around here—aside from the farming operation on the roof.

After taking the elevator to the fifth floor and walking up the stairs, it doesn’t seem like a location a hip Brooklyn company would choose to set up shop. The office is unintentionally simple—the walls almost bare—and the staff won’t make you self-conscious about your outfit. The conference room is far from chic—the whole operation underwhelming—until a door opens up to a 60,000- square-. foot hydroponic greenhouse.

Much like the old Ideal Toy Company owner, Gotham Greens co-founder Viraj Puri wanted this location for its economic opportunity, perhaps both for Hollis and himself. In 2016, the governor’s office announced one million dollars of funding provided by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for Gotham Greens’ fourth clean-energy powerhouse. In addition, the state offered up to $152,000 in tax credits if they retain a minimum of 46 full-time jobs through 2024.

The urban food facility is currently functioning with 42 full-time employees—all paid above minimum wage with access to 401K, health care and paid time off. Together they produce about 119,000 leafy heads of greens per employee to “offer New Yorkers’ greater access to healthy, locally grown produce,” according to Governor Cuomo’s statement and echoed by Puri in our interview.

But with history repeating itself in Hollis, it would be easy to compare this company to its predecessors, to point out that the closest place Gotham Greens sells its products is 10 miles away—an hour on public transit, at least. It would be fair to wonder whether Puri will pick up and move operations elsewhere when it no longer benefits his company to be in Queens.

Then, there are employees like Victoria Wheeler, a young Gotham Greens’ customer service representative.Wheeler , a 28-year-old resident of Jamaica, Queens, shares a similar goal of the toy factory employee who worked there long before her time—she , too, just wants New Yorkers to look up.

When she talks about her work, the smile on Wheeler’s face is almost enough to light up the entire climate-controlled greenhouse. She tells stories of strolling through the soil-less crops, talking to them fondly like they are listening.

Her boss, Puri, tells me it’s too early to tell whether Gotham Greens can make a significant impact on the produce supply chain—Wheeler wishes it would go international. He thinks his way of raising crops isn’t the future of farming, but she would like them to figure out how to grow spinach. While Gotham Greens gives back to the community in other parts of the city, Wheeler takes it upon herself to start in her backyard—educating friends and family on the importance of good produce. She wants to create a profitable reason for the company have a stronger presence around here, instead of iceberg lettuce coming in from other states.

After producing in the neighborhood for over a year, Wheeler says a lot of people are still unaware of what is happening up here. She says it takes time, showing face and seeking out opportunities to spread the Gotham Greens mission. All of which she is willing to do, even if it’s not in her job description.

The shot that was never fired still echoes the halls of an old toy factory in Hollis. History has found its place back in the present. But it’s up to people like Wheeler to write the new story of this neighborhood.

customer service rep Victoria Wheeler with a package of their Queens Crisp Gourmet Lettuce
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