Previous books in this series by Ballenas include Jamaica and Jamaica Estates, Richmond Hill (with the late Nancy Cataldi) and Maple Grove Cemetery .
Chock full of pictures from Kew Gardens’ past, this book is a great read, particularly for those who love old pictures of Queens. It can be purchased through Arcadia’s website, as well as through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Ballenas recently visited the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society and gave a wonderful slideshow of his latest book to the members. They reacted audibly several times during the presentation as pictures of old farms or dirt road intersections were revealed to be the site of busy intersections in today’s Kew Gardens.
“It’s really enjoyable,” Ballenas says of giving presentation of old pictures. “Especially when you have a crowd reaction, the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ which usually come when I show them before and after pictures. It gives you a good feeling that you’re bringing something back that people haven’t seen in a long time or have never seen before.”
What makes the Kew Gardens book unique is that Ballenas co-authored it with the students of the Aquinas Honor Society of the Immaculate Conception School.
“The kids have done a few book signings, they enjoy that a lot, having someone ask for their autograph,” he said. “Each student had a hand in making the book. It has become a big part of their learning experience.”
Teaching history to students is a passion for Ballenas, and the results of his hard work are visible in the pages of this book. But beyond the creation of a book, Ballenas sees a greater good to this project. “These are our future historians and preservationists,” he said. “If we get them interested early in our history, it’s to all our advantage.”
Ballenas has been teaching for 36 years and his retirement is drawing close, a date he views with mixed emotions. It’s clear that he thoroughly enjoys the work he does with the students, but retirement will afford him time to do a little more writing and even more of the research he loves to do.
“As it is, I put in way too much researching,” Ballenas says, laughing. “Each time you start researching something, it pulls you in deeper and deeper and becomes more fascinating.
“One old newspaper article can have four or five names,” he continuted. “When you research each name, some will lead to another three names and it goes on and on until you find something really interesting. You can build an entire book just from one newspaper article.”
Ballenas also puts his research skills to good use as president of the Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery, a fun and active historical and preservation society that holds regular events such as Victorian Hat Workshops, Murder Mystery Dinners, and Victorian Tea Parties.
One of the Friends of Maple Grove’s most popular annual events is called “Spirits Alive,” where volunteer actors dress in period costumes and portray some of the cemetery’s most notable and historical figures.
Whether it is through print, through teaching, or through the efforts at preserving history at Maple Grove, Ballenas is an outstanding example of a historian that cares for the future.
The Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society meets again on Wednesday, March 25, at 1 p.m. at Emanuel United Church of Christ, 91st Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard. The guest speaker will be Mario Toglia, author of Preserving Our History and They Came By Ship. Toglia will speak about the history of immigrants in the United States with a special look at those from the town of Calitri, Italy, some of whom settled down in Woodhaven. Hope to see you there.