Queens Center Place is the go-to for your next Samsung Smart TV or for some groceries at everyone’s favorite store, Target. But, in 1922, the plot of land that this mall was built upon was the go-to for buying property to start a life with one’s spouse, to build a family, and to live as a community. For Mary Sendek this was especially true. On September 15, 1922, Sendek and her husband, Joseph Sendek, bought a 20-by-30-foot house with a lot that measured 52 feet 5 inches by 169 feet 5 inches. Mary and Joseph Sendek, two Hungarian immigrants and a young married couple, were looking to start life in the quaint residential neighborhood of Elmhurst, Queens. Elmhurst in 2018 is now far from quaint, but, we’re going a bit too far ahead in the time line. 42 years after the Sendek couple bought their home and plot of land, Mary, now a widow was offered $200,000 from Macy’s department store in 1964. Macy’s was looking to build its second branch store in Queens. All of the houses that made up the once ultra-residential area were bought out, the families gone and moved elsewhere, and basically ready to be demolished and flattened out to make way for Macy’s vision. To their surprise, Mrs. Sendek turned down Macy’s $200,000 offer (which is over $1.5 million in today’s worth of money). Thus, Macy’s was forced to change the structure of their circular building.
In order to not cross Sendek’s property line, developers had to cut a notch out of what would otherwise have been the perfect circular structure of the store. Yes! Mary Sendek won! Go girl! She represents US, the PEOPLE! And yes, Sendek won the battle, but ultimately, she lost the war. As her longtime neighbor, James Reilly, said: Mary Sendek “was young when she came and started life here and she figured she wanted to leave life here.” And sure enough, she did leave life here in 1980. By then, Macy’s no longer wanted her property so Sendek’s children went on to sell her home to a developer for $280,000 that year. The building that now exists on what was once Mary Sendek’s small yet charming family home is now a brick and mortar mixed-use building of offices and stores—now that’s charming.
So why does Mary’s legacy matter? Well, it matters because there are still thousands of “Mary Sendeks” in New York’s five boroughs. Like how a community fed up with the commercialization and privatization of their neighborhood in Willets Point stood up against the de Blasio administration and developers who sought to build a mall in an area that would have been used to build 2,500 units of affordable housing. The community in this case ultimately won as a judge decided in the summer of 2017 that the shopping mall plans could not move forward as it was proposed for land designated as park space, and thus needed state approval. And although victory reigns for the Willets Point community, there are thousands more that don’t get so lucky. Like in Jamaica, Queens; where the long stretch of road known as Jamaica Avenue known for mom and pop restaurants, salons, and stores is now slowly being replaced by big corporations. Residents are reminded of this by the shiny new Starbucks on 165th street, as well as the busy Panda Express and Chipotle side by side where a small scale clothing store once stood.
Look around you. The way space is assigned and designated is purposeful. Majority of the time it is given to the highest bidder and the most lucrative, powerful people. But, as Mary Sendek reminds us, it is possible to fight back. There are plenty of people who are powerful enough to demolish plots of land at a snap of a finger but Mary Sendek’s story reminds us that they are not as invincible as they seem.
- Marzlock, Ron. “Macy’s Meets Mary Sendek.” Queens Chronicle, 9 May 2013, 10:30am , www.qchron.com/qboro/i_have_often_walked/macy-s-meets-mary-sendek/article_f50eba38-636f-54fe-b3fb-3d4ff16776f6.html.
- “SENDEK HOUSE, Queens Boulevard.” Forgotten New York, forgotten-ny.com/2013/09/sendek-house-queens-boulevard/.
- Berkun, Todd. “The Sendek’s and the Macy’s.” LI & NY Places That Are No More, 18 Apr. 2015, placesnomore.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/sendeksandmacys/.
- Warerkar, Tanay. “Willets Point Megaproject in Queens Is Back on, with a Focus on Affordable Housing.” Curbed NY, Curbed NY, 5 Feb. 2018, ny.curbed.com/2018/2/5/16974964/willets-point-queens-citi-field-restart.