“The QueensWay is a unique opportunity to connect neighborhoods and people, and give families and residents the green space we deserve.”
There has been discussion recently about New York City’s plan to invest in the QueensWay. Mayor Eric Adams is spending $35 million on the first phase, and it will turn a strip of railway line abandoned 60 years ago into a thriving park near my business. As a local business owner who lives in the neighborhood, with my children attending local schools, this is good news.
When you must choose between abandoning or investing, I say, seize the opportunity. It’s what I’ve learned from our own business, Aigner Chocolates. My husband was driving by the chocolate shop on Metropolitan Avenue in 2015 and tried to buy me chocolates. The business was closed and there was a “For Sale” sign in the window. He met with the owners that day and four weeks later, we bought a chocolate shop. It has roots in the neighborhood going back to 1930, when the QueensWay was still a working railway line.
In 2015 the owners, Peter and Pia Aigner, were letting go of the business. They had thought of liquidating everything and renting out the space. We are the third family to own and operate Aigner Chocolates in its 90-plus year history. I’m a social worker and therapist by training and I didn’t know if I had what it took to make the business work. My husband is a trained pastry chef and it’s always been his dream to own a chocolate shop, and we thought it was a good opportunity.
I wanted a business that nourished the local community and where I could use my therapist training. There’s a saying in Yiddish, “bashert,” which means “meant to be.” So, we went for it. The Aigners told us, “You’re going to fall in love with this business.” They talked about how special it is to be part of holiday traditions of local families. As life throws challenges at people, and as the world evolves, Aigner’s believes in Queens and all the incredible people who are part of its neighborhoods. We still see the Aigner family often and I tell them they were right.
When people think about Forest Hills they often think of Austin Street. But revitalizing the QueensWay will bring more foot traffic to Metropolitan Avenue. People walking along the stretch will come and explore our resilient community. That’s the same reason other residents of Central Queens—including Rego Park, Woodhaven, and Richmond Hill—have supported the QueensWay through hundreds of community meetings.
And if there is one thing I learned from having a young child during the pandemic, it is that our area needs more parks. Central Queens has some of the least amount of parkland per person in the city. During the pandemic, many local residents with young children struggled for green space. Other New Yorkers enjoy about 2.5 acres of parks per thousand people. In Forest Hills, there are only 0.2 acres for the same number. It ranks 156th of New York’s 188 neighborhood areas by park space.
The QueensWay will benefit a quarter of a million people who live within a mile. Research shows parks bring New York City billions of dollars of benefits and savings. This sort of investment is long overdue for Queens. As the pandemic took hold, many of our local businesses and residents struggled. When burglars broke into the shop in 2021, other local business owners reached out to support us. We decided to form a business coalition, called Metro Village of Forest Hills. There are so many other “mom and pop” shops on the avenue like DEE’S Wood Fired Pizza & Kitchen and Metro Meats, Continental Studio, Fazio Tile, Zaccaria Upholstery and Metro Taco.
All the owners are as invested in the local community as we are. We developed relationships with each other, and we coordinated community events. We were also fortunate with our business. People turned to chocolate for comfort, and we wanted to give back. We’re proud that we’ve donated chocolate to Elmhurst Hospital, Forestdale, Queens Community House, NAMI, LLS, as well as other local nonprofits. We’re grateful for the wonderful friendships and people we’ve met over the past few years. We’re also proud that we restarted hanging holiday lights after three decades.
When we invested in our business, it was a challenge, and during the pandemic we did not know if Aigner’s would survive. It gave us the chance to rediscover our community. We fell in love with our business all over again. It taught us to appreciate what we have and the beauty of community. It taught us to believe in ourselves and that we are more resilient than we realized.
By investing in the QueensWay, Forest Hills can be a community that other New Yorkers can discover and fall in love with; its businesses, its residents, its architecture and its old world charm. It will connect our neighborhood to other Queens communities, and we will all share similar lessons about the power of resilience.
The QueensWay is a unique opportunity to connect neighborhoods and people, and give families and residents the green space we deserve.
Rachel Kellner is the owner of Aigner Chocolates and co-founder of Metro Village of Forest Hills.