Astoria couple Robert Duffy and Kiesha Jenkins-Duffy can tell you all about their neighborhood’s 1980s hot rod culture, Jamaica’s role in the American Revolution and Ridgewood’s once-famous boxing arena -- but they’ll use a T-shirt to do it.
The two moved to Astoria from Brooklyn just two-and-a-half years ago, but the husband and wife are already dredging up their new borough’s past in a tangible and fashionable way with their clothing line, Unified Queens.
Skimming through the clothing rack at their company’s booth at a local market, you won’t see the name “Queens” in a funky font as you might expect. Their shirts point to specific neighborhoods and their largely unknown stories.
Most Queens residents were supporters of England during the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, but there was a small pocket of those ready to fight for independence, Robert Duffy said. In 1776, 56 men from Jamaica fought alongside Gen. George Washington in the Battle of Long Island.
Unified Queens has a baseball tee sporting “Join the Jamaica Minute Men,” with a line from a song written about them: “Liberty calls to battle.”
Another shirt, representing Ridgewood, displays a pair of boxing gloves with the year 1979 and “Battle at the Border” stitched into it. The illustration alludes to the Ridgewood Grove Boxing Arena, which hosted fights between future champions and Golden Gloves contenders for three decades. The year 1979 is when the neighborhood, on the border between Queens and Brooklyn, was finally given a Queens postal code.
A blue T-shirt shows a woman diving into a pool in Astoria Park in front of Hell Gate Bridge. Most people don’t know that the park’s public pool and diving boards were used in the U.S. Olympics diving trials in 1936, Robert Duffy said.
The Duffys recently released a “Hell Gate Motor Club” shirt with flames and a hot rod to bring back the groups that sped through Astoria in the ’80s, according to their website.
Each clothing item on unifiedqueens.com comes with an explanation behind the design to teach the buyer more about their neighborhood and to share the stories with others, Duffy said.
“We realized there is so much history in Queens that we could have a unique take on apparel and give small history lessons or throwbacks about historical facts about Queens,” he says. “There’s a lot of clothing showing love for landmarks, bridges and things like that. . . . But it’s more than just being a New Yorker. We want people to be excited about their neighborhood.”
Creating a T-shirt starts with a “nugget of history” culled from books and historical information found online, which determines what design it will have. Once they have an idea, they spread it around to their friends for critiques or help with the design.
Some designs have made quite an impact on people, including one former Astorian, Duffy recalled. A woman who used to swim at the Astoria Park pool during the mid-20th century sent the company photos of her time on the swim team there after getting the pool T-shirt as a gift.
“The fun of doing this is talking to the people who lived the history,” Duffy says. “I think that we’re starting to see more people be curious about where they live. But even if you don’t know anything about the history behind it, you’ll still think it’s a nicely designed shirt.”
And while there are plenty of stores and brands that sell T-shirts with borough names on them, a handful of small businesses tailor their apparel to reflect specific neighborhoods. Among them:
Brooklyn United Ties
These neckties and bow ties are inspired by the borough’s different neighborhoods, from images of the Brooklyn Bridge to the fun Coney Island Tillie Face and mermaids from the Mermaid Parade. The company has recently expanded its line to scarves as well. The company donates a percentage of its profits from its cancer awareness line to the American Cancer Society, according to its website.
The Richmond Hood Company
If Staten Island is where your heart is, this apparel shop has you covered, with shoes, clothing, eyewear and accessories that boast about the “small island community,” according to its website. While there are the typical “Staten Island” T-shirts and hoodies, there are also those that represent the St. George neighborhood, a T-shirt of an illustrated pin-up model playing at the Richmond Tennis Club, and one with a photo of the Staten Island Ferry plaza behind a group of illustrated commuters.
The Bronx Clothing Company
This young company, started in 2012 to pay tribute to the borough, has mostly T-shirts and hats, some that represent the neighborhood’s iconic places, according to its website. The shirts feature illustrated landmarks, including the intersection of 161 Street and Rivera Avenue, the Kingsbridge Armory crest and the street sign and entrance to the Oval Park in Norwood.