On Spiderman

The Friendly Neighborhood of Peter Parker

By Michael A. Burstein

Every comic superhero has a home base. It’s necessary; a hero has to live somewhere. Even though superheroes often deal with major disasters around the world, they still have to concentrate most of their heroics in one location. And often, the choice of a hero’s hometown defines much of what the hero does.

In the DC Comics universe, superheroes tend to live in fictional cities such as Metropolis or Gotham. Editors at DC often refer to Metropolis as being New York City in the daytime and to Gotham as New York City at night. There’s a major advantage to using a fictional setting as a character’s home base; a writer can kill off the mayor or have a super battle result in citywide destruction without worrying about what the repercussions would be like in the real world.

But when Stan Lee began co-creating superheroes for Marvel Comics in the 1960s, he decided that their heroes wouldn’t live in fictional cities. Instead, he located most of the heroes in and around the real city of New York. This not only allowed the heroes to team up, but also encouraged reader identification. A comic-book fan walking past the Empire State Building, for example, might get a thrill from remembering that a major battle took place near there between the Fantastic Four and Doctor Doom just the month before!

If your heroes are living in New York City, the obvious place to locate them is the borough of Manhattan. The tall buildings and teeming streets create the perfect tableau for super-powered battles. And the ideal base for a super-powered team could be a huge office tower, which is where Stan Lee placed the Fantastic Four. But when it came time to create Spider-Man, Lee and co-creator Steve Ditko chose to do something different.

Spider-Man wasn’t supposed to be a perfect adult hero, but a hero that the teenage comic-book readers could relate to more easily. As Lee has noted repeatedly in interviews, just because you get bitten by a radioactive spider and develop superpowers doesn’t mean that you stop being a teenager with a teenager’s typical problems. So Lee and Ditko made Peter Parker a picked-on adolescent, and despite his powers Peter remained a picked-on adolescent.

And, being a typical teenager, Peter didn’t have the resources to fund any sort of secret lair or hero headquarters. He didn’t have a Fortress of Solitude or a Spider-Cave. What he had was an upstairs bedroom in the house of his aunt May and uncle Ben, a house that stood in the heart of the middle-class neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens.

Although today Peter Parker’s home neighborhood is considered a well-established part of the mythos, it actually wasn’t identified until Amazing Spider-Man No. 7 (December 1962). On page four, panel five shows the Parkers’ home, a modest two-story house set apart from the one next door. Peter waits until his spider-sense tells him that the streets are clear, because, as he thinks, “I can’t ever take the chance of someone seeing me leave the house in daylight!” In the next panel, a boy named Bobby shouts to his parents that he sees Spi-der-Man swinging across the rooftops, although Spider-Man is not actually shown in the panel. The boy’s parents, busy talking to a neighbor, dismiss the notion. As his mother says, “What would Spi-der-Man be doing here, in a quiet residential neighborhood in Forest Hills?”

I was that boy. I grew up in Forest Hills, Queens in the 1970s and 1980s, and from the age of five I was an avid reader of comic books. I admit that I was more of a DC Comics fan than a Marvel Comics fan, but Spider-Man always held a special place of pride in my heart. After all, for those of us growing up in Forest Hills, Spider-Man was one of us. In fact, my schoolyard friends and I used to joke about seeing Spider-Man swinging from the rooftops on our way home from school.

But, sad to say, a fictional setting, even one based on reality, always diverges from the real world. Even from the start, Peter Parker’s Forest Hills differed from my own in many respects. Although Pe-ter’s Forest Hills was supposed to be middle-class like the real one, it often seemed more working-class. He didn’t patronize the familiar stores of the neighborhood, or even attend a high school with the correct name! The Forest Hills of Marvel Comics may have enjoyed a certain level of verisimilitude, but not accuracy.

The reasons for the differences are fairly obvious. Although a lot of books and Web sites claim that Stan Lee grew up in Forest Hills, it just isn’t so. According to Lee’s own autobiography, Excelsior!: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee by Stan Lee and George Mair, Lee grew up on the upper west side of Manhattan and attended high school in the Bronx. Also, as I noted before, it seems evident that Lee and Ditko didn’t make the decision that Peter lived in Forest Hills until a few issues of Amazing Spider-Man had already been published. It’s understandable that their version of Forest Hills would have already diverged from the real one.

But as I was growing up, I would often look up at the rooftops of the commercial buildings of my neighborhood, imagining a web-slinger coming home after a hard day’s work of fighting bad guys, and I would ask myself: what would Peter’s life, and Spider-Man’s life, have been like if he had grown up in the real Forest Hills?

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In order to answer that question, we must first consider which Peter Parker we’re talking about. Although Spider-Man was introduced in the 1960s, there have been other versions of the character since then. For example, the Spider-Man of the Ultimate Marvel line of comics differs from the Spider-Man of the movies, and both differ from the Spider-Man of the original flagship comic book Amazing Spider-Man.

And, oddly enough, so does the original Spider-Man differ from the Spider-Man of today.

Theoretically, we can draw a continuous line from the Spider-Man who first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man in the 1960s to the Spider-Man who appears in that exact same comic book today. But consider the implications of equating the Spider-Man of 1962 with the Spi-der-Man of 2007. A Peter Parker who graduated from high school in 1965 would have been born around 1947, and would be sixty years old today. And yet in the current comic book, Peter is clearly meant to be in his late twenties or early thirties. So how do we deal with this issue?

Comic-book companies have dealt with this issue of the age of a character in a variety of ways; in fact, one of the reasons the editors at DC Comics created their parallel universes was so they could create new, younger versions of their old Golden Age characters. The Ultimate Marvel line mentioned before is another example of dealing with this issue of character age. It was launched in the year 2000 with a brand-new, fifteen-year-old version of Peter Parker, who is clearly not the same Peter Parker that has existed since the 1960s. As long as the two characters are clearly different versions of the same person, living in different fictional universes, there’s no need to reconcile them.

But how do you reconcile the one, “true” Spider-Man of the 1960s with the one of the year 2007, given how old that ought to make him today? Well, the simplest thing to do is to ignore the problem. Batman is eternally twenty-nine, Superman thirty-four. Comic-book characters age slowly, and we just deal with it.

For purposes of this essay, I plan to look first at Peter’s life as it would have been in the Forest Hills of the 1960s, to explore the neighborhood as it would have been for Peter during the time Spider-Man was originally being written. But in the spirit of comic-book time-warping, I’m also going to include a few of the features that the neighborhood of the 1970s would have offered a teenage Peter Parker. Because, to be honest, that’s the Forest Hills that I remember the best.

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So for now, let us step away from Peter Parker for a bit and examine the neighborhood of Forest Hills. Forest Hills is located in the central part of Queens, one of the four outer boroughs that, along with Manhattan, were consolidated into the city of New York in 1898. Prior to that, the neighborhoods of Queens were a collection of small villages and farms. Forest Hills existed for many years in this state, known under the name Whitepot. Major development of the neighborhood didn’t start until the early years of the twentieth century.

The developers originally envisioned the neighborhood as a place where working-class folk could live side-by-side with the middle-class and the well-to-do. Ironically, the development of housing in Forest Hills became so expensive that this dream quickly faded away. In fact, one particular section of Forest Hills, known as Forest Hills Gardens or just the Gardens, is one of the oldest planned communities in the country. Although the community is not closed off to traffic, the residents of the Gardens, who live mostly in Tudor-style homes, jointly own the streets, and so are the only ones allowed to park there. They also pay for a private security force to keep the Gardens safe.

For people who didn’t live in Forest Hills, the neighborhood was for a long time associated with tennis, due to the fact that the U.S. Open was played there. But for the residents of the neighborhood, the tournament was barely on the radar. In fact, most residents, who identifed themselves as being solidly middle-class, would shake their heads at the thought that their neighborhood was a swanky place. The housing is a mix of brick apartment buildings and a scattering of private houses. The population, both then and now, is mostly made up of Jewish and Catholic families, who see the neighborhood as being a good place to raise children while still providing easy access to Manhattan.

Today, as in the 1960s, Forest Hills is a major nexus. Subways and buses converge at many places in the neighborhood, but particularly at a street known to any native as 71st-Continental Avenue (please note: not 71st and Continental, as the one avenue shares the two names). Not only is there a major subway station there, but only a block away from the subway commuters can board the Long Island Rail Road at Station Square, making the trip to Manhattan in less than fifteen minutes. Throughout the 1960s, and even to this day, that avenue and the streets nearby served as a major shopping area for the neighborhood, with stores and restaurants and movie theaters catering to all tastes and ages.

In short, the Forest Hills of the 1960s was a friendly neighborhood of its own, reminiscent of a traditional small American town. It was a place where parents felt safe sending their children to school on foot, a place where, in the afternoon, kids hung out in the playground or the soda shop, took in a movie, or browsed at a bookstore. It was a place that fostered traditional American values.

*

And now that we’ve set the stage, let’s bring on Forest Hills resident Peter Parker, a typical teenager of the 1960s.

Let’s start with his birthplace. In the life-changing issue No. 533 (August 2006) of Amazing Spider-Man, which took place during Mar-vel’s Civil War, Peter Parker revealed his secret identity to the world. Shortly thereafter, a news program reported details they had dug up about Peter’s life. One of these was that Peter “was born in Forest Hills, New York, to Richard and Mary Fitzpatrick Parker.”

Forest Hills currently has two hospitals, Parkway Hospital and Forest Hills Hospital. But in the 1960s, Mary Parker would have been most likely to go to Kew Gardens Hospital, as it had a well-known maternity ward. That hospital, which no longer exists, was located on the corner of Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike, two major thoroughfares that meet at the border of Forest Hills and Kew Gardens. So even though that hospital was technically considered to be in the adjoining neighborhood, it was literally on the border. It’s not much of an error to claim that a person born in that hospital was born in Forest Hills.

We don’t know where Peter lived when his parents were still alive, but we do know what his home was like once he started living with his uncle and aunt. As I noted before, throughout the early issues of Amazing Spider-Man, Peter’s house was portrayed as a modest two-story home with an attic. But this was not always consistent. Sometimes Peter’s home appeared as a row house, very similar to the houses all up and down the block. The truth is that overly modest houses aren’t very predominant in Forest Hills. This version of Peter’s home looks more like it belongs in Jackson Heights or Astoria, which at the time had more of the flavor of working-class neighborhoods. Still, there are streets in the real Forest Hills that look close enough to Spider-Man’s street that residents of the neighborhood wouldn’t have to suspend their disbelief when picking up an issue of the comic book.

But then writer David Michelinie came along and blew away that fragile grasp on the real Forest Hills. In Amazing Spider-Man No. 317 (July 1989), he gave Peter Parker’s family a specific address. On page four, panel two, we see a change of address form filled out by Peter that gives his address as 20 Ingram Street. (A portion of this form showing the street name but not the full house number had appeared in the previous issue.) As it turns out, a real-life Parker family has been living at that address since 1974. It is possible that Michelinie, needing an address for Peter Parker, checked a Forest Hills phone book, found a Parker family listed, and as an in-joke used that address. But in doing so, he made a mistake.

The real Parker house is a rather large stone Edwardian-style house built in 1916 and situated in Forest Hills Gardens. As I noted before, the Gardens is an expensive subsection of the neighborhood where the residents actually own the streets and pay for their own private security force. From the outside, the real-life Parker house is much more impressive than the drawings of Peter’s house found in the comic books. From the inside . . . well, I could only guess, because the Parkers living there do not want to be bothered by Spider-Man fans (so please leave them alone!). But suffice it to say that a house like that would not be owned or even rented by someone in the dire financial straits that Aunt May and Peter often found themselves in. If Peter had grown up in the real Forest Hills, he undoubtedly would have lived in some other part of the neighborhood. In fact, it’s more likely that he would have lived in an apartment building rather than a private home.

We turn now to Peter’s education. According to the comic book, Peter attended Midtown High. In fact, Midtown High is given as Pe-ter’s school on the very first page of his very first appearance anywhere, in Amazing Fantasy No. 15 (August 1962). While Midtown High is a nice, generic name for a high school, there is no high school called Midtown High in Queens. There isn’t even one by that name in midtown Manhattan. And given the fact that Peter was taken in by his aunt and uncle at a younger age, his Forest Hills education would not have started with high school.

Peter would have started at P.S. 101, School in the Garden, the elementary school located at 2 Russell Place inside Forest Hills Gardens. At the time, grades were generally divided into classes of about thirty students each, and there Peter would have been exposed to the same classmates who would have tormented him for years. This is because after graduating from P.S. 101, Peter and his classmates would have gone as a group to Russell Sage Junior High School. Now, here’s where things get interesting. Starting in ninth grade, Peter probably would have gone on to Forest Hills High School, located at 67-01 110th Street–except for one minor detail. It’s generally accepted that Peter is a scientific genius. In the 1960s, there were three examination high schools that gifted boys could attend–Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, and Stuyvesant. (For those who wonder about the omission of Hunter College High School, remember that Hunter was an all-girls school until the 1970s.) Surely these schools would have analogs in the Marvel universe. If Peter was really as bright as the comic-book stories claim, why didn’t Uncle Ben and Aunt May send him to one of those schools? After all, they are free to attend, and all provide a quality education for a gifted science student.

The answer would probably lie in the commute. Even though these schools offered good opportunities for students, not every parent was willing to let their child take the subway and/or public bus to school every day. If Peter had decided to attend Bronx Science, he would have had close to a two-hour commute every day, through some possibly dangerous neighborhoods. Uncle Ben and Aunt May would have surely considered Peter too fragile to send him off to one of those schools–especially considering the excellent reputation that Forest Hills High School had and continues to have in science.

As evidence, one can point to Forest Hills High School’s performance in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, which in 1998 was renamed the Intel Science Talent Search. Every year since 1941, high-school students have competed in the Science Talent Search by doing original research and writing scientific papers that are easily the equivalent of graduate-level work. Many finalists have gone on to become prize-winning scientists in their later years. And over the course of the twentieth century, quite a few schools have pushed their students to excel in the competition. Forest Hills High School is one of those schools. It ranks third in the country in total number of finalists over the history of the competition. In the 1960s, Forest Hills High School had the following number of finalists per year: two in 1964, one in 1965, one in 1966, three in 1968, and one in 1969. That may not seem like a lot, until you realize that there are only forty finalists each year from high schools all across the country. The statistic becomes even more impressive when you add the fact that competitors from Forest Hills came in second in both 1966 and 1968. A real-world Peter Parker would have had no problem pursuing his scientific aspirations at a place like Forest Hills High School. In fact, he might very well have come in first in 1965, the year that he graduated.

We’ve looked at Peter’s home and school. Even though he was considered a wallflower by his peers, he still had friends of a sort, and he might have hung out with them like any typical teenager. So where would teenagers in Forest Hills have hung out?

In the middle of Amazing Spider-Man No. 14 (July 1963), Peter’s high-school friends gather in the neighborhood soda shop. In the real Forest Hills, only one place would fit that description–Eddie’s Sweet Shop, at 105-29 Metropolitan Avenue. Eddie’s is owned by Joe Citrano, and has been since 1968. But the store itself has been a staple of the neighborhood since the 1920s, with its dark wood interior, an array of soda fountains and a menu centered on their homemade ice cream. I used to frequent Eddie’s as a kid myself, and it was like stepping back in time to an earlier, simpler era in America’s history. In the early 1960s, when Peter and his friends would have gone there, the place was named Witt’s, for the owner at the time. According to Vito Citrano, the son of the current owner, high-school kids would have stopped by for an ice cream or a soda, but they probably wouldn’t have hung out the way Pe-ter’s friends do in the comic. However, it was and still is a place for people to take their dates, and there is no doubt that if either Flash Thompson or Peter Parker wanted to ask Liz Allan out, a movie (perhaps at the Midway or Cinemart) followed by a trip to Witt’s would have been just the ticket.

It’s also possible that Peter might have gone there with Uncle Ben or Aunt May. In fact, given Peter’s outcast status, it seems even more likely that he would have done things with his uncle and aunt. In Queens, that might have meant going to Forest Park, browsing the Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks bookstores, or visiting the Queens Zoo and the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

He could also have gone to major league baseball games.

The New York Metropolitans, better known as the Mets, began playing baseball in 1962. For seven years, the Mets were perennial underdogs who didn’t manage to win a World Series until 1969. Is there any doubt that Peter would have identified with them throughout his teenage years?

Well, one doubt. The Mets played at the Polo Grounds, located on 155th Street in Manhattan, until 1964, when they moved to the newly built Shea Stadium in Flushing, Queens. By the time the Mets were established at Shea, Peter was already in college. So Peter couldn’t have attended Mets games in Flushing as a teenager.

But as we noted early on, time becomes fluid when discussing com-ic-book characters. A writer in the early 1960s would never have sent Peter to Shea Stadium to see a Mets game, but a writer in the decades that followed wouldn’t think twice about it. In fact, Paul Jenkins did just that in Peter Parker: Spider-Man Vol. 2 No. 33 (September 2001). The charming story “Maybe Next Year” takes the reader back in time to when Uncle Ben took Peter to game after losing game, until finally they saw the Mets win. Anyone growing up in Queens starting in the late 1960s who cared about baseball invariably would become a Mets fan, so the story (if you’ll pardon the expression) hits home. (Of course, having Peter describe the subway trip as starting with the G train at Northern Boulevard makes no sense if they lived in Forest Hills. That subway stop is in Jackson Heights, roughly two or three neighborhoods away. They’d most likely have taken the E or F train from Continental Avenue, and then switched for the 7 train at 74th Street and Roosevelt Avenue.)

As for the Zoo and the Hall of Science, they, too, suffer from a time-warp problem. The Zoo opened as the Flushing Meadows Zoo in 1968, and the Hall of Science opened in 1964, as part of the World’s Fair. If we assume that Peter grew up in Forest Hills in the 1950s and 1960s, then neither of them would have yet existed when he was a kid. In fact, the Hall of Science would have opened as Peter entered his senior year of high school, a little late for it to have any effect on him. But if we warp time a little bit, as comic-book writers must, we can easily assume that the two institutions were a vital part of his development.

*

Of course, even when he was a teenager Peter didn’t always stay in Forest Hills. Very early in his superhero career, he ventured into Manhattan to sell photos of himself as Spider-Man to the Daily Bugle, a tabloid newspaper. At the time, there were many tabloids in New York City, the two most prominent being the Daily News and the New York Post. The Daily Bugle was probably modeled after these two papers, although it should be noted that its typographic style more often resembles that of the Post.

Even the Bugle didn’t exist at first. In Amazing Spider-Man No. 2 (May 1963), Peter brings photos to J. Jonah Jameson, but he is presented as the owner and editor of something called NOW magazine.

For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that a real-world Peter brought photos of Spider-Man to the News or the Post. What would have happened? Chances are he would have managed to sell them, and maybe even gotten himself listed as a freelancer. But it’s just as likely that the editor would have become highly suspicious of how this kid was getting all these photos. Indeed, a few times Peter had to explain that he was getting all these pictures because he had managed to cut a deal with the real Spider-Man. Technically, that’s a violation of journalistic ethics, but probably not enough of one to have put the kibosh on the photos, even had the editor known.

*

On a more somber note, there is one event that would have had major impact on Peter Parker’s young life. Interestingly enough, it didn’t take place in Forest Hills, but rather in Kew Gardens, the previously mentioned neighborhood next door. Early in the morning of March 13, 1964, a twenty-eight-year-old woman named Kitty Genovese was returning home from her job as a bar manager in Hollis to her apartment in Kew Gardens. She parked her car in the train station parking lot and was walking back to her place when she was attacked by a man named Winston Moseley. Moseley was driven off by shouts from some of the neighbors, but over a half-hour period he returned twice and finally murdered her. Despite her shouts, and the fact that her struggles woke people in the neighborhood, no one called the police until it was too late.

At first, the murder was just another story buried away in the news, but A. M. Rosenthal, who at the time was the New York Times Metropolitan editor, assigned reporter Marty Gansberg to investigate deeper. The article Gansberg wrote, “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police,” appeared in the March 27, 1964 New York Times and triggered a national discussion.

The thrust of the article is contained within the misleading title. Gansberg presented Genovese’s neighbors as a group of “respectable, law-abiding citizens” whose apathy and desire not to get involved contributed to her murder. While it is true that some of Genovese’s neighbors ignored her screams throughout her half-hour ordeal, the fact is that when Genovese first screamed, lights went on in a nearby building and a man shouted to Moseley to leave Genovese alone. When Moseley ran away, apparently most of the neighbors believed that was the end of it.

Many years later, others analyzed both the attacks and the sociology of the neighborhood, and presented reasons other than apathy behind the seemingly callous behavior of Genovese’s neighbors. But at the time Gansberg’s article was published, people took it at face value that thirty-eight New Yorkers had witnessed a murder from their safe apartments and done nothing to intervene. Peter was still in the early stages of his career as Spider-Man in 1964, and still feeling his way as a hero. His own apathy had contributed to the death of his uncle Ben, leading Peter to the oft-cited belief that with great power there must also come great responsibility. One can easily imagine Peter reacting to the shocking news of this notorious murder, one that took place practically in his own backyard, by rededicating himself to his heroics.1

*

Only a few years after Marvel Comics introduced Peter Parker to fans as the hero who lived in Forest Hills, it was time for him to move. The story goes that early on, Stan Lee asked the fans if Spider-Man should grow up or remain a teenager forever. The fans responded that they wanted to see Peter grow, which makes sense if they wanted to continue to identify with him. So in Amazing Spider-Man No. 28 (September 1965), Peter Parker finally graduated from Midtown High. Despite his family’s dire financial straits, Peter was able to attend college, because Empire State University, otherwise known as ESU, gave him a full-tuition science scholarship.

ESU, of course, is another fictional school that exists solely in the Marvel universe. Given its Greenwich Village location, ESU is most likely a stand-in for New York University. NYU is an excellent school, but if we’re assuming that Peter is a stellar science student, there is a university he was more likely to want to attend. That, of course, is New York City’s only Ivy League school, Columbia University. Still, it’s unlikely that Columbia would have come up with the scholarship money that Peter and his aunt May depended upon for his education. NYU, on the other hand, would have appreciated Peter’s value as a scientist, and it’s most likely that he would have ended up there. Regardless, he would have bid farewell to Forest Hills.

*

But we can’t leave Forest Hills behind without answering the most important question of all: where would Peter have bought his comic books?

In the 1960s, comic-book specialty stores like Mike’s Comics or Little Nemo’s, both of which were staples of Forest Hills for many years, did not yet exist. For decades, kids wanting comics had to buy them at candy stores, which also stocked newspapers, magazines, sodas, and other sundries. Peter probably would have gone to one of the two candy stores on Queens Boulevard, which stood opposite each other at the top of the entrances to the 75th Avenue subway station.

And of course, once Little Nemo’s opened in the 1970s, its location right near the corner of Ascan Avenue and Austin Street would have made it the prime place for Peter to buy his books. I know that for a fact, because Peter runs right through that intersection in the first Spider-Man film.

*

So, in the end, what would have been the fate of a real-world Peter Parker? He would have attended P.S. 101, Russell Sage Junior High School, and then probably ended up at Forest Hills High School. He would have taken in movies at the Midway Theater, bought books at Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks, and hung out at Eddie’s Sweet Shop. He would have gone to Shea Stadium, the Queens Zoo, and the New York Hall of Science, where he would have developed his love of science. He would have won the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and earned a scholarship to New York University. He would have been picked on by his peers, but he would have found solace in science fiction and comic books.

And, like every other child of Forest Hills, he would remember his middle-class roots fondly and find himself drawn to return, over and over again.

  1. In fact, one writer did imagine that the murder of Kitty Genovese would lead someone to don a costume. In issue No. 6 of the seminal Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons series Watchmen, the vigilante Rorschach claims to have been inspired by Genovese’s murder.

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