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Long Island City toy maker creates out of Sandy’s wrath

Long Island City business owners Milan (l.) and Jarka Uherik sell toys made from trees destroyed in Superstorm Sandy. Photo courtesy Milan Uherik
TimesLedger Newspapers

Post-Sandy fallen Shady Park trees have undergone a metamorphosis, becoming hand-carved wooden toys and puzzles that put smiles on kids’ faces.

Milan Uherik is originally from Slovakia and has lived in Long Island City for 26 years. He and his wife Jarka, who is from the Czech Republic, opened their gift store, Slovak-Czech Varieties on Jackson Avenue, about 10 years ago. They offer a selection of imported goods, such as sweets, magazines, books and Bohemian glass.

Recently, customers have fallen in love with Uherik’s special collection of charming, old-fashioned-looking Wooden Heart Treasure toys on display in his shop. Each toy on wheels is painstakingly crafted to look like a different animal and is adorned with a pink heart in the middle — in memory of a beloved park.

Uherik says he will never forget the day he watched severed trunks from Andrews Grove Park’s once regal trees being hauled away, after Sandy leveled the popular 49th Avenue playground. For years, it was his family’s and his neighbors’ favorite green space.

“My daughter played in the park every day, when she was little. She is now 27 years old,” he said. Then his son, now 7, played there, and still does.

When the storm hit in October 2012, most of LIC was under water.

“That night I walked by the park to see how far the water was by my shop, and the trees were standing; on my way back — about 30 minutes later — they were knocked down. I could not believe it,” Uherik said.

Then as workers started the massive cleanup project, Uherik had the seed of an idea.

“When they started to clean the park, I thought to save a couple of trunks and make something from them, but in the beginning I wasn’t sure exactly what,” he said. ”It was something spontaneous that I thought of, since the trees and the park have been with us for so long and we have so many memories from there, and now it was gone.

“In the beginning, I cut the trunks into smaller pieces and dried them over the winter, and in the meantime I bounced from idea to idea and started to do some samples. I adjusted the size and discussed the idea with friends and kids.”

It depends on the toy — and Uhreik even accepts special orders — but it takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 1/2 hours to make each one. Creations range in price from $6 up to $25.

Uherik has worked with wood his entire life so he likes carving them the old-school way, with a scroll saw. It’s a real labor of love.

“It is amazing how this part of Long Island City is blooming and changing at rocket speed,” said Uherik. “Twenty-six years ago Shady Park was the only park in the area. Then my son was born and we continued to go there even after the new buildings and new parks were built by the water, because of the shade the trees provided.”

Even though it can take up to 15 years to get the leafy refuge back to its former glory, the park has been nearly restored to its community gem status, with 10 trees standing tall and honoring the canopied splendor of the eight that were lost but not forgotten — through a collection of special wooden toys. Perhaps this is a subtle reminder that hope springs eternal, and like every cloud, certain storms do have a silver lining.

Slovak-Czech Varieties is located at 10-59 Jackson Ave. in Long Island City. For more information, contact the store at (718) 752-2093 or check out its website at www.slovczechvar.com.

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