When tracing the courses of the world’s great rivers, they all originate from humble beginnings in swamps, caves, and springs where water bursts out of the ground. Within the borders of New York City, many natural springs have been buried by development and in their place, streams flow out of pipes. An example of a buried source is Flushing Creek, whose natural headwaters were covered by the Kew Gardens Interchange.
When the borders of Queens’ original towns were determined around 1683, the towns of Flushing, Newtown and Jamaica met at the Head of the Vleigh, the natural spring where Flushing Creek originated. Is that spring still flowing today?
As the 1891 Bien Atlas shows, the tri-point of the town borders was a tiny pond marking the southernmost extent of Flushing Creek.Today, it is the site of the Kew Gardens Interchange, a tangling twist of highway ramps connecting the Van Wyck Expressway, Grand Central Parkway, Jackie Robinson Parkway, and Union Turnpike. In colonial days, this location was known as the Head of the Vleigh. As an important east-west crossroads, it was the site of a pro-British Hessian military camp during the American Revolution.
I used to work here
Between January 2013 and October 2014, I worked in an office with a view of Willow Lake. From the 17th floor of the Forest Hills Tower, I served as a community liaison for Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, who had the distinction of claiming that her entire district could be seen from her office. When visitors sat in our conference room, we often joked that Koslowitz could work on the side as a traffic and weather reporter. I used my past experience to give visitors a tour of Queens without having to move an inch from the window.
In all seasons, this was a view that only a high-income luxury condo dweller could afford and I relished every moment of it. With apologies to Koslowitz, sometimes this view was too distracting. It inspired me to dream about urban planning and to search among the trees below for the source of Flushing Creek.
Close to the Source
With Google Earth as a reference, I highlighted the oldest roads in the area: Union Turnpike, Queens Boulevard, and Vleigh Place. The red circle is the former tri-point of the towns, where Flushing Creek originated. The smaller blue circle is its present source. Along with the complex interchange, another intrusion on the headwaters of Flushing Creek is Jamaica Yard. Constructed in 1934, it serves as the storage facility for trains on the Queens Boulevard Line. The trestle leading to the rail yard is accompanied by a pedestrian bridge spanning Grand Central Parkway.
That bridge connects the Willow Lake Preserve to the Ilse Metzger Sitting Area, a small park at the corner of Grand Central Parkway and 78th Avenue, on the same block as Koslowitz’s office. The park was named in 1983 after a popular local civic activist.
I went to this park to cross the bridge to the creek’s source, but the bridge was closed years ago because of its proximity to the rail yard. Instead it carries a pipeline, so I had to find another way to access the headwaters. Walking along the highway shoulder was not an option. Too many cops around.
In the 1873 F. W. Beers map above left, an oval track marks the site of the headwaters. At the time, it was the Willow Glen horse farm, given the name by property owner Timothy Jackson in 1820 and a likely namesake for the lake that will later be carved near this location. For the rest of the 19th century, Willow Glen raised the horses that would later race at racecourses throughout the region. By 1898, the Citizens Water Supply Company constructed pumping stations on the site of Willow Glen, tapping into Flushing Creek’s headwaters.
As the 1909 G. W. Bromley map above right shows, real estate developer Cord Meyer also appeared on the scene, purchasing the former Jackson and Meeker farms for a future development, but unlike Forest Hills, this parcel remained untouched for another three decades.
The highways arrive
With the DoITT CityMap as a guide, we can observe the gradual development around the Head of the Vleigh. On the 1924 aerial below, Queens Boulevard, Union Turnpike and Vleigh Place are highlighted. Traces of Willow Glen’s oval track can still be seen. On the west, Forest Hills and Kew Gardens have their street grids laid out, while Kew Gardens Hills is still covered by golf courses and farms.
By 1951, the topography had radically changed as Union Turnpike was split to accommodate Grand Central Parkway and Interborough (later renamed Jackie Robinson) Parkway, which merge within the split. Within three years, the Van Wyck Expressway will be extended from the south to meet the two parkways. In 1961, the expressway will be extended north along the east side of Flushing Meadows, connecting to Whitestone Bridge. Finally, there is Jamaica Yard taking up space on the reduced wetland with Willow Lake to its north.
Note how the course of Flushing Creek was altered to flow on the western side of the rail yard. Circled in blue is the reconstructed source of the stream. Another view of the interchange is a 1937 Fairchild aerial survey looking west. Cord Meyer’s parcel is now developed, as is the neighborhood of Briarwood on the far left. Again, the stream’s source is circled.
Since its creation as part of the 1939 World’s Fair master plan, Willow Lake was designed to function as a nature preserve. Although at times, there were baseball fields and a playground near its shore, frequent flooding caused these uses to be discontinued. There are two entranced to the preserve: at Grand Central Parkway and 75th Avenue; and Park Drive East at Al Mauro Playground. In the 1990s, the trail’s footbridge across Flushing Creek was destroyed by arsonists and the preserve was padlocked until 2013. Elected officials celebrated the reopening by renaming the trail after Kew Gardens Hills resident Pat Dolan and installing decorative gates.
However, there is plenty of work to do in order to make the trail more attractive to users, as documented by the urban explorers at LTV Squad. On the very cold morning of Valentine’s Day 2016, I took a walk on the trail in search of Flushing Creek’s headwaters. I entered on the Forest Hills side, which was closer to the creek. Upon descending from the footbridge, the trail became a hike as I crossed over the wetland atop wooden planks and square pavers. As the temperature was 10° F, the planks were held tightly by the ice.
At the southern end of Willow Lake, Flushing Creek is crossed by the trail’s footbridge, partially rebuilt after it was torched. I departed from the trail by squeezing through the phragmites along the stream’s bank. Considering that the lake was entirely frozen that morning, I was puzzled to see stream rising from the creek.
The steam was dancing atop the water’s surface, following the direction of the stream. The water did not appear to be hot, but the stark difference between the morning’s temperature and the water made for the steam show.
Here’s the Source!
After following the creek for more than a thousand feet, the source finally appears in the form of stonework with water flowing out of an opening. I was not sure whether the water was coming from nearby sewers, perhaps from gutters along Grand Central Parkway, or maybe natural sources further uphill that were buried by development. Judging by its design, the stonework appeared to be from the same period as the overpasses on Grand Central Parkway, most likely 1937 to 1941. The plastic milk crate and improperly disposed beer cans show that I am not the first urban explorer to find this place. I don’t think it was his doing, but urban explorer Nathan Kensinger beat me to it. He was here back in October 2014.
According to the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, the only storm sewer outflows along Flushing Creek are further downstream outside the park. A report by Gaia Institute notes that most of Willow Lake’s water comes from the ground with some flow from highway shoulders along the park’s edge. Considering the isolated location of the headwaters, why the fancy stonework?
The decorative design shows that when it was completed there were trails and benches in this location, and the footbridge to the Ilse Metzger Sitting Area was open to the public.
Celebrate the Book!
If you haven’t yet received the invite, here it is. The event is open to the public but space is limited. Contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society to reserve your presence at my book launch on March 20.
In the News:
When I’m not exploring the city’s streams, I examine the architecture of its college campuses. This weekend, I visited CUNY’s Hunter College on behalf of Forgotten-NY.
Sergey, thank you for this piece! We went hiking today around Willow lake and it is great to learn the history of this place.
I’ll be posting more about Willow Lake soon!