Mill Creek, Queens

The flooded meadow that once separated College Point from Flushing feeds the northernmost tributary of Flushing Creek, feeding into it just a few yards shy of where it widens into Flushing Bay. Mill Creek is a common name on the regional landscape, a reminder of the role that gristmills played in supplying food to colonial settlements that became today’s neighborhoods.

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The view above from College Point Boulevard shows Mill Creek flowing into Flushing Creek at low tide. With so much of its course channeled beneath the streets, what is left of Mill Creek and its wetlands?

Where it flowed

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The 1904 E. Belcher-Hyde atlas shows Mill Creek meandering across an undeveloped expanse between College Point from Flushing. Only four roads: 14th Avenue, 20th Avenue, Linden Place, and College Point Boulevard, connect the College Point peninsula to the rest of Queens. The green marked parcel is today’s Harvey Playground, which was one of the sources for Mill Creek, along with a handful of other springs emerging from the southern slope of the ridge carrying 14th Avenue.

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Looking at the 1950s topographical map from the Parks Commissioner’s office, we see College Point as a separate entity on account of Mill Creek. The void contained a private airport, a short-lived military property, and an incinerator. What is today College Point Boulevard was known as College Point Causeway, a narrow road built atop fill across the marshland.

The triangular parcel bound by Linden Place, 20th Avenue and Whitestone Expressway would be used as Flushing Airport from 1927 through 1984. Today most of it is again a freshwater wetland with parks and office buildings along its periphery. Whitestone Expressway would be completed in 1939, connecting the Whitestone Bridge with the 1939 World’s Fair site.

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I entertained going into the underground section of Mill Creek at low tide, but it appears nearly impossible to enter. I wouldn’t encourage it.

At Its End

For a change I’ve decided to follow this stream from its end to its start. At its month, there is more water to see.

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Where College Point Boulevard crosses Mill Creek is a concrete sign welcoming travelers to College Point Corporate Park. Its history goes back to 1960, when James Felt, chairman of the City Planning Commission, proposed it as an industrial district. The goal was to reduce the flight of manufacturers from the city and generate tax income from the undeveloped land. At the time, the marshland had a grid of “paper streets” on it, roads that were on the official map but never built.

Trash to Glass

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Across College Point Boulevard from the mouth of Mill Creek is a gray and blue self storage warehouse, one of many popping up around the city. This Storage Quarters facility at 31-40 Whitestone Expressway is the former trash incinerator, which operated until May 20, 1969, spewing 3.5 tons of dirt into the air each day, to the dismay of College Point residents. Its smokestack still stands. Next to it is Crystal Window & Door Systems, founded in 1990 by local Taiwanese immigrant Thomas Chen. The factory is a success story and an example of a new industry built by a new resident. Mill Creek runs beneath both of these properties.

College Point Corporate Park

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A circa 1990 Hagstrom map shows the superblocks that were the Mill Creek wetland. The stream is not marked so I drew it in. Notice how Linden Place is “blocked” by lines, as it was closed to traffic in the mid-1980s as a result of repetitive flooding. Another curiosity is the dead-end Downing Place, which never became a true street. It is today the driveway leading into the much-unloved College Point DMV and Traffic Violations Bureau, addressed not as Downing but as 30-56 Whitestone Expressway. This map is not to scale, with Flushing Bay drawn small in order to provide detail on LaGuardia Airport’s terminals.

The designation of the industrial park failed to slow the larger industrial decline in the city and in the 1980s, the space was renamed College Point Corporate Park. At the time, the city’s Economic Development Corporation straightened a section of Mill Creek between 28th and 31st Avenues into a canal. Following its completion, most of the current buildings on site were completed. They include Judlau Contracting, Crystal Window & Door Systems, and the Promise Church– a Korean-speaking mega-church in the middle of an industrial park.

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Looking north from 31st Avenue, I limboed under a fence to capture a canal section of Mill Creek. On the right is the Promise Church and on the left is the Queens office of Elecnor Hawkeye, a gas line construction firm. For a brief time, the building also hosted Sambucci Brothers, a storied family-owned car parts recycler founded in Willets Point. Displaced by the city’s redevelopment plans for Willets Point, Sambucci did not resist. It accepted a deal and moved to nearby College Point in 2011. Seeking a larger site, Sambucci has since moved to its present location in Garden City Park.

In the background is the recently completed NYPD Academy, which has become the central feature of today’s Mill Creek. The stream travels from one basin into another through twin 72-inch pipes.

NYPD Academy

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Between its past as an undeveloped wetland and its present as the training school for the city’s law enforcement professionals, The canal stretch of Mill Creek was within the largest outdoor parking lot in Queens, at 35 acres and nearly 3,000 spaces, used by the police as a tow pound. Costing $950 million to design and construct, the new academy was intended to consolidate any of the training elements of police work into a single campus. Designed by the firm Perkins+Will, it includes an enclosed glass pedestrian bridge spanning Mill Creek that connects its academic and training wings.

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The NYPD Academy has all the imagined scenes of crimes: a simulated subway station, apartment, grocery store, and I would not be surprised to see this section of Mill Creek included as an outdoor classroom.

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At the main entrance to the NYPD Academy, Mill Creek has the appearance of a defensive moat, a seemingly historical touch to a postmodern facility that will likely be in use for centuries to come.

Towards the Former Airport

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On the northeast corner of Linden Place and 28th Avenue is an L-shaped basin where nature has reclaimed the scene. It feels like the frontier of the city but actually deep inside Queens.

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Linden Place, reopened in spring 2015 after nearly three decades of abandonment now runs high above the marshes of the former Flushing Airport. It feels like a departure from the city, considering that a quarter mile to the south this street is packed with ugly infill architecture. Kevin Walsh of Forgotten-NY walked here back in 1999 and again in 2001, documenting the dilapidated hangars and rusting equipment of Queens’ lost airport.

Flushing Airport (1927-1984)

flush7.jpgOn a topographical map, the former runways of Flushing Airport appear as a backward lower-case Y, with Mill Creek following the shorter runway.

The airport opened in 1927 as Speed’s Airport, named for its founder Anthony “Speed” Hanzlick, who ran Speed’s Flying Service. Throughout its history, the airport was troubled by its proximity to LaGuardia Airport, neighborhood opposition relating to noise and accidents, and flooding on its runways. Its clientele were private airplanes and blimps. Hanzlick operated the airport until his death in 1974, when his wife Wilhemina succeeded him. It was a mom-and-pop operation more fitting for a small town than a great city.

The construction of an electric plant at the airport’s northwestern corner forced the closure of Runway 4-22, leaving only one landing strip. Whenever northwest or southwest winds exceeded 35 miles per hour, the airport would close. Lack of runway lights meant that the airport could only operate during the day.

The site Abandoned& Little-Known Airfields has a detailed history of Flushing Airport, including some of its fatal accidents. In January 1984, the airport was closed for good.

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Looking at the airport site from Linden Place, nothing remains of it. The hangar ruins were removed by 2008, and nature has reclaimed the property. The property is not a park nor an official nature preserve. It has seen many failed plans such as a heliport, blimp port, and wholesale warehouse depot. A portion of the wetland used for decades as a little league sports field atop a landfill made of hazardous materials was cleaned up by the city and  designated as College Point Fields. On the eastern edge of the airport site, a postal distribution facility and the Richard Olcott and James S. Polshek-designed New York Times printing plant frame the superblock. Completed in 1997, it is instantly recognizable to motorists on the Whitestone Expressway.

At the Source

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Today, the furthermost reach of Mill Creek above the surface is at 20th Avenue, the northern border of the former Flushing Airport. Google Maps shows Mill Creek flowing from a point a few feet north of 20th Avenue, whose northern side was developed in 1998 as a shopping strip anchored by the retail giant Target and BJ’s Wholesale Club. A dead-end street constructed by this property in 1998, Petracca Place, carries the name of a construction company located on it. Harvey Park, which once provided water for Mill Creek is two blocks to the east.

In the Neighborhood:

Back in 2009, I surveyed the shoreline of College Point for Forgotten-NY, walking from Mill Creek to Malba.

In the News:

Reuters reports on a floating apple orchard coming to New York City..

Bronx Times reports on the introduction of 400 herring to the Bronx River.

Gothamist reports on a Harlem River waterfront parcel in the Bronx, whether it will become housing or a park extension.

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2 thoughts on “Mill Creek, Queens

  1. Andrew Porter May 13, 2017 / 2:26 pm

    More fascinating history of (for me) far-off parts of NYC.

    There’s a typo, month for mouth, just above the College Point Corporate Park photo.

    Like

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