In the shadow of Queensborough Bridge is a ten-acre waterfront park tucked between the bridge, public housing, and a power plant. Queensbridge Park is one of seven unconnected parks on the western shore of Queens facing Manhattan.
The water’s edge here is riprap, rocks deposited along a seawall to reduce erosion from waves and currents. These rocks were dropped here in 2014 after the seawall suffered damage from Hurricane Sandy in late 2012. As is the case with much of the East River facing Manhattan, the shoreline is almost perfectly straight, resembling a canal rather than a tidal strait.
Where It Is
On the city DOT map of the Queens Waterfront Greenway, I circled the waterfront parks between Hunters Point and Lawrence Point. Queensbridge Park is in Long Island City, sandwiched between Queensborough Bridge and the Ravenswood Generating Station. Most of this greenway runs on a separated bike lane on Vernon Boulevard, deviating from that road where there are waterfront parks.
Looking north from Queensbridge Park we see the power plant and Roosevelt Island Bridge. The park’s walkway ends abruptly in the grass in contrast to Roosevelt Island, where the public can circumnavigate every side of the island by foot. Some waterfront parks have canoe launches, or beaches where people and pets can put their feet in the water. At Queensbridge Park, there are no opportunities to interact with the waterway.
In the center of the park is a great lawn with a running track around it. Not visible is the double-decker 63rd Street Tunnel beneath the park that carries the subway and Long Island Railroad trains to Manhattan. Near the park’s northeast corner is a gray concrete ventilation shaft for this tunnel. Completed in 1989, it is the newest crossing on the East River.
Most tunnel ventilation shafts are not designed to stand out architecturally, although there are notable exceptions such as the one on Brooklyn Heights. I think of Star Wars when I see the shaft building in Queensbridge Park.
Parks and Housing
Once an underdeveloped industrial area, ground was broken here in 1939 for Queensbridge Houses, at the time the world’s largest public housing project. The plan included playgrounds inside each of the six superblocks, Queensbridge Park on the waterfront, and Baby Queensbridge Park– a linear green space paralleling the bridge, connecting 21st Avenue to the river.
In this 1940 aerial survey from the Municipal Archives, we see the park under construction with small and large ovals and the shoreline being straightened. In our new millennium, new waterfront parks are designed with naturalistic shorelines that have coves where marine life can access land and the public can touch the water. One such example is East River Park on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where a cove was carved into the seawall in 2009.
The Field House
On the southern edge of the park is the field house that serves as an event space, equipment storage and office. This postmodern LEED-certified facility opened in 2020. Its green design include plumbing fixtures that reduce water use; energy efficient heating and cooling system; energy efficient lighting; increased ventilation; and light-colored paving to reduce the heat island effect.
It replaced the original field house built in 1941 that was abandoned in the 1990s. That brick structure was unique for its rounded portico, but was otherwise as plain as the public housing across the street. If believe that every sizable park deserves a field house that can provide restrooms, space for community events, and opportunities to educate the public on the park’s history and nature, in the role of a visitors center.
A Missed Opportunity
I’ve often written about the role of parks in preserving historically significant manors and estates. Queensbridge Park was built to serve the residents of Queensbridge Houses, but if it had instead been built on the southern side of Queensboro Bridge, it could have enveloped two unique buildings that could have contributed to the park’s identity.
The office and showroom of the New York Architectural Terra Cotta Works was built in 1892, but hasn’t been in use since the 1970s. It survived demolition after being designated as a city landmark in 1982. There is talk of the Silvercup Studios expanding towards the waterfront with this old building serving again as an office. Being so close to the park, it is unfortunate that the public cannot access it and learn about its history.
Not as fortunate was Bodine Castle that stood a few yards to the south of the Terra-Cotta building, also facing the East river. Local lore ascribed it to an exiled French nobleman and the tunnel connecting this house to the water’s edge contributed to its mystery. In reality, its namesake was upstate-born wholesale grocer John A. Bodine, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1876. It was built in 1853 at a time when the shoreline here was rural and dotted with countryside homes that offered a short boat commute to the city’s markets.
Following Bodine’s death in 1878, the property became industrial and the castle served as an office surrounded by a paint works that became a paper bag factory that became a lumber yard. Con Ed bought the property in 1962 and intended to demolish the castle so that it could expand its electrical switching station and training facility. Local residents tried to have the castle landmarked in 1966 and as the city was considering it, Con Ed quickly demolished Bodine’s Castle. Its Gothic Revival Style resembles the landmarked Smallpox Hospital ruin across the river on Roosevelt Island, which is fortunately landmarked.
The Ravenswood power plant on the north side of Queensbridge Park was proposed for the world’s largest nuclear power plant in 1962– in the heart of New York City. Even the Soviets were wise enough to built their Chernobyl reactor away from Kiev in case of a meltdown. At the time, Con Ed Chairman Harland C. Forbes told Congress that concerns about radiation were “rather silly.” Local residents banded together under the banner of “CANPOP” for the Committee Against a Nuclear Power Plant. The City Council then passed a law prohibiting nuclear power plants within the city.
With every waterfront park, there are stories what things that were built and preserved, or demolished, or thankfully, never built at all.
Learn More: If you liked this photo essay, I have an earlier one for nearby Rainey Park.