Among the waterways of New York City that has experienced dramatic change in the past century is Flushing Bay, an arm of the East River that borders on College Point and LaGuardia Airport, where Flushing Creek widens into this bay. On this aerial survey photo from 1947, found at the NYS Archives, I identified some of the locations that I’ve previously documented on this blog and a few other interesting items.
The landscape here is urban but not yet as dense as it would become with the post-1965 influx of immigrants and revival of the city in the last quarter of the 20th century. The airport hasn’t yet reached its present size, as many people still used railroads and ships to reach distant places. Finally, the jail at Rikers Island also hasn’t reached its present size and it was only accessible by boat this this time.
Tune out the two highways on either side of this 47-acre lake, and perhaps then this wildlife sanctuary can be appreciated by visitors. Located at the southern tip of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, it is an ideal place for social distancing during this difficult time.
The setting is naturalistic, the result of the master plan for the 1939 World’s Fair that set aside a portion of Flushing Meadows that would be left alone.
With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down public life, one can stay at home or search for outdoor spaces where there are few other people and enjoy the natural sights. One can also do research from home on hidden urban waterways by comparing historical photos, aerial surveys, and maps.
On the corner of 108th Street and the Long Island Expressway, is a previously underdeveloped superblock where Horse Brook flowed. Construction is underway on a trio of affordable apartment towers to join the three that were built here in the 1970s. Block by block, the empty spaces where Horse Brook flowed are filling up with buildings, leaving fewer traces of this phantom waterway.
Among the hidden waterways of New York City, Flushing Creek is my favorite as I continue to find more historical photos, maps, and stories along its course. Among the photos from a century ago is one of Wahnetah Boat Club, which stood on the west bank of Flushing Creek next to Flushing Bridge.
On the 1906 image above from Jason Antos’ book on Flushing, the scene would be unrecognizable today. Taken from the Northern Boulevard Bridge, we see a rowboat heading towards the Whitestone Branch trestle, with the Lawrence family’s Willow Bank estate in the background. The family’s roots here date to 1643, but they knew their ancestry going back to the Crusades and the Roman period!
The radiating boulevards of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park have been a defining feature of the park since they were proposed in 1937 by Gilmore Clarke and Charles Rapuano as part of the great transformation of a former ash dump into a thousand-acre World’s Fair site and park. At the time, the flat and barren terrain gave Flushing Meadows the look of a blank slate, open to any ideas that would shape its future as a park.
From the Cornell University archives, a 1936 Fairchild Aerial survey shows Meadow Lake beginning to take its form. The core of the park to the north of the lake is the subject of this essay. Had the Versailles-inspired boulevards not been selected, what would have been the park’s appearance?
In the 80-year history of Meadow Lake, there have been plans for the waterway that did not go beyond the planning phase. Having examined designs for a never-built mid-lake bridge, I will now look at the 1980s plan to install a racetrack around its shores.
From the 1983 map by Wilson Racing, the outline of the lake appears unchanged, but can one imagine the impact on the park if the Grand Prix proposal had happened?
The city’s largest freshwater lake offers enough details in its design and history to allow for multiple posts. Having previously focused on the Aquacade that stood at Meadow Lake, and the history of Jewel Avenue Bridge, I turn to its northwest corner, where Horse Brook had its confluence with Flushing Creek.
On the above image, the red triangle shows the location of my parents’ home, which will be built atop the filled Horse Brook stream bed in 1950.
In the time between this 1937 photo and the opening of the 1939 World’s Fair, the transformation of the wetlands along Flushing Creek into Flushing Meadows is one of the most unrecognizable landscape alterations in the city in the past century. Around Meadow Lake, it includes a few rejected proposals worth remembering.
Since this blog was launched in December 2015, I’ve documented the city’s hidden waterways with as much detail as possible, but then after publishing the pieces, I stumble upon more old photos, maps, and postcards of the published streams.
The photo of note here is this August 1940 aerial survey of the first World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows, looking east. It is a Parks Department photo from the Municipal Archives collection. The corridor of open land between the street grids of downtown Flushing and Queensboro Hill is today’s Kissena Corridor Park, where Kissena Creek used to flow.
In recent years there has been plenty of talk about the proliferation of self-storage warehouses across the city, large boxy structures that provide few jobs, take up land and skyline, but in their defense, pay their taxes, provide a service to the public, and use otherwise neglected industrial properties. In Queens, no self-storage facility is as iconic as the downtown Flushing U-Haul with its clocktower that faces Flushing Creek.
Flowing as a tidal estuary between the Flushing Bridge and Roosevelt Avenue Bridge, this section of Flushing Creek has seen plenty of change over the centuries perhaps with more on the way.
This past Friday, I was invited to speak about my book before the annual investors conference for the 22nd Annual Investors conference of the NYC Municipal Water Finance Authority. It took place at Queens Museum, which coincided with Maintenance Art, an exhibit on the ecology, history, and future of Fresh Kills by Mierle Laderman Ukeles.
The central piece of the exhibit was a model of Landing, an overlooks inside the dump-turned-park that will offer visitors a view of the city’s largest naturalistic landscape. What’s an architecture piece from Staten Island park doing at the Queens Museum? Continue reading