“About half-way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in his 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby. “This is the valley of ashes.” In September 1999, in the exact place Fitzgerald describes, Serena Williams won her initial U.S. Open Final, becoming the first Black woman to win a Grand Slam tournament since Althea Gibson, in 1956. And in 2012, it became the spot where, six decades after the team was founded, Johan Santana would finally throw the first no-hitter in Mets history.
But despite the area’s evolution from Fitzgerald’s “valley of ashes” to one of the country’s top sports centers, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and Willets Point’s history as an almost mythical ash dump still permeates the area today. Though plans are underway to bring a 25,000-seat soccer stadium, 2,500 units of affordable housing, and, separately (under the aegis of Mets owner Steve Cohen), a casino to the area, the land’s troubled history continues to loom over the proposed redevelopment.
Formerly a tract of bucolic wetlands, Flushing Meadows was purchased in 1907 by the developer Michael Degnon, who saw in it a unique business opportunity: a potential location for a large industrial port capable of making him very rich. The only problem? The site was little more than a vast expanse of mud where hard ground should be. To fortify the land, Degnon, whose previous projects had included construction of the Brooklyn anchorage of the Williamsburg Bridge, arranged for thousands of cubic yards of household ash and waste to be deposited in the marshes on a daily basis. Continuing for almost 25 years, the excessive dumping sparked a long-standing pattern of entrepreneurs exploiting the meadowland — soon rechristened the Corona Ash Dumps — at the expense of its surrounding communities.
When Fitzgerald chose the ash dumps as a Jazz Age symbol for the social decay engendered by American industrialism, the West Side Tennis Club had been hard at work for a decade just four miles away, in the tony Queens neighborhood of Forest Hills, establishing the U.S. Open in New York City with the construction of the Forest Hills Stadium. The dazzling stadium, built in 1923, highlighted the dark reality of the nearby ash dumps. While New York’s elite were enjoying the favorite game of aristocratic Europe, the immigrant residents of Corona and Flushing were subject to an unrelenting stench, billowing clouds of ash from waste heaps reaching up to 100 feet high, and regular disease outbreaks, including one particularly severe polio epidemic, in 1916.
By the 1930s, Robert Moses, then the city’s parks commissioner, had begun hatching a plan to conceal the ash dump, proposing to cover it with the construction of the grounds of the 1939 World’s Fair. In addition to a vast engineering effort requiring 90-foot-deep pilings, Moses condemned a large swath of houses in Corona, displacing many of the neighborhood’s African American and immigrant residents. By circumscribing the park with highways, Moses successfully separated the land from the surrounding communities, limiting local residents’ access to both the park and the fair. And with the construction of these highways (including the Van Wyck Expressway), auto body shops, junkyards, and chop shops began to crop up in a small corner of the dump — today’s Willets Point.
The city never invested in a sanitary sewage system, garbage removal, or sidewalks for the area, resulting in pothole-filled streets permanently swamped with trash and standing water. Even today, shops lack toilets and running water. Early on, Willets Point’s lack of basic infrastructure earned it a reputation for extreme poverty, and the plethora of haphazard junkyards gave the area the moniker the Iron Triangle. But out of the rusted chaos quickly grew a remarkable community of transmission geniuses, muffler dealers, and tire kings, banded together in their trade in an area that had never been granted the privilege of basic infrastructure.
For the 1964 World’s Fair, Robert Moses attempted to condemn the local junkyard properties in order to incorporate Willets Point into the revamped fairgrounds. But by then, the mechanics and scrapyard owners had become an organized force. In a historical turning point, they hired a fresh-faced attorney named Mario Cuomo to help protect their properties. Cuomo and the mechanics of Willets Point won their case, and the victory helped Cuomo make a name for himself. A decade later, he would become New York’s secretary of state, and soon after, governor. On the other hand, Moses’s loss contributed to his failing reputation. Within a few years, he was forced into retirement by then New York City mayor John Lindsay — but not before weathering the storm of the Dodgers’ relocation to Los Angeles, constructing a National League baseball stadium next to the Iron Triangle, and signing the Mets for a 30-year lease.
By the 1970s, the U.S. Open’s Forest Hills Stadium had begun to crumble. One day in 1977, on a flight into nearby LaGuardia Airport, the president of the United States Tennis Association spotted a leftover from the 1964 World’s Fair: the Singer Bowl Stadium (now Louis Armstrong Stadium). In a matter of months, the USTA had moved the U.S. Open from its deteriorating venue in Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Though most of the players and attendees were no longer connected to Queens, preserving the U.S. Open in Flushing would enable the USTA to maintain a presence in an area that was a key part of its history. Moses’s design of the park ensured that the U.S. Open would remain physically and symbolically elevated above the surrounding working-class communities. Today, the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center — a symbol of established wealth adorned with advertisements for Mercedes and Rolex — stands in stark contrast to the bustling ethnic centers that border it.
Even more extreme is the contrast between Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and Willets Point, now a shell of its former colorful self. Up until the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the mechanics of the Iron Triangle had managed to hang on, despite an almost continuous assault of failed urban renewal plans. In 1983, Mayor Ed Koch attempted to build an 82,000-seat football stadium to bring the Jets back to New York City; in 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed redeveloping Willets Point as part of the city’s bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics. The city lost its Olympic bid in 2005, and two years later Bloomberg proposed a convention center on the site. After each plan fell apart, the city left Willets Point to deteriorate further. In 2008, the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming that for over 40 years, the city government had neglected to provide infrastructure and other services, including sanitary sewers, street lights, street signs, and trash removal. The case was dismissed by Judge Edward Korman, who ruled that the city had a rational basis for not expending resources in Willets Point until a redevelopment plan was approved.
At the end of Bill de Blasio’s final term, however, the Queens Borough Board voted to allow his administration’s redevelopment plan to proceed. The plan included more than 1,000 apartments, an elementary school, and park space. In 2021, de Blasio broke ground on Phase 1 of his plan, a three-year pollution remediation project designed to remove toxic materials from soil that had suffered 125 years of abuse and neglect.
Eric Adams — riding on de Blasio’s late success — has pledged to transform Willets Point once and for all. In November 2022, the Adams administration announced the current mixed-use redevelopment plan — featuring a soccer stadium and one of the city’s largest affordable housing developments — promising to create dwellings rather than tear them down for highways, as Moses did.
According to the website of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), the nonprofit corporation spearheading the project, the new affordable housing units and soccer stadium will “turn the tide on decades of neglect to bring the community long-term economic opportunity.” New York City council member Francisco Moya, who represents both Corona and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, echoed this sentiment in an email to the Voice in August, calling the project an “economic engine to the borough of Queens.”
The U.S. Open generates almost $1 billion in revenue, jobs, and visitor spending (at restaurants, hotels, stores, etc.) annually; the Mets generated a net profit of $129.6 million in 2022; and Adams’s redevelopment plan is projected to generate $6.1 billion in economic impact over the course of the next 30 years. But community representatives from Flushing and Corona say the stadiums have a detrimental effect on local communities. In a phone call on August 2, John Choe, a member of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce, told the Voice, “There’s been a lot of talk from the Mets about supporting local businesses and local residents. But we haven’t seen any actual results … the U.S. Open is even more disconnected. None of our businesses or restaurants have a presence there, and the Open also doesn’t encourage attendees to visit and support our neighborhoods.”
Nestor David Pastor, a volunteer member of the community organization Queens Neighborhoods United (QNU), echoed this sentiment in a phone call to the Voice on August 9. “The stadiums have never really engaged with the community,” he explained. “This new redevelopment plan doesn’t address the needs of the community in any real, holistic way. It’s just the newest take on a packaged deal that just keeps getting recycled.”
In contrast, Nico Aguilar, the NYCEDC’s press secretary, told the Voice in an email on August 11 that the corporation had asked for community input on the proposed soccer stadium this past April, stating, “There was near unanimous support.” Councilmember Moya concurred, adding that the stadium will “bring excitement and unity to a neighborhood that eats, sleeps, and breathes soccer.”
However, Luis Avila, an auto-glass shop owner in Willets Point and resident of Corona, tells the Voice that although he’s a longtime fan of the Mets, he doesn’t understand the need for a soccer stadium. “I watch soccer but I’ve never heard of this team. Who would even go?” he asks. The proposed stadium will become home to the New York City Football Club, which was founded in 2013 and is majority-owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, of the Abu Dhabi royal family.
Avila and other shop owners in Willets Point worry that the proposed stadium will displace them. “I’ve made my living here for almost 25 years,” says Charles Akah, owner of Afri-De-Best, a tire and muffler shop. “Here it’s like a third-world country. Whether you like it or not, it is what it is. There’s trash, potholes, puddles in the streets. We want them to help clean things up. But they’re cleaning it up so they can build this beautiful soccer stadium, so that they can have an excuse to squeeze us out.” The small businessman adds, “I don’t own my building — the city bought out the landlord. When my lease ends, who knows?”
But Councilmember Moya disagrees that the redevelopment has had a negative effect on the shop owners of Willets Point. “No mechanics were displaced from the development area,” he wrote. He further emphasized that the core of the new plan has always been about community enrichment, not about revenue. According to both Moya and the NYCEDC, the proposed affordable housing plan is the true crux of the project. EDC press secretary Aguilar wrote that the plan is “a generational investment in Willets Point,” while Moya added that the plan is “a model that puts housing first. This is a project bringing a brand new neighborhood … to a city that is currently facing a housing crisis.” (Additionally proposed is a 650-seat elementary school, to help alleviate the burden of other nearby schools that are over capacity.)
Both QNU’s Pastor and Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce’s Choe agree that there’s a pressing need for housing in the area, but they’re skeptical that the new development will effectively address the problem. “We have so many luxury development projects in downtown Flushing,” said Choe. “If you walk around in the evening, you’ll see that half of them aren’t even lit up at night — we have huge vacancy rates. And then you see people sleeping on the street in cardboard boxes.”
Pastor emphasized that the shortage of housing in Queens is a systemic issue, one unable to be adequately addressed with a single development. He also questioned what the phrase “affordable housing” means in the context of the Willets Point redevelopment. “The phrase is virtually meaningless,” he remarked. “They’re using it like a Trojan Horse to get moneyed interests through the door. They’re saying they’ll only address the community needs, like providing the bare minimum basic right of paved streets and sewers, if it’s tied to profit.”
Mets owner Steve Cohen also wants in on the redevelopment spoils. Though not an official part of the Willets Point redevelopment plan, the billionaire has embarked on the process of building and licensing a casino in Citi Field’s parking lot, a part of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. As reported by The City in May, Cohen paid almost $100,000 to lobbyists in early 2023 in order to win the backing of New York City council members, while he petitions state lawmakers.
“It’s crazy that state officials are even contemplating alienating public parkland for the purpose of a casino,” commented Choe. Pastor clarified that the space is, in fact, currently used regularly by the local community. “One of the talking points from Cohen’s team is that it’s just a parking lot,” he stated. “But that obscures the fact that it is public parkland, and that it is an active space used to host community carnivals and events throughout the year.”
Both Pastor and Choe described the proposed casino as a “predatory” and “parasitic” proposition for local communities. Pastor asserted that a similar project would never be proposed in a higher-income neighborhood. Choe went further: “They’re leveraging the stereotypes of Asian people as gambling addicts.” According to a 2022 New York Times article investigating how casinos target older Asian gamblers, casino operators have, in fact, targeted Queens as an optimal location for a new casino: “During meetings with prospective business partners this year, some casino operators scoping out potential locations have cited proximity to large Chinese populations as a top consideration.” (When questioned about the presence of a casino next to the redevelopment, Councilmember Moya declined to comment.) Pastor explained that QNU feels “the process of transparency has been co-opted by lobbying and polling firms to manufacture consent and present it as if it were coming from the community.” He added, “Whether it’s the city government or Steve Cohen, they’re all just trying to do their best impression of Robert Moses.”
Sitting atop the ash that F. Scott Fitzgerald so vividly described, the new redevelopment, along with the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center and Citi Field, carries on the unusual legacy of the Corona Ash Dumps. Despite state-of-the-art buildings, elite athletes, and thousands of fans — or maybe because of these convergences — the area is becoming a place estranged from its neighboring communities. Though it remains to be seen whether or not Moses’s divisive planning tactics will permeate the new redevelopment, history’s shadow looms.
“We’ve been riding this wave for a while. It’s only a matter of time until everything’s gone,” observes Akah. Avila adds, with a shrug, “I think these things are all for the rich people. They can always do what they want.” ❖
Ruthie Kornblatt-Stier hails from the woods of western Massachusetts and works in New York City covering topics ranging from women’s issues to the climate crisis to entrepreneurs. Her work has appeared in Worth magazine, Techonomy, and Propagule.