The Iron Triangle

All urban neighborhoods change over time, but the process of transformation is rarely as dramatic as the redevelopment planned for Willets Point, Queens. In this week’s feature, Nicole Salazar takes us on a photographic journey of the Iron Triangle, as Willets Point’s concentration of auto body shops and scrap yards is often called, and offers a overview of its history, development and the local resistance to its planned future. For a place characterized more often by its lack of sewers or sidewalks than by the people who work there, Salazar’s portrait of the neighborhood puts a human face to often faceless urban policy issues such as industrial zoning, retail agglomeration and eminent domain. –C.S.

New York City is filled with mini-universes. These worlds within the five boroughs are part of what make this city – and any city – unique and vibrant. From Chinatown to the Diamond District, these corners of human activity make evident new layers of life, culture and commerce throughout the metropolis. One such mini-universe is in Willets Point, Queens. Here, on the second to last stop of the 7 train, tucked behind Citi Field ballpark, is a community of several hundred auto-body repair shops and other small industrial businesses. To wander into the narrow streets of the district is to walk into a world constructed out of car parts. Tires, hubcaps, mufflers and rearview mirrors are stacked on the floor, hung from ceilings, and sprawled on every surface in between. Cars and trucks, hoods open, spill out of single storied garages onto the streets. No tall buildings obstruct the view of the wide sky overhead, which is dotted frequently by seagulls and airplanes in equal numbers. The winter uniform of the men who work here is almost universally a dark blue coat or coveralls, a sweatshirt, and a cotton hat.

In the early 20th century, the reclaimed marshlands of Willets Point and the surrounding Corona neighborhood were primarily used as a vast coal ash dump. F. Scott Fitzgerald immortalized the “valley of ashes” in The Great Gatsby, first published in 1925.

This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.

In the 1930s, Robert Moses orchestrated the transformation of much of the dumping ground into the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in advance of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and a section of nearby Willets Point was paved for parking lots. Soon after, gas stations started moving in, and by the 1950s, with the arrival of small factories, auto body shops, garages and storage facilities, the industrial character of the neighborhood was cemented. Redevelopment plans have been continuously floated over the years, without success. In the 1960s, a young lawyer named Mario Cuomo built his reputation in part by successfully defending small businesses in Willets Point against a Moses proposal to expand parking and fairgrounds for the 1964 World’s Fair. The “Iron Triangle,” as it is known locally, has changed little since.

In May of 2007, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the New York Economic Development Corporation resurrected the idea of redeveloping Willets Point, unveiling a $3 billion dollar proposal. Located in the shadow of the new $900 million Citi Field stadium, development pressure looms larger than ever. According to the promotional website of the Willets Point Redevelopment Plan, “New York’s next great neighborhood” will include “retail and entertainment amenities, a hotel and convention center, mixed-income housing, public open space, and community uses.” The City wants the project to be a model neighborhood for New York, with LEED-certified buildings and green infrastructure. The project’s program outlines the City’s intention to use eminent domain to condemn any properties within the 62-acre site that they are unable to buy out.

In the years since the new plan’s proposal, this quiet corner of Queens has found itself enmeshed in a political battle, pitting the small local business owners who want to stay where they are against the City. No one disagrees the area is in need of investment. The neighborhood lacks a sanitary sewer system, storm water doesn’t drain well, and the streets are poorly maintained.  Trash removal is irregular, and sidewalks were either never constructed or have worn away. Environmental contamination is largely a result of these conditions. Local business leaders opposing the plan say the City is abusing their police power of eminent domain, and capitalizing on the decades of municipal neglect to facilitate taking their property for private developers.

Willets Point United is a grassroots association of local business and land owners that has been fighting against the City’s redevelopment plan in the media and in the courts. Jake Bono of Bono Sawdust Supply Company, a spokesperson for the group, runs a business established by his grandfather in Willets Point in 1933. A range of legal efforts levied over the last few years appear to be delaying, but not necessarily jeopardizing, the long-term realization of the project. New York is one of only six states in the country that have not taken measures to reform eminent domain laws in light of the contentious 2005 Kelo v. City of New London Supreme Court ruling. Furthermore, courts generally defer to legislative bodies or State and City agencies to make land use planning decisions, and resist making determinations on the details of particular proposals. In other words, City lawmakers have a fairly broad authority to decide what constitutes a “public use,” the standard requirement for eminent domain. Currently, the legal challenge successfully delaying the project focuses on the permitting process of new highway ramps for the Van Wyck Expressway.

The process, politics and consequences of any large-scale development project merit close scrutiny. The way neighborhoods grow and change is a fundamental point of intervention and analysis in understanding what it means to support or undermine equity and diversity in the city. According to Edward Soja, the Marxist geographer David Harvey provides a stark critique: “…almost every aspect of urban development and change has regressive and discriminatory socio-spatial effects.”

Today, between 1,400 and 1,800 people, mostly men, work in Willets Point. Many of these workers are immigrants from Latin America or Asia. Despite City promises to help the businesses relocate, shop-owners are skeptical. The auto-body shops are successful because they attract business as a hub. Customers go to Willets Point because they are confident that, somewhere in the 225 small shops, they will find what they need. If these businesses cannot be relocated together, they stand very little chance of surviving. The City has also put forward a $2.5 million dollar education grant for workers to register for English and computer courses at LaGuardia Community College. It’s yet to be seen if this effort will have a significant impact on workers’ real employment opportunities in the future.

The Willets Point project exists within a larger context of rapidly changing industrial policies and a strong political preference from city leadership for commercial and residential development. In 2002, when Mayor Bloomberg came into office, the city had over 12,000 acres of industrial land. By the time he leaves office, over 20% of that will have been rezoned. Some of this change keeps pace with the number of manufacturing jobs that have been lost since the 1960s. But the lack of protections for industrial lands, the speed of rezoning, and the encroachment of big-box stores, hotels, and other uses permitted in these areas are making it very difficult for industrial businesses that would otherwise thrive in the city feel secure. It’s also important to note that manufacturing jobs are good jobs. They pay on average $15,000 per year higher wages than service sector jobs available to the same labor pool (predominantly people of color, immigrants, and residents who lack a college or high school degree). The 5,300 permanent jobs that the Willets Point project has promised will include a large number of retail and service jobs, which typically provide limited job security.

Big-ticket projects like stadiums and convention centers, such as the convention center included in the Willets Point plan, are toted by cities across the country as promoting positive economic development and are underwritten with taxpayer dollars. However, the benefits they bring to residents are debatable. Since 2000, the public share of stadium development costs nationally is approximately 60%. In the last few years, New York City has built three new stadiums. The new Yankee stadium, built on a former public park across the street from the old Yankee stadium; the Barclays Center, future home of the Nets basketball team in Atlantic Yards, Brooklyn (another neighborhood transformed by eminent domain), and the Citi Field ballpark across the street from Willets Point. Neil deMause, co-author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, estimates the total public cost for the two ballparks at $1.8 billion.
The convention center proposed for Willets Point is one of two convention center proposals for Queens currently underpinned by official support. Six miles away at the old Aqueduct Racetrack in Jamaica, the Governor is proposing to build the largest convention center in the country. This plan hinges on the demolition of the Jacob K. Javits Center in Manhattan, which opened in 1986. Many critics question the demand for and economic benefit of these new spaces as well as the decision to move conventioneers out of Manhattan.

Willets Point might become “New York’s next great neighborhood,” but it also might not. It may become New York’s next generic condominium tower development. Meanwhile, the current businesses (many of which are owner-operated) will likely face the bulldozer, and the displaced workers, with few options to relocate together, face an uncertain future.

Nicole Salazar is a multimedia producer and a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she studies community and economic development. She is based in Cambridge, MA.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.