Flushing Meadows and the Battle for the Real New York
The Flushing neighborhood of Queens in New York has endured its share of indignities over the years. That moniker – an unfortunate anglicized version of the Dutch name Vlissengen – was never a great start. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, large parts of the area were industrial wasteland, the "valley of ashes" that F. Scott Fitzgerald describes in The Great Gatsby. And as home to the usually hapless New York Mets since 1964, first in the dismal Shea Stadium and now at Citi Field, Flushing has been the scene of much heartbreak.
But Flushing and the adjacent neighborhoods of Eastern Queens have also been, for generations now, home to a variety of immigrant groups who have made the neighborhood a launching pad for their American dreams, and created a humming economic engine for the city in the process (not to mention serving a lot of great food). There are Chinese, and Latin Americans, and Greeks, and Italians, and Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis, and Indians, and countless others.
Everybody comes together in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, created by Robert Moses to host the 1939-40 World’s Fair. Moses, the erratic all-powerful god of 20th century New York planning, did one of his good deeds here, creating a vast, open public space that encompasses a number of attractions, including the Queens Museum of Art, the New York Hall of Science, and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open is held each year.
What happens inside the walls of those institutions, though, isn’t nearly as interesting as what happens outside. Flushing Meadows may not be the most beautiful park in New York – it is mostly flat and featureless, surrounded by highways and short on amenities – but it is one of the best-used. This is the scene of countless cricket matches, soccer rivalries, volleyball games, and barbecues. It is a true people’s park, used by citizens who may not have much in the way of material wealth, but who sure know how to have a good time with what they do have.
Now Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration has a big plan to “improve” Flushing Meadows yet again. The latest scheme is calling for a professional soccer stadium that seats 25,000, the construction of which would displace all those people who are already playing soccer, and a 1.4 million square-foot shopping mall at the park’s edge.
The plan has come under attack from many neighborhood residents and from the New York Times, where Michael Powell wrote eloquently about what he calls the "upstairs/downstairs" class divide between the parks of the rich – such as Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the High Line – and the parks of the poor, mostly in the outer boroughs:
[W]ould the mayor, whose mansion is steps from Central Park, conceive of asking the worthies on the Central Park Conservancy to underwrite its operations by placing a professional soccer stadium in Sheep Meadow?
To ask is to know the answer.
The city of New York, in its endless drive to increase real estate values and tax revenues, is eating itself alive. In her book The Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, published in 2010, Sharon Zukin wrote how the appetite for urban "authenticity" – quirky ethnic and architectural enclaves that feel "real" in an increasingly homogenized world – has created a market value for New York neighborhoods. That value has, in turn, destroyed exactly what made those places special. In a cruel twist, the work of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Robert Moses’s sworn foe, has arguably hastened the commodification of this kind of authenticity.
In the 1980s, with financial firms and the real estate industry playing leading roles in reshaping the local economy, especially in global cities like New York, cultural districts, ethnic tourist zones, and artists’ lofts presented a clean image of diversity for mass consumption. By the 1990s the commercial success and global media prominence of some of New York’s neighborhood, notably SoHo and Times Square, seemed to justify the rhetorical premise of their new beginnings.
But city officials forgot about the city’s origins. “Origins” refers not to which group settled in a neighborhood earliest; that would be difficult if not ridiculous to prove, since every city is built up of layers of historical migrations. “Origins” suggests instead a moral right to the city that enables people to put down roots. This is a right to inhabit a space, not just to consume it as an experience. Authenticity in this sense is not a stage set of historic buildings as in SoHo or a performance of bright lights as at Times Square; it’s a continuous process of living and working, a gradual buildup of everyday experience, the expectation that neighbors and buildings that are here today will be here tomorrow.
A city loses its soul when this continuity is broken.
The "authenticity" in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park can’t easily be commodified. You aren’t going to get tourists and their dollars to show up at a pickup volleyball game played by Ecuadoran immigrants. So the city is looking to sell something else: the acreage where the people of New York have come together and asserted their right to "inhabit a space."
Is Flushing Meadows–Corona Park perfect? No. Could the space be improved? Yes, and it should. But not for some imagined class of people who will come to shop at some imagined mall, or for the financial benefit of Major League Soccer. It should be improved for the people who are already out there, giving the place life every day of the week.
Top image: Flickr user larryrrr, used under a creative commons license.