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Queens' 'Forgotten River' Looks Ahead to Cleanup and Change

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger examines the Flushing River as part of a mini series exploring NYC's lesser-known bodies of water.

[The Flushing River, a polluted and inaccessible Queens waterway, may become the site of several new cleanup and development projects. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

The 12th hole of the Pitch 'N Putt Golf Course in Flushing Meadows Park might seem like an odd place to contemplate the future of New York City's coastline. But if you stand there long enough, you might begin to see things. "I've been here 20 years, since 1994," said Jerry Franco, manager of the golf course, as he looked out over a brackish pond in the middle of his domain. "All that water is part of New York Harbor."

In between selling beers to a generation of golfers, Franco has been a unique witness to the evolution of the Flushing River. From his clubhouse, he has seen muskrat families grow old, fishermen catch 65-pound carp, wells dug down to prehistoric water, and Hurricane Sandy's storm surge. "I remember the 1964 World's Fair," said Franco, a Queens native. "I was 14. I spent every day here." In the years to come, his river will be transformed by several new projects, as developers seek to build along its shores while the city attempts to clean its polluted waters.

The Flushing River today is one of the most tortured waterways in New York City, thanks in large part to the interventions of the 1964 and 1939 World's Fairs. Once known as the Valley of Ashes and now called The Forgotten River, it currently follows a twisted four mile path through Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and into Flushing Bay, beginning as a crystal clear creek in a nature preserve and ending in a sewage-choked industrial inlet. Forced along an artificial route, the river emerges from underneath an MTA train yard, transforms into man-made Willow Lake and Meadow Lake, squeezes into narrow canals underneath a maze of highway overpasses, fills the Pool of Industry and the Fountain of the Planets, and passes through an underground pipe into the Pitch 'N Putt pond. "They call it a million things, but it's still the Flushing River," said Jerry Franco. "It's got quite a path."

Despite efforts to control it, the river refuses to be tamed. It regularly overflows its banks in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, flooding roads, ballfields, and Franco's golf course. North of the park, it is flanked by the neighborhoods of Willets Point, Flushing, and College Point, which often flood with the slightest rain. "When they get a storm, that affects us," said Franco. "This over here is below sea level." Originally a marshland, the land around the waterway no longer absorbs enough rainwater, and "the area's waters receive approximately 10 truckloads of human feces a year from sewer overflows," according to the Times Ledger.

For many years, gaining access to these waters has been extremely difficult. Reaching the riverbank often involves climbing barricades, squeezing through holes in fences, navigating flooded dirt roads, or clambering through thick overgrowth. Recently, however, several Parks Department projects have sought to bring the public back to the water. The Willow Lake Preserve reopened in 2013 after being closed for 15 years, a popular new boat rental concession was launched this past summer, and several cleanup projects of the "sickly yellowish-green" waters of Meadow Lake are now underway.

Developers have also been plotting ways to capitalize on the Flushing River waterfront. As the redevelopment of Willets Point progresses, property owners across the water in Flushing have tried for years to create a link between the two neighborhoods, including forming a new group this summer, Friends of Flushing Creek, to push for a cleanup. Ideas for the northern industrial section of this waterfront have included a promenade and a pedestrian bridge, but large swaths of land there remain empty, overgrown, and abandoned, littered with debris and populated only by homeless camps. "You can't get down there because it's nowhere land," said Jerry Franco, but even this is an improvement over the creek's past. "Industry used to dump straight into it," he recalled. "It's gotta be cleaner than when they were dumping shit in it."

The wide northern section of the Flushing River is lined by industry, including concrete plants and asphalt manufacturers.

On its west bank lies Willets Point, where the streets often flood. Many of the auto shops here have moved out in preparation for a $3 billion redevelopment project.

Water from Willets Point drains into the Flushing River here. This section of waterfront was restored to a marshland in 2008 as part of a highway project.

Workers hand planted 90,000 native marsh grasses. Some appear to have survived, although the area is polluted by lead and mercury.

On the Flushing side of the river, no cleanup has taken place. Several empty lots face the water, overgrown and covered in rubble.

An unused cove between a U-Haul truck depot and a concrete plant presents one of the easier access points to the water in Flushing.

This empty lot stretches a full city block, and has been fallow for years. It is adjacent to a waterfront supermarket which sold this week for $55 million. Local property owners hope to create a waterfront promenade here.

Construction along the Flushing side of the river mainly consists of big-box stores, malls and storage warehouses.  This self-storage building will be completed in spring 2015.

The 7 train crosses above the Van Wyck Expressway, both built on supports sunk into the creek. The Flushing River is covered over by a web of bridges, highways, and overpasses.

The abandoned waterfront is blockaded by rusted metal bulkheads, but fish and birds have found a home amongst the floating garbage.

At the northern end of Flushing Meadow Park, river water and sea water mix and are coated in pollution. This tidal pond faces a dam created to support the Long Island Railroad train tracks.

Moderated by the crumbling Porpoise Bridge tide gates, the brackish water floods inland into the Pitch 'N Putt golf course. "We got a lot of damage because of Sandy," said Jerry Franco. "Because of the lay of the land, that was all underwater."

Tracing the river upstream, it travels through the neglected Pool of Industry and Fountain of the Planets from the 1964 World's Fair, filled with broken docks, discarded barrels, and a flock of ducks.

South of the fountain, the river flows past a tangle of eight overpasses and bridges, with piles sunk into the water. Few park visitors use this section of the water.

Meadow Lake, which often floods ashore, blocking paths and filling fields. "The parks department is trying to restore the 70-acre lake to health," according to a recent Times article.

"The lakes' pollution is a result of deliberate engineering choices by Robert Moses, mastermind of the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs," according to The New York World.

A narrow canal joins Meadow Lake and Willow Lake, hidden underneath yet another overpass. Turtles and fish thrive in this section.

The Willow Lake Preserve, which recently reopened. In 2011, the Parks Department planted over 13,000 trees, 5,000 shrubs, and 66,000 herbaceous plants here, according to a sign posted onsite.

A duck blind allows visitors to view birds on the water without frightening them away.

Willow Lake was built for the 1939 World's Fair, and is one of the city's last freshwater wetlands, according to the Parks Department.

The nature trail winds its way through the preserve, crossing several flooded areas. It is only open on weekends.

A new path is being bulldozed along the edge of Flushing Creek in the preserve, unmarked by signage.

It leads to this clear pool, where the headwaters of the Flushing Creek emerge from a pipe, flowing north towards Flushing Bay.

This narrow stream is so vastly different from the other end of the Flushing River, it is almost unrecognizable. "Let me tell you—this whole city is great when it comes to water," said Jerry Franco. "New York Harbor is amazing."
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