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A Look At Willets Point Before Demolition & Redevelopment

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Major changes are in the works for the "Iron Triangle" of Queens, an area of auto shops near Citi Field known as Willets Point. The city is relocating them to make way for a $3 billion megaproject, which includes a convention center, a mall, and lots of housing. A lawsuit fighting the redevelopment was tossed out last year, giving the project the green light to move forward, but demolition has yet to begin. This weekend, Queens historian and urban geographer Jack Eichenbaum, led a walking tour of Willets Point, highlighting its history and explaining that the well-known name is actually a misnomer.

Initial development of the area can be traced to agriculture. New Amsterdam was located on the harbor, which was great for business, but not so great for agriculture, so people moved inland, up the creeks, including the Flushing River, of what would become New York City. In the 1830s, William Prince built the first bridge over that body of water, and in the 1850s, what would become the Long Island Rail Road arrived. By the end of the 19th century, the location was a dumping ground for coal ash from Brooklyn, which had exhausted the capacity of an island in Jamaica Bay.

In 1939, the World's Fair and a new express subway station were built. Robert Moses wanted the United Nations to set up shop in what is now Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, but, in a rare defeat for Moses, they opted for Manhattan's East Side. The area played host to the World's Fair again in 1964. Today, it's home to Citi Field and the National Tennis Center.

People call the area Willets Point, but Eichenbaum explained that the real Willets Point is Fort Totten. Everybody calls this Willets Point because of the street name. Willets Point Boulevard and its connected streets are officially mapped parts of the borough, but the city never installed a proper sewage system (which means most businesses don't have their own bathrooms) and the roads have not been repaved in years.

Currently, 30 of the 100+ auto shops and scrapyards—which came into being along with the wave of immigration after World War II—remain, but they are all on their way out. No one is sure when demolition will start, but there is still plenty of activity for the last wave of shops. The megaproject has been controversial, to say the least, and relocation efforts have been shrouded in uncertainty. The city is still in the process of transferring the land to the development team of Sterling Equities and the Related Companies, who will then need to remediate the polluted land before any new construction can begin. So it will be awhile until this megaproject starts to take shape.

Eichenbaum leads other walking tours and teaches at Hunter College. For more information, visit his website. Sunday's event was also the first in a five-week series based at the Queens Museum called "Reviewing Renewal." For more information on that, visit the 596 Acres website.

—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· Willets Point Business Owners Await City's $3B Redevelopment [Curbed]
· All Willets Point coverage [Curbed]