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The life and death of Willets Point

Over the past few years, block after block of this once-colorful Queens community has been demolished

For many decades, Willets Point was one of New York City’s most unique neighborhoods. Hundreds of junkyards and auto body shops lined its ragged streets, luring in a constant parade of damaged cars. Meanwhile, thousands of local workers traversed its flooded potholes, building a colorful community of muffler artists and hubcap kings. Better known as the Iron Triangle, it was a dirty, loud, vibrant mess—exactly the kind of place that New York was once famous for.

And now, like much of the city’s gritty identity, it has been almost completely erased. Over the past few years, block after block of this Queens community, located next to Citi Field, has been demolished. The city has spent millions of dollars to tear out scores of small businesses as part of its “torturous path” towards redeveloping the area into a new residential neighborhood, complete with a public school, hotel, and retail spaces.

The next nail in the coffin for the Iron Triangle may soon come. Earlier this month, after more than 15 years of convoluted machinations and delays, the city announced that it had reached a new deal to break ground on Phase 1 of its development plans here, paving over a landscape scarred by several generations of governmental neglect.

It is surprising that the Iron Triangle has been able to cling to existence for as long as it has. The oldest industrial businesses in this former marshland, which is located next to the polluted waters of the Flushing River, dated back to the 1930s, and the neighborhood has been at odds with City Hall for almost as long. “Cleaning up or clearing out Willets Point has been a goal of nearly every mayor since the 1950s,” according to the New York Times.

Finding themselves unable to demolish the neighborhood, each successive administration has instead willfully ignored it, resulting in a ridiculously blighted landscape. Because it sits in a flood plain, businesses here are not hooked up to the city sewage system, and the streets have been continuously flooded for as long as anyone can remember. The standing water hides gargantuan potholes, there are no street cleaners or snow plows, and instead of sidewalks, pedestrians navigate mounds of rubble and rotting garbage.

It is a wonder that the small businesses of the Iron Triangle have managed to survive, and sometimes thrive. Unfortunately, the city’s most recent stalled development plans have only made conditions here worse. By forcing out scores of garages to make way for new buildings that never materialized, it has left behind a derelict landscape of empty lots and unmaintained streets that has scared customers away from the remaining businesses.

The last auto body shops in the Iron Triangle are largely hidden from the view of passing traffic along interior avenues that are now blocked off by abandoned cars, truck trailers, and household debris. Owners report that business has plummeted by as much as 60 percent, with many customers assuming their shops have been demolished. For those still working in the heart of the Iron Triangle, conditions have gone from severely blighted to near-apocalyptic.

The complicated story of the area’s most recent decade of decline is traced out in a new documentary film, The Iron Triangle, which premiered at Doc NYC this past November. Directed by Prudence Katze and William Lehman, it illuminates the Bloomberg-era skulduggery that helped doom the neighborhood, making a clear case that the destruction of Willets Point is the same kind of multi-billion-dollar boondoggle that has swallowed up formerly industrial neighborhoods around the city, including Atlantic Yards and Manhattanville.

“The conditions in Willets Point are like a third world country. We have streets, but they look like they have been bombed. There’s potholes all over the place, no sanitation services,” Gerald Antonacci, the owner of Crown Container, told the filmmakers. “They basically just collect taxes and leave you to fend for yourself. And now they want to come and take our property, to blame us for their neglect… I mean, these are billionaires we are talking about. These are the games billionaires play with each other. And the small guys, the taxpayers, wind up footing the bill for it.”

Willets Point, 2007

Over the years, the Iron Triangle has inspired countless photographers, filmmakers, authors, and artists with its ramshackle charms, and at least three other feature-length films have been made here, including Ramin Bahrani’s gritty coming-of-age story Chop Shop (2007), T.J. Collins’ family drama Willets Point (2009), and Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki’s observational, ethnographic documentary Foreign Parts (2010).

While each of these films offered an interesting glimpse into the culture of Willets Point, only The Iron Triangle actually sits down with the workers who have spent their lives here, and listens to the stories. Their testimony is both powerful and heartbreaking.

“You consider this your home, to be a cultural heritage, of those who have worked in the junkyards for so many years,” said Juan Garcia Guererro, a Willets Point auto body worker, during an interview with the filmmakers. “This place here, we never thought they would take it away. But it’s known that regardless of how much we’ve fought so that they don’t remove it, it is going to disappear. Because nobody can beat the city.”

The entrance to the Iron Triangle was once located here, at the intersection of Willets Point Avenue and 126th Street. Today, all of the businesses at this southern end of the neighborhood have been cleared away. Customers visiting the nearest auto body shop, two blocks to the north, must pass through a flooded street that has been nearly blocked off by abandoned cars, trucks, and vans.

In the entire four-block area along 126th Street from Roosevelt Avenue to 36th Avenue, just four business remain standing. This fenced-off area is part Phase 1, a 62-acre site which, when redeveloped, “will unlock over 5 million square feet of new development in a unified district, transforming a contaminated area into a new neighborhood,” according to the NYCEDC.

An abandoned car in the middle of the intersection of Willets Point Boulevard and 39th Avenue shows how this area became so contaminated. The city has basically given up on maintaining the streets in the Phase 1 area, to the extent that they ever maintained any of the streets in Willets Point.

39th Avenue is now closed to traffic, and Willets Point Avenue, once bustling with small businesses, is now a flooded parking lot covered with garbage, making it almost impossible for visiting customers to drive through.

Across Willets Point Avenue, another wide swath of land sits empty, waiting for redevelopment. During the city’s efforts to empty out Phase 1, a group of 45 business owners banded together as the Sunrise Cooperative, and demanded the city help them relocate as a group. Unfortunately, their plans to reopen in Hunts Point have largely failed, and as of September, they faced eviction from their new home.

For the shops that remain, business has been bad. These garages at the corner of 38th Avenue and Willets Point Boulevard are the southernmost shops still standing in the Iron Triangle. Surrounded by the torn-down blocks of Phase 1, they are hidden away and hard to reach.

In order to get to the remaining mechanics in the Iron Triangle, customers must navigate streets that were once maintained by local businesses, but which have now been completely abandoned. Along 38th Avenue, the roadway is a rugged moonscape pockmarked by deep potholes.

The trees outnumber the buildings along 38th Avenue. The wide expanses of open land here appear to be reverting to their natural marshy conditions, becoming home to birds and other wildlife.

At the corner of 38th Avenue and 126th Street, one of the last clusters of mechanics in Phase 1 still stands. Just four buildings remain standing on this entire block.

Along 37th Avenue, all of the businesses have now been demolished. Two of the major partners in the new plans to redevelop Willets Point are Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, the owners of the New York Mets baseball team, who were also involved in the previous, failed bid to develop the area, which included plans to build a mall on city parkland.

Just five years ago, in 2013, this same stretch of 37th Avenue was filled with small businesses, including Feinstein Iron Works, which was founded in 1931. The industrial development of Willets Point dates back to at least the 1930s, when welding shops and cement silos began to appear along Willets Point Avenue.

In 2013, the streets throughout Phase 1 were still a bustling collection of garages and employees, although a wave of city inspectors had descended on the neighborhood to forcibly shutter numerous businesses, in support of the city’s plans to empty out the area.

Today, the landscape along 37th Avenue is almost unrecognizable, completely denuded of any neighborhood landmarks. An enormous lake of water acts as a moat here, forcing car traffic up onto sidewalks, again cutting off the businesses in the inner Iron Triangle.

Workers wander through the ruins of one of the last remaining structures between 37th Avenue and 36th Avenue, where the polluted empty lots are slowly returning to marshland.

In the skeleton of an old workshop, abandoned mannequins float in pools of oil. After the city condemned the properties in Phase 1, hordes of graffiti artists descended onto the Iron Triangle, treating its shuttered businesses like a blank canvas.

A few empty businesses still remain along 36th Avenue, empty for years, awaiting demolition. “The end of Willets Point” has been predicted for a long time, but today, the tide of change seems unstoppable.

Workers playing dominoes in the street, waiting for a customer to pass by. “This is our life, this is our job, this is our future, this is all we have,” one worker told the New York Times in 2013. “Take this away, what do I have? I’ve been here since I’m 16, this is all I know.”

Along with refusing to repair the streets here, the city has also declined to clear garbage out of the area. This sofa and a pile of trash were blocking off half of 35th Avenue, in an area strewn with debris.

The corner of 127th Avenue and Willets Point Avenue marks the epicenter of the inner Iron Triangle, a second triangle of land that still contains numerous auto body shops. This area sits in Phase 2 of the redevelopment plans for Willets Point.

The streets here are clearly better maintained by the local business owners, who have made a visible effort to keep out illegal dumping. But cut off by the surrounding flooded streets, they have had to resort to a publicity campaign to let the public know they still exist.

Unfortunately, there is no way for individual business owners to fix all the enormous potholes here. Road conditions along this section of Willets Point Boulevard have gotten much worse over the past five years, as the city has moved forward with its schedule of demolition.

This stretch of Willets Point Avenue, fronting one of the last restaurants in the neighborhood, is now completely flooded and nearly impassable. Once a relatively dry stretch of pavement, conditions have deteriorated to the point that pedestrians must now use a half-submerged gangplank of old boards to reach the deli.

The marshlands of the Flushing River are slowly reclaiming the area, as it sits abandoned, awaiting redevelopment. In the future, all of land here will most likely be underwater, as sea levels continue to rise in New York City, placing the entire future of Willets Point into question.

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.

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