New York Daily Photo Analytics

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A Different Dictionary


I was prepared for the worst. I had been told that Willets Point was what Mayor Bloomberg called "another euphemism for blight" or what Robert Moses once described as an “eyesore and a disgrace to the borough of Queens.”

But these were understatements of what I saw when I actually paid a visit by car. As I turned onto Willets Point Boulevard from Roosevelt Avenue, I felt like I was entering another world. Willets Point is far and away the worst looking neighborhood I have seen in the five boroughs.

I initially also found the place menacing, as I was immediately accosted by gangs of men who blocked my travel, at first not realizing that these were efforts by workers to negotiate deals for auto repairs.
I was, however, not in need of repairs but photos. The Hole, which I wrote about in September 2009, was a pastoral sleepy backwater in comparison.

I pressed onward through the neighborhood - the absolute grit of it all just drew me in, and there was no way to turn around anyway. The streets are heavily rutted and flooding is common. Even on a sunny day when it had not rained for two days, the potholes were filled with water, making navigation akin to walking a minefield.

There are no sewers or sidewalks. I saw roosters walking the streets. The area is highly polluted with the buildup of years of oil spills, which has also contaminated Flushing Bay and Flushing River.
The neighborhood is dominated by 225 auto parts and repair businesses, many of them operating out of shacks built from corrugated metal or cinder-blocks. There are over 1,200 people employed in those businesses. The area is unique in its concentration of vehicle repair shops, and people travel from afar for parts and/or repairs.

Efforts to revitalize the area have been proposed and thwarted for decades. There is a redevelopment plan for the area, an extensive ten-year project. This will, of course, require relocation of all of the businesses, if suitable places can be found. The most recent plan was also fraught with difficulties and threats by the Bloomberg administration to use eminent domain, if necessary, to remove the businesses. Things appear to be on track now for the project. “After a century of blight and neglect, this neighborhood’s future is very bright indeed,” Mr. Bloomberg has said.

The area has only one resident, Joseph Ardizzone, who has lived in the area since his birth in 1932. He is opposed to the new plan. I sympathize with Joseph Ardizzone's nostalgic feelings of his youth growing up in the area, but his claims that blight is not the correct word puzzle me a little. I guess he must be using a different dictionary...

Note about the areas location: Willets Point is part of Corona, Queens, and is sometimes known as the Iron Triangle. It is bounded on the north by Northern Boulevard, to the west by 126th Street and Citi Field, to the south by Roosevelt Avenue and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, and to the east by the Flushing River.

13 comments:

Mirela said...

:-O I'm glad you got out of there alive and OK (and with all car parts). I think every large city anywhere in the world has a similar part of the city, where people don't go, don't want to go, and don't even want to know about it...

Irina said...

My first reaction was: is he in Moscow? Because our car repair markets and building details markets look exactly the same. Just a lot more people and cars. You are brave man, I would hardly have enough courage to go there with my camera.
Usually I am lazy to read text under photos in the posts. Not with your blog :-)

Anonymous said...

I've lived in New York (in all the boroughs except for Staten island) for the last 20 years and have heard of Willets Point but had NO IDEA it was anything like what you posted! Thanks for the amazing story and photo tour. I'll uh.. take your word for it and not bother to see the place myself.

ChickenUnderwear said...

Is that street even paved?

missb@dragonflyvintage said...

I'm intrigued. Now I want to see it for myself (I'm stupid that way).

Brian Dubé said...

Mirela - thanks.
Irina - I was worried having a good camera even in the car. thanks for reading - the story is an essential part of this website now.
Anon - and missb - U can go safely I believe - just be prepared and it would be strange to walk.
Chicken Underwear - I dont think they looked paved.

Eric Calabros said...

third world? so whats the second?
use Developing Country for instead.

John said...

Oh, I don't know. I took some photos there and ppl were generally very nice. I was on foot too. One guy said it was cool if I took photos, just not of him. And two businesses let me take photos of their tools and shops. I even took a portrait of a guy and he wants to send it to his mother in Honduras. I feel like if the city gave it even a small amount of attention (sidewalks, pavement, sewage system), people would look at it differently and the businesses would look at themselves differently. My two cents

Christina said...

I've been to Willets Point dozens of times. It is actually one of the safest places you can be. No one will attack you there. I am a petite female and have never had an issue. I guess you just have to not be scared by the mess that the city has made there over all these decades. Taking people's livelihood and property so some rich developer can benefit is wrong and the courts should see it that way as well. If there were sewers, street maintenance and such, this would be no different than any other industrial area of NYC. Oh wait, we can't have those anymore because luxury condos are more profitable. And Brian, relocation is not as easy as you make it sound. If condemnation occurs, this will likely become another College Point, because decades ago the city seized that and much of the land is still vacant.

Brian Dubé said...

Christina - I thought a lot about my reaction which I believe was perhaps overreaction being so surprised by the area. And I certainly did not want to give the impression that relocation would be easy. I have a manufacturing business myself and have remained in an area now too pricey for the same reasons - tremendous work and cost in relocating.

Anonymous said...

What is a "disgrace to the borough of Queens" is exclusively the fact that the City's deliberate neglect of the Willets Point infrastructure has resulted in the bad conditions that exist at the site. The industrial community that functions there, however, is actually a crown jewel of Queens. Why local elected officials have not recognized this, and why they have not supported the 250 business that operate at the site (which provide employment for 1,500+ people, and are in demand by customers), is a more appropriate subject for a blog article.

Forget about the street conditions, and focus on the available services and business transactions. The availability in one place of such a variety of automotive service providers does not exist anywhere else in the tri-state area. For that reason, Willets Point attracts wise customers from all over, including New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and beyond.

No open-minded person who has actually experienced Willets Point would come to any of the conclusions written by Brian Dube in his misleading article. Photographers walk alone through Willets Point all the time, and capture whatever they wish. During this past summer, an artist created an enormous painting of a Willets Point intersection, over the course of several weeks. He was observed and assisted by the nearby business owners and workers. And, contrary to the absolute nonsense written by Brian Dube, groups of all types tour Willets Point nearly every week, including on Sundays. The Municipal Arts Society has toured Willets Point, as have student groups from Harvard University, Queens College, and other institutions of which Brian Dube has likely never heard.

Despite what the NYC Economic Development Corporation and Brian Dube would have you believe, Willets Point is open for business. It has thrived for decades despite the terrible street conditions caused by the City, because thousands of customers depend on it and recognize it as the unique industrial district and handy problem-solver that it truly is.

Anonymous said...

Well if he had never been there before, the reaction is understandable. I certainly was hesitant to go my first time. But I have gone back many times since. The mayor made a big deal about his Industrial Business Zone initiative a few years back, after he decided to rezone most of the heavy manufacturing for luxury condos. This is the last slice of that life that the developers haven't gotten hold of yet - but they are salivating. Of course we taxpayers will pick up the tab for most of it, if anything gets built at all.

chris flash said...

Simply put: the city collects tax money from these businesses, but fails to apply those tax monies properly. Any appearance of "blight" in Willets Point is due to the city's intentional negligence, not the fault of the businesses and residents, who have survived there without basic services for several decades.

The "blight" tag is always used by a municipality that purposefully causes the conditions it decries to justify wholesale demolitions and evictions for the benefit of politically-connected developers.

Whether or not anything is actually built on land that has been cleared (there are many examples of still fallow land taken by eminent domain) is irrelevant, as the the larger goal is to change the demographics of an area and prepare buildable parcels to developers.

One group of dedicated activists who are fighting the use of eminent domain in Willets Point, as well as the neighborhood in Brooklyn targeted by developer Brace RATner for his multi-million dollar taxpayer-subsidized basketball arena/luxury housing project is "Develop, Don't Destroy Brooklyn" (http://dddb.net)

If you give a shit about your city, join the fight!!