Visiting The Apocalypse (in Queens)

A week ago, I was out taking pictures of Citi Field…

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…and for some reason, I found myself paying attention to the long line of car repair places across the street.

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I’ve always been peripherally aware that the neighborhood has a high concentration of autobody shops along the main drags, but it never occurred to me that it might be any different from similar streets in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

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I decided to head deeper into the little neighborhood known as Willets Point, and quickly found myself in one of the most surreal places I’ve ever been to in New York City.

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For street after street, endless rows of dilapidated autobody shops go on…

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…and on…

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…and on…

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…and on.

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There are no sidewalks. There are no stoplights or street signs. There are no sewer grates or manhole covers (because there are no sewers). It doesn’t take long before any sense of New York City completely disappears, and you begin to feel like you’ve somehow been transported to a strange apocalyptic world of tin shacks and ramshackle garages.

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Nicknamed the Iron Triangle and containing approximately 225 different autobody shops, you can see just how big the literal triangle of Willets Point is on the map below, bordered by 126th Street, Northern Blvd, and Willets Point Blvd.

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Willets Point first came into being in the 1930s, around the time of the 1939 World’s Fair. Looking back at pictures from the time, you can see the first few auto shops making appearances in otherwise empty tracts of land.

auto

Today, most of the structures consist of corrugated tin, usually rusting…

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…or covered with faded, peeling paint:

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Many are of the Quonset hut variety…

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…with the buildings butting against each other at the strangest of angles.

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Then there are the structures made of stacked shipping containers:

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Here’s another, with the skeleton of an old awning:

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An American flag fades away on the side of these containers:

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And of course, the salvage. Towering racks of doors…

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Mountains of dead cars:

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Rows and rows of bumpers:

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Stacks of tires:

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Shelves lined with wheels:

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Tangled piles of tailpipes (ha, try saying that three times fast):

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Willets Point is the sort of place where what seems like just a small driveway suddenly opens into yet another field of decaying automobiles:

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And then there are the robots, welded from old car parts. This guy’s my favorite:

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Here’s a family…

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…and another:

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If you look on the roof of this tire shop…

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…you’ll see an old bread truck:

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This house stands out as being the only one of its kind in the neighborhood, and is home to the one lone resident of Willets Point, Joseph Ardizzone, who has lived here since he was born in 1932.

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If you’ve ever wondered what a post-apocalyptic world might feel like, there are parts of Willets Point that feel straight out of the movies.

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The city long ago stopped servicing the area, and the roads are by far the absolute worst in New York (though probably a boon to all the tire repair places).

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Willets Point is also very loud – the cacophony of whirring and cranking and hammering and sizzling come at you from every direction.

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There are so many derelict cars that they begin to feel like permanent monuments.

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This is one of the nicer lots I came across, which feels like a retreat from the clamor of the neighborhood (and has some rare foliage to boot):

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Where ice cream trucks go to die:

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Willets Point might not be the prettiest place to visit in New York, but look now, because this will probably all be gone in another year or two. The Willets Point redevelopment plan was recently approved, and if the city has its way, all of this will be demolished to make way for new residential buildings that look like this (Citi Field is on the left):

city

As I was walking around taking pictures, repair shop guys kept laughing and asking me, “Why are you taking pictures this dump?” They seemed astonished that anyone would care to photograph what could be the ugliest neighborhood in New York.

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I’m fascinated by organic neighborhoods that somehow manage to survive despite the gentrification of the city, and I’m not sure there’s a better example of this than Willets Point. Run-down, polluted, forgotten, and undervaluing its land, a place like Willets Point is the complete antithesis of everything New York has become today. And so the bulldozers will inevitably come in, and bland apartment buildings will go up, and a new world will be created in the most inorganic way possible.

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I’m not saying it’s a reason to save it. It’s just too bad that the alternative sorta sucks too.

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-SCOUT

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51 comments

  1. Interesting that you say it seems “straight out of the movies.” If you haven’t already, you should see the movie Chop Shop, directed by Ramin Bahrani, set in this neighborhood.

  2. Willets Point is also thought to be the place that Fitzgerald described as the “valley of ashes” in The Great Gatsby. A fascinating place. Agree on the recommendation above about Chop Shop.

    My web video team also shot a few minutes of our short doc on NYC sports stadium development in this area. Please give it a look if you have a chance. http://vimeo.com/12239959

  3. That’s a pretty gobsmacking set of pics! I was looking at them all and finding it increasingly hard to reconcile that they’ve been taken in a first world country! America, you sure are an odd mix.

  4. Chop Shop movie location! I’ve always wandered where that was..

  5. I was out there on a shoot…it can remind you of SE Asia. How can some of these building stand up to a storm?!
    Great shots.

  6. While walking around did you notice all the dust/dirt on the ground (that were probably all over your shoes when you left)? I had heard that this is ash from when that area was the city’s ash dump. Any truth to this?

    Also, on the topic of this place being wiped away. As a Mets fan, having gone to the area many, many times throughout the years… it’s an eyesore and needs to go. I hate when history and beautiful things get torn down and replaced with boring old modern buildings but Willets Point has close to nothing of value (except maybe that one house – that’d be interesting if they could save that).

    • Matt… I seriously think you are on to something. Sterling aka The Mets should definitely save that house. Give that guy some real plumbing; set the place up as a sort of positive memorial of sorts. Only don’t call it a memorial. Design it into the plan. Give that guy the “Lotto” for goodness sake. And then PR the heck outta it.

  7. Nothing of value except people’s businesses and lives. It will all go away and extremely rich people will be even more extremely rich. The city should have maintained it better- they neglected it.

  8. When I was a kid going to Met games in the late 70′s/80′s, I was always fascinated by that place. These days, I make it to 1 or 2 games a season at Citi Field…I always pick up my Shake Shack food and watch the chop shops instead of batting practice.

  9. I lived in Flushing for over 20 years and what people need to understand is this is the go to place to have your car fixed. It serves the community of Queens and it’s residence tremendously. Ask yourself how can a dirty chop shop last since the inception of cars or since the Great Gatsby of 1920s? It’s because it serves both the community and the business.

  10. At the end of October, there was an event at the NY Hall of Science called “Empire Drive In.” The last evening one of the movies they showed was a documentary on Willets Point, “Foreign Parts” by J.P. Sniadecki. Very affecting and appropriate for that event, the documentary showed some of the people who work and live in that area over the course of several months. As other commenters have mentioned, the area provides a livelihood for many. Just wiping it out may not be the answer.

  11. The City has refused to pave the roads, install sewers, maintain streetlights, etc. for decades. I’ve been going to Met games there since 1964. It’s basically been just like this the whole time. The Bloomberg Administration is determined to kick out all 225 tax-paying employers and their thousands of employees. They say it’s “blighted.” Of course it is. The City made it that way! Now it will be taken away from the hard working business owners and handed to developers. It just ain’t right.

  12. I must have built at least 3 Jettas from that place. Chop shops are pretty common in New York though weird you would call them apocalyptic. The Bronx has these in hunts point.

  13. This is ground zero for chopping up a stolen car. A car stolen in Queens at midnight would be just untraceable parts by morning. I have no desire for bland glass buildings for rich people but these are mostly mob run shops that process stolen cars along with doing legitimate business. The city tried to starve them out but now will just obliterate them.

  14. YOU SUCK, TY (above)

  15. Wasn’t this roughly the location of the shabby garage on the road between Great Egg and Manhattan in The Great Gatsby?

  16. So interesting, these photos that you took. I think I’m going to use this area for a few scenes for a movie that I’m going to make. Thank you.

  17. Here we go ahead playing Columbus…Seems like everything in NYC now is a “discovery” and “ripe”….Never thought the expansion would flood into Corona QNS.
    If people looked at the Willets Points workers as ” a community of local DIY artists” working with “reclaimed” materials that serve their region”, then this would be a story whispered throughout all the cafes, Whole’foods, Treehugger.com+Dwell et’al…

    Seems like I’m gonna have to leave my hometown and gentrify Philly…
    -5_Boro_Native

  18. Suffolk County has a similar dense cluster of auto-related businesses not far from Long Island MacArthur Airport. The roads are in somewhat better condition and the buildings not quite as decrepit, but it captures the same aura.

  19. Having a number of junkyards and used auto parts dealers in close proximity is very useful when you’re looking for a part. Businesses of that sort seldom have online inventories and telephone inquiries are a hit-or-miss proposition at best. Not infrequently you find yourself going to many of them before you (hopefully) find your part. That’s a lot more convenient when they’re clustered in a small area.

  20. It sort of reminds me of the old Kowloon Walled City. It grew organically and was beyond the reach of city services and security. While not safe or sanitary, it wasn’t without its own sort of charm, or at least personality. Probably not surprisingly, it’s been recreated as a theme park near Tokyo.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kowloon_Walled_City

  21. “Kiss of Death” the Nicholas Cage/David Caruso feature was also shot here.

  22. There’s no question the place has been neglected over the years. But I am a 40 year resident of nearby Queens, & a die hard Mets fan who is a little bit torn by the idea of bulldozing this place. I echo the sentiments of ^^Jo, JL, & Peter^^. This place, although an eyesore, serves it’s purpose in the Queens community. I can’t tell you how many times it has saved me hundreds

  23. ^^Continued^^ & altogether maybe Thousands of dollars when in need of car parts or labor. Also people who look at these pics & say that place needs to go, without any remorse for the lives of the people who work here, simply aren’t seeing the whole picture.

    Where I am torn is on the baseball fan side of me. We’ve seen some of the newer MLB parks go up in areas such as this one all over the US & it has revitalized the communities all around the area. I just hope that whatever is put in place here will be at least half as functional & serve a purpose other than turning millionaires into Billionaires.

  24. Driving through there is murder on your car’s suspension. But you’re in luck, because all the shop owners will come to your window offering to replace your struts. Place is a nightmare. GREAT deals on used tires though.

  25. There are similar examples in metropolitan areas throughout Latin America; sights like these wouldn’t be out of place in parts of Mexico City, Santiago de Chile, and Buenos Aires, for example. Simply put, it’s an everyday reality.

  26. Why did the Mets opt to build a second stadium in a neighborhood that is among the City’s ugliest and the least complimentary to their business? I hate seeing hundreds of small businesses razed to benefit a busted billionaire, especially when the Mets could’ve prevented this by finding a more ideal location for Citi Field long before construction began in 2006.

  27. Your photo’s of Willets Point are wonderful and scary at the same time.

  28. Shayok Mukhopadhyay

    I chose to focus on the people, not the place: http://shayok.com/willets-point/

  29. This looks exactly like most of China.

  30. Picked up by Slate, cool!

  31. Chris Loehmer Kincaid

    What an absolutely fascinating place. It reminds me of most of the neighborhoods surrounding Nairobi, Kenya. Looks like other people thought it looked like other foreign countries. I think I would feel right at home there.

  32. There’s a great verite doc called ‘Foreign Parts’ about the neighborhood. Very much worth checking out.

  33. Been parking in Willets Point for Mets game since the 70′s.

  34. That is why i love your webpage. Probably the only part of the city i like is the old forgotten time warp places of the city. Keep the bland clean glossy.

  35. Hey! I recently did this very same thing as Shayok (focused on the people)! My friend sent me the link to your blog on Facebook, and I have loved comparing our photos. I think with your landscapes and my personal moments, we’ve basically created the perfect image of Willets Point. We should put them together online somewhere.

    Kelly

    http://www.kellyschatz.com/willetspoint

  36. Another recommendation for “Foreign Parts”- great documentary on the area.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/10/movies/foreign-parts-about-willets-point-review.html

  37. In several of your pictures you have old Quonset Huts. For some reason, this reminded me of the old Flushing Airport not to far from there in College Point. Like Willets Point, it was in an area barely above sea level. Not sure what is left, but I recall seeing the old hangers back in the mid 90′s. Not sure when it was finally shut down.

  38. If this *has* to be converted into something else – it’d be so much nicer to keep those metal buildings and convert them into retail. Sort of like the metal buildings in Tokyo’s Golden Gai are now cute, small bars.

  39. How is it possible that TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY FIVE of the same businesses all occupy the same few blocks??? Where does all of their business come from??? It’s amazing. (I suspect that, as some mentioned above, not all of the business is legitimate.)

    The ironic thing is, this will all soon be replaced by anodyne glass buildings and there will probably be nowhere in the neighborhood to get one’s car fixed…

  40. A.S., remember a big part of the business for these shops is salvage, which means you’re selling the inventory you have. The guy next door doesn’t have the same inventory, so you’re not competing with him. If I needed a specific part for a specific car (which is why I’d be shopping junkyards), my search would end when I found it, not before, not after. This is an example of a business model that works better in clusters.

  41. Hi, I jumped over to your webpage via StumbleUpon. Not an item I usually read through, though I appreciate your thoughts none the less. Thanks a ton for creating some thing worthy of reading through!

  42. Sure the place is ugly, but to whoever said it’s an eyesore, you know what, not every place in any given country needs to be pretty. Sometimes you need things that are not pretty, and what better place than concentrated in their own little, throwback neighborhood?

    Nope, it might not be glitzy, but it’s functional, real and authentic and genuine, and it’s been here longer than you or Bloomberg himself.

    And who on Earth wants to live directly across the street from Citi Field anyway? It seems like a nightmare. For one thing, ask some residents of streets near Barclay’s center who are constantly having their streets closed and blocked for some event.

    All of these guys are getting a raw deal.

    Signed,
    a New Yorker who cares about more than just shiny, pressed-on glass and plastic facades.

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  44. As a former Corona resident who remembers this area from the 1950s, I agree that the so-called city fathers should have done more to improve the infrastructure of the Willets Point Boulevard area of Corona. The area clearly was neglected, resulting in sloppy paving, lighting, and sewer construction. Of course it ended up looking like crap. Now, it looks as if developers will cram multistory buildings into this cramped site, merely adding hundreds more people and cars to the already maddening residential and auto congestion in Queens. Instead of the gleaming buildings planned, I would like to have seen the area converted into a park for an area of Queens that is running out of open space and recreational venues for working class folks. Lastly, I don’t think this area was the famous “valley of ashes” so vividly described in “The Great Gatsby.” I think that area was located several blocks further south in Flushing Meadow Park on either side of the LIRR Port Washington Line that runs through Corona along 43rd Avenue. A great deal of the ash dumping was done in that area until Flushing Meadow underwent a massive reclamation effort in preparation for the 1939 World’s Fair. Many photos exist in the NY Public Library Digital Gallery and other online repositories that show these ash mountains as well as the Flushing wetlands as they looked before, during, and after the dumping.

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