Did you know that you could take a trip around the world, viewing all sorts of exotic sites, just by taking a walk in our local Flushing Meadows Corona Park? This park crowns our neighborhood with diverse fun recreation and natural beauty, but also holds a fascinating history of literally rising from the ashes.

On a recent bike ride through the park before Sukkos, I spotted a man standing in front of a canvas right at the entrance to the park. He was intent on painting the scene in front of him – buildings eclipsed by lofty trees. As I glided along the path, breathing the crisp autumn air and admiring the tall reeds by the lake, I was pleased to enjoy the fact that the path is no longer blocked as it had been in the past, and you can bike or walk all the way around the lake. I spotted a mother duck with a trail of baby ducks gliding along the mirrored lake.

An Asian woman called to me, motioning with her hands: “A swan was just here. It flew away. Come back, swan!”

I wanted to see the swan, too, so I scanned the lake in search of it. Standing at the edge of the lake, looking for a sign of the swan, I thought about the history of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

It was once an open meadow. In the 1800s, many roads and rail lines were built and they eventually became Northern Boulevard, the Long Island Expressway, and the Long Island Railroad of today. In the late 1800s, it became a waterfront resort for wealthy New Yorkers.

In 1907, a contractor purchased the land and made it into a manufacturing area and industrial dumping ground. F. Scott Fitzgerald describes the dump in his famous novel The Great Gatsby:

“About halfway between West Egg and New York, the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest; and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.”

Another vivid description of the Corona Dump appears on the website boweryboyhistory.com. In this description, you can imagine the stench and the stifling piles of ash and muck. “In Queens, mountains of choking, awful ash made for poor living conditions for neighboring Corona on one side, Flushing on the other. It was a constant eyesore for early commuters, as the Long Island Railroad went right past it, as did the main thoroughfares of northern Long Island – roads taken by many of the wealthy ‘Gold Coast’ families.

“One ash pile was so large – almost 100 feet – that it was christened Mount Corona. And of course, it wasn’t just ash; barges filled with animal manure docked here as well, awaiting local farmers who used the waste as fertilizer.” In addition, this area attracted rats, which if possible, made it even worse!

I tried to imagine this park in the above description, and I’m awed at the transformation.

In an article in the Saturday Evening Post by Robert Moses, titled “From Dump to Glory,” Mr. Moses, New York Parks Commissioner whose projects were considered by many to be necessary for the region’s development after the depression, revealed a plan for transforming the Corona Dump by cleaning it up for the 1939 World’s Fair and then transforming it into a public park.

Robert Moses wrote: “Flushing Meadows was once an array of tidal marshes abundant with salt hay whose brackish waters hosted boating and swimming. The site then operated as a dump for over 26 years, collecting 50 million cubic yards of ash and waste from Brooklyn, all while local opposition mounted.”

Mr. Moses shared how many other states had precedents for combining the making of a fair and a park, but no other community had tackled anything as formidable as the Corona Dump. He pointed out that before it became a dump, during colonial times, “there was plenty of boating and safe swimming in the bay, lots of animal life in and around the meadow. The colonial village of Flushing, east of the meadow and fronting on the bay, ran up into higher land and had some of the finest residences, trees, and gardens on Long Island. President Washington was particularly interested in the Prince Nurseries, one of the cradles of American horticulture, which stood in the center of the village.”

It’s amazing to think this park was seen by George Washington. In the mid-1930s, a Belgian engineer, Joseph Shagden, and a Colonel Edward Roosevelt (cousin to President Franklin Roosevelt), proposed the idea of a World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows. Mr. Moses wrote that a group came to him led by Mr. George McAneny, a former city official and head of the Regional Plan Association, to discuss a place for the World’s Fair. Many suggested Flushing Meadows, and Mr. Moses said that it was a great idea and he would head the effort. Some opposed the idea since they felt it was such a dumping ground that it couldn’t be transformed. Robert Moses then pitched this idea to Mayor LaGuardia.

Construction for the World’s Fair began in 1936. The World’s Fair opened on April 30, 1939, which coincided with the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s presidential inauguration. The theme of the World’s Fair was “The World Tomorrow.” A Flushing newsletter stated: “From the embryo of the World’s Fair will rise a great park, described as the Versailles of America. Within one year 10,000 trees were planted.

The actual work involved leveling and spreading the dump over a large part of the meadow, digging out muck for two lakes of 136 acres and processing this muck so as to make topsoil to spread over the refuse and ashes. The leveling and excavating began in June 1936. The work was done with power scoop shovels, tractors, clamshells, drag-line cranes, and trucks. It went on, day and night, under huge arc lights mounted on towers and stationed along the ground. The park officially opened in 1939 and successfully hosted the 1939-1940 World’s Fair.

After the fair, plans were made to turn Flushing Meadows into a public park. It was the temporary location of the United Nations starting in 1946. In 1964-1965, it hosted another World’s Fair and the park was renamed Flushing Meadows Corona Park in 1964 by the New York City Council.

As stated on the park’s website, “It hosted iconic landmarks like the Unisphere and the New York State Pavilion, both of which remain to this day. The park was turned into a key cultural center for the city, now hosting the Queens Museum, the New York Hall of Science, the Queens Zoo, the Queens Theatre in the Park, the Queens Botanical Garden, and the now-demolished Shea Stadium. Later, the USTA National Tennis Center opened in 1978, hosting the US Open ever since. Recently, Flushing Meadows Corona Park has seen renewed public investment, with the opening of the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Natatorium and Ice Rink in 2008, the opening of Citi Field in 2009, and the expansion of the Queens Museum in 2013.”

I continued my bike ride past the ducks, hoping to find the swan. I spotted a few people at the playground. Children were swinging on the swings and playing on the climbing equipment. Further along, there was a group of small children all in line, holding hands with partners, led by a woman wearing a wide straw hat. A few joggers wearing masks passed as I crossed over the highway bridge.

On the other side of the bridge, I found police barriers with a sign that said “road closed to allow for solitary recreation.” That word solitary sounded so sad. The paved area, which is usually home to many teens and others practicing their skateboarding tricks, was empty. A coronavirus casualty, I mused.

I continued pedaling the path leading to the Giant Unisphere, a structure representing peace through understanding, the theme of the 1964 World’s Fair. The park website describes the Unisphere: “The Unisphere, designed by renowned landscape architect Gilmore Clarke, is made of stainless steel and is 140 feet high and 120 feet in diameter. It weighs 900,000 pounds. Since the continents are the heaviest parts of the all-steel sculpture and they aren’t evenly distributed, the Unisphere is top-heavy – very top-heavy. It was carefully engineered to account for the unbalanced mass. A pool and fountains surround the Unisphere, giving it the illusion of floating off the ground, and it is lit at night for dramatic effect.”

Further on, I noticed some couples playing a fast-paced game of paddle ball doubles. In another spot, there was a man doing bending exercises intently, with his hands steepled and his eyes closed. Just then, another person passed by, speaking rapidly into his phone in what I thought might be Spanish. A few Asian couples strode by, speaking Chinese, Korean, or possibly another language. I think I also heard people conversing in Russian and some in other languages I didn’t know. There were a few other people bicycling around the path around the other lake.

Then as I glided on, I was struck by an unusual sight. There was an older Asian couple practicing ballroom dancing in the middle of an empty fountain. I stopped to admire their lissome grace and wonder at this unusual sight.

Continuing on my park tour, I noticed a man strutting ahead carrying a golf club. Then I saw two people with fishing poles heading towards the lake. There was a soft breeze carrying the scent of greenery and fresh air. I stopped to admire wild lavender Larkspur and Amaranth growing beside Golden Alexanders and Black Mustard flowers bordered with Queen Anne’s Lace – all part of Hashem’s bouquet. There were lone people or people in groups of one or two speed walking, strolling, running, or sitting on benches. I glided down to the first lake and gazed at the array of boats and bikes for rent.

A few feet further down, I glimpsed the graceful swan. I found the swan! I wanted to shout. She posed majestically for me front ways and sideways. I shot the above photos of her. Just a little ways along the path after the swan, I spotted what I thought was a loon or an egret with its long, elegant neck.

Heading out of the park, I marveled at the variety of recreational activities, the variety of people from all different cultures and countries, and the variety of nature all grouped together in Flushing Meadows Park. There is paddle boating, sailing, bike rentals, playgrounds, and so much more. It is incredible how this park literally rose from the ashes. How lucky we are to live right near this lovely park getaway.

I do suspect many may want to change the name of the park slightly. Flushing Meadows Park without the Corona part of its name may be more agreeable to most in light of recent events.

 By Susie Garber