Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Iron Triangle

Somewhere in City Hall I imagine a giant list labeled, “Develop This!” Times Square? Check! The Bowery? Check! Harlem? Half a check! As the checkmarks in the Manhattan column begin adding up, the civic cleanup crew turns their sights to the outer boroughs. Coney Island? Wouldn’t you rather have a new condo than a sideshow? Willets Point? Why not build a convention center to battle what Mayor Bloomberg disparages as blight?

Willets Point, Queens, also known as the “Iron Triangle,” is NYC’s largest stretch of junkyards and auto-repair shops. The city charges that the area, just past Shea Stadium and the new Citi Field, is contaminated and has proposed a redevelopment plan that would replace existing businesses with a convention center, hotel, school, and other “exciting retail and entertainment offerings.” Years of spilled antifreeze and petroleum have undoubtedly left the Iron Triangle polluted. But to dismiss it as "blight" is to ignore the neighborhood's needs—the city has turned down requests to install sewer lines—and to overlook a vibrant commercial community.

When Adeet and I visited the area this spring, we felt as though we’d taken the 7 train to another country. A rooster darted in front of us as we walked down an unpaved road that was both dusty and filled with pools of standing water, prompting us to exclaim, "It's like India!" We hadn’t yet noticed the sign for “House of Spices,” manufacturer of Laxmi brand Indian food products. Then we saw the goddess of good fortune casting her gaze over the chop shops and scrap yards, and we knew it was like India, or at least some place far removed from the rest of the gentrified city.

Auto-repair, parts, and paint shops occupy much of the Iron Triangle's 13-block vicinity, but another economy, contingent on the body shops, thrives in the midst of the mufflers and motor oil. We watched as women carrying black plastic bags filled with DVDs scouted for potential customers and overheard a mechanic murmuring, “Nice, nice,” as he flipped through a selection of bootlegs. Mister Softee dodged potholes, and customers arrived for ice cream as soon as he parked. I bargained bilingually with men selling mangoes from the back of a van but declined their offer to peel the dusty fruit for me. I’d wait until I could get home and wash it. Two adolescent boys stood near the mango sellers, each one with a cooler full of drinks for sale. A woman grilled meat outside a body shop, but workers interested in a sit-down experience could dine at Master Express Deli & Restaurant. And we spotted the rooster again, this time with a pair of hens.

Like much of Queens, the Iron Triangle represents a diverse population. Latino and African American businesses border South Asian and Korean shops. Many of them demonstrate an eye for industrial aesthetics. Salvaged car doors serve as billboards and stacks of tires double as fortress walls. Rims look as if they’ve been lined up for target practice, their metallic bull’s-eyes glinting in the sun. If this were the Lower East Side, the mechanics might be awarded gallery space.

Earlier this month, with the mayor issuing threats of eminent domain, two Iron Triangle business owners agreed to sell. If the remaining companies are forced out, another gritty, unique New York community will disappear. I wonder, though, if the rooster will stay behind, strutting down new hotel halls, leaving a trail of oil and dust.

The Iron Triangle
Roosevelt Avenue near 126th Street
Take the 7 train to Shea Stadium

photos by Adeet Deshmukh

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Kate, this was fascinating reading about a fascinating, gritty neighborhood. I'm glad you took the mango home to wash!

As always with your blogs, the photos nicely complement the text. I especially liked the one of the rooster and hens with the hubcaps in the background.