1967: Flushing Meadows Corona Park
A Tale Of Two Parks
A Personal Reflection
By David Oats
The park was fixed up after the World’s Fair and handed over in 1967.
It was 40 years ago, on June 3, 1967, that the city’s largest land-area park, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, was dedicated. It was on that day a 40-year dream culminated in the opening of Queens’ flagship park. These last 40 years are a cause for celebration, but also for investigation into why this gem of our borough has been a victim of serious neglect. It is, indeed, a Tale of Two Parks.
He had a name of almost Biblical connotations.
A name that to this day confronts urban planners and historians with conflicting images of a past and future of a great metropolis that was largely shaped – and a vision that still shapes – not only the city of the last century, but of the 21st.
In December of 1888, Robert Moses was born exactly a decade before the long dream of creating a greater City of New York – uniting five boroughs into a metropolitan giant that would rival London – became a reality. On Jan. 1, 1898, the City of New York as we know it today – Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island – was created.
In the early part of the 20th century, Moses would burst on the scene as a reformer with a burning and single-minded vision to transform and shape both the city and the region. From the spectacular and artistic creation of Jones Beach on Long Island to the parkways, parks and playgrounds, the majestic bridges, and structures such as Lincoln Center and the United Nations – even to projects all the way to the far north regions of Niagara in upstate New York, Moses became one of the most important figures in New York history.
But out of all of these momentous projects one seemed to consume Moses almost more than any other. He had looked out at the bleak expanse of 1,200 acres in Queens and had seen a once fertile and ancient expanse of tidal marshes and meadows that had become a blight almost unprecedented in its ugliness and environmental degradation, commonly called the Corona Dumps. It was best immortalized by the author F. Scott Fitzgerald in his classic American novel “The Great Gatsby” as the “valley of ashes.”
Where most had given up on this depressing landscape of 90-foot mountains of garbage and grey acres of desolation, Moses envisioned a different landscape – a fertile expanse of green in the very geographic and population center of Greater New York. He sought in the words of the ancient prophet Isaiah, to give the city “beauty for ashes.” It seemed like an impossible dream until a great idea came about – condemn this massive eyesore and lay the ground for a future great city park through the creation of an historic World’s Fair.
In 1936, Moses and reformist Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (who had named Moses as the city’s first city-wide Parks Commissioner) began an endeavor that would turn this desert into a garden, a carefully planned axis and park design that would rise like a phoenix out of the despair of a Depression-era dust bowl into an international exposition that would give a world in fear of an upcoming war and economic despair a sense of hope and optimism about a new future – The World of Tomorrow.
Its theme symbols rose high above the meadows, gleaming white and iconic, centering the hopes and aspirations of a troubled nation and world – the Trylon and Perisphere. They presided over a meadow not of ashes but of fountains, flags, flowers and glorious buildings and of nations that would soon be at war standing side by side in peaceful harmony. On its very opening day, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt stepped up to the podium at Flushing Meadows and declared these grounds “open to all mankind,” he was not just inaugurating a fair, and ultimately the park that would follow, but the speech literally opened the world of tomorrow as it was the first live event broadcast by the medium of tomorrow – television.
That same night, Albert Einstein lit up the fair by using Cosmic Rays and the great scientist’s message in the Time Capsule buried below Flushing Meadows, was a warning to the future but ended by saying to the people who might retrieve the capsule 5,000 years hence – “I trust that posterity will read these words with a feeling of proud and justified superiority.”
A New World
David Oats interviews Robert Moses.
After the great Fair ended in 1940, the planet plunged into the second World War and a new world of unspeakable destruction and holocaust. When the post-war world looked for an instrument to prevent such devastation in the future, it again turned to Flushing Meadows. Moses, who was in charge of the project to bring a permanent headquarters for a fledgling United Nations to New York City, chose the N.Y. City Building (only one of two structures remaining from the ‘39-40 Fair) to be its first site.
From 1946 to 1950, Flushing Meadows was again at the center of the world. During its tenure in the park, President Harry Truman gave the opening address to the U.N. General Assembly and the international body created UNICEF, the State of Israel and Eleanor Roosevelt ushered in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Robert Moses, though, always dreamed of completing his initial vision for a great city park – twice the size of Central Park – at Flushing Meadows. That chance emerged in the early 1960’s, when Moses gave up his job as N.Y. Parks Commissioner to head up the chance for a second New York World’s Fair and complete the work of finishing the park. As President of the 1964-65 exposition, Moses found himself presiding over a space-age, pop-art extravaganza that brought more than 60 nations, major corporations, 55 million visitors and even, as he proudly boasted, everything from Walt Disney to Michelangelo to the fair.
But his real goal was the park that would follow, and after the fireworks and fanfare had faded, he achieved in his twilight days his goal. On June 3, 1967, he turned a restored fairgrounds to the city as a beautiful 1,258-acre oasis in the heart of New York – Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
A New Park And A Warning
The Unisphere stands as a symbol of man’s aspiration toward peace through mutual understanding
On its very dedication and opening day in 1967, Moses distrusted and was pessimistic that the city bureaucracy would mismanage and improperly maintain his 30-year dream, fearing that a Manhattan-centric city administration would ignore and disregard this park was well borne out on its very opening day – the Mayor of the City of New York did not even bother to show up for its dedication.
I had the good fortune to meet and get to know this great man as a young person from the neighborhood – a kid who he advised and encouraged to form a local citizen’s group that would monitor and advocate for the park. That resulted in the formation the Flushing Meadows Corona Park World’s Fair Association. We are proud that he agreed to serve as its Chairman, something he rarely did in his long career, and his frequent advice and behind-the-scenes assistance on protecting and fighting for this park were invaluable.
In 1977, I took a ride with Moses so he could observe what was going on in his park. He was dismayed. The great fountains he had left were dry and inoperable and filled with garbage. The N.Y. State Pavilion had its roof removed and was decaying, the glittering U.S. Pavilion which had been left to decay was demolished and the park, to put it mildly, did not look good. Only the new impending arrival of the USTA Tennis Center seemed to cheer him up. I think it was the last time he visited the park.
I often wonder what he would think about the park today if we took that tour again. I like to think it would be better than that last visit – but I fear it might be a very mixed review. I know he would be delighted by the robust and lush growth of the trees that were mere twigs back in 1967. The exuberance of the weekend users of the park who picnic, jog, bike, sail and fish by Meadow Lake and who play tennis, soccer, softball and cricket and who just plain enjoy the open fields of a meadow where kings and queens, popes and presidents once walked would move him. After all, this is why the park was created.
He would have been delighted by the growth and popularity of the institutions he created and left in the park such as the Hall of Science, the Queens Botanical Gardens and the Queens Zoo (now the Queens Wildlife Center). I know he would love the additions to the park that came after him that have flourished such as the Queens Theater in the Park and the ongoing festivals that celebrate the enormous energy and cultures of a borough that is the most ethnically diverse community on planet Earth. And then I would like to take Mr. Moses to the Queens Museum of Art in his beloved N.Y. City Building.
He would be amazed at this institution and pleased that the world’s largest model which he created – the Panorama of the City of New York – has been so carefully and lovingly preserved, maintained and updated. And if he were to see the exhibition which is currently on display – as well as at Columbia University and the Museum of the City of New York– which re-evaluates his immense career, taking his legacy a step away from Robert Caro’s stranglehold in his 1970’s biography The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, I think he would be pleased too.
But I fear then if we were to venture out the museum’s doors, he would recognize another park – the one he feared would develop when he handed it over in 1967; a park that boasts the highest crime in the city; a park where cars and buses speed across open vistas and ball fields; a park where monuments lay toppled and neglected for months; a park where one of the lakes is no longer accessible due to vandalism and neglect.
He would be horrified by the shameful neglect of the park’s most visible structure, the New York State Pavilion. But most of all he would be disgusted by the ineptitude, arrogance and incompetence of a Parks Department and city that at the least cannot care for the safety of the public and the integrity of the legacy of this great green treasure. In short he would see the Tale of Two Parks – the best of times and the worst of times.
That is what this report attempts to address. I can almost hear him repeating the lines he said at the park’s dedication 40 years ago...which were also his warning.
“Guard it well, Mr. Mayor and Mr. Parks Commissioner.”