A city is unquestionably the most complex work of human art, shaped by millions, sometimes over the course of centuries. If epic poets described men in relation to nature, twentieth-century novelists have found in the city metaphors that can at once illuminate the lives of individual characters and distill the whole of human experience.
Just as Dubliners take pride in the facets of their city immortalized by James Joyce, so New Yorkers take pride in the rich metaphors a host of novelists and poets have discovered in their city. It may be a source of melancholy pride that one of the most memorable descriptions in American literature was inspired by the vast cinder dump that accumulated along the west bank of the Flushing River in Corona, Queens. F. Scott Fitzgerald described the dump as the “valley of ashes,” and the elaborate metaphor he constructed comprises a central figure in The Great Gatsby.
The valley of ashes was the narrow channel through which the railroad traveler had to pass on his way between New York City and the resort villages of East and West Egg on the North Shore of Long Island. Fitzgerald described the scene in these words:
a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the form 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.
Above it all is Fitzgerald’s unforgettable image of a gigantic pair of bespectacled eyes brooding from an old billboard advertisement over the dismal landscape.
The valley of ashes seems to mark the separation between the older American aristocracy, which once exclusively occupied East and West Egg, and the new urban Americans. That this narrow aperture should grow from a heap of ashes and refuse suggests that in the triumph of the industrialized, commercialized, and banalized world to come, the American dream of open horizons and limitless possibilities would be reduced to a burned-out, undifferentiated mass.
There is no suggestion in Fitzgerald that this heap of ashes could change through human action or that the future could be anything but sterile. Man’s fate is to return to ashes because, as the narrator of Gatsby suggests, the verdant country which the discoverers of the American continent saw before them had been destroyed beyond reconstruction.
What, then, shall the reader make of the strange twist of fate by which the valley of ashes, that changeless emblem of man’s fate, has totally disappeared? It is as evanescent as smoke. A literary traveler visiting Corona finds not an ash dump, but Flushing Meadows park, larger even than Central Park, adorned with two lakes (one of them for sailboats), an art museum, a golf course, a zoo, the National Tennis Center, and the New York Hall of Science (which Frederick Law Olmstead once proposed to place in Morningside Park).
To find that Fitzgerald’s ghostly reality has utterly disappeared engenders an initial disappointment like the sentiment experienced by overseas admirers of Sherlock Holmes who, on their first day in London, learn that 221B Baker Street does not exist and that Baker Street itself is not narrow, dark, and gaslit, but a wide business street in which a hansom cab would be as misplaced as an elephant. But when one visits the old site of the valley of ashes, several questions stir restlessly in one’s mind. Fitzgerald claimed that man’s future in the industrial society was as bleak as the valley of ashes. Is one to conclude from the transmutation of the valley into a verdant dell (the flowery language is almost irresistible) that Fitzgerald was completely wrong? Shall we say that Robert Moses—the man who made the valley of ashes disappear—was an artist of a different sort, one whose material was the city itself?
Ironically, the very description of the valley in Gatsby, which was intended by Fitzgerald as a symbol of an unchanging fate, may have been a factor in the valley’s eventual disappearance. We know that Moses, then parks commissioner, was responsive to Fitzgerald’s description of the valley of ashes and to the book as a whole. In writing of The Great Gatsby in 1934, Moses said it “remained a good yarn even after the Depression had leveled off the moraine of gold deposited on the North Shore in the delirious Twenties.”
The valley of ashes was a marshland of two to three thousand acres that surrounded the mouth of the Flushing River on the north shore of Long Island. The major flow of water in this little river is tidal, not fresh; primarily it is an inlet into Flushing Bay, which is itself an arm of the East River. Originally, these marshes were both beautiful and biologically significant, but by 1925, when Gatsby was written, they had been fouled by the city’s garbage. The marshes were also the final resting place for another type of city refuse—ashes. Since oil as a domestic heating fuel was virtually unknown in the 1920s, ashes were produced in vast quantities by the coal-fired burners in practically all the buildings of the city. At that time, the city’s own dumping grounds were insufficient, so it paid private operators, including the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company, for the privilege of dumping on their property.
There are still a few New Yorkers who remember the Corona dump under the ownership of the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company. Its chief executive officer, John A. “Fishhooks” McCarthy, sat under a beach umbrella on an old rocking chair, and personally tallied each truckload of material as it arrived. The Brooklyn Ash Removal Company also allowed people to scavenge on the dump for items which had been thrown in the ash cans as they waited for the removal trucks. The scavengers were only a minor source of income, perhaps $4,000 per year at the Corona dump, but it was entirely net profit.
In 1934, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s reform government ended privately owned dumping grounds in the city, for it was clear that public operations employing civil service workmen would be cheaper. (The balance might be somewhat different today!) The Corona dump was designated as parkland, and the city moved to acquire the lands and property of the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company. In practice, this turned out to be difficult. “Fishhooks” McCarthy had some very good political connections, was a friend of the archdiocese, and hired excellent lawyers; but after many legal battles, by June 1934, the company agreed to sell the Corona dump and other properties to the city for $2,775,185.27. Thus, the city became the owner of the valley of ashes.
Two problems remained. The first was what to do with the ashes if they were not to be put in the Corona dump. This was solved by developing large-scale landfill projects in Staten Island, Pelham Bay, and Jamaica Bay. The second problem was what to do with the Corona dump now that the city owned it.
Robert Moses has written that the city could neither begin to pay for the cost of removing what was by then a mountain of cinders, nor pay for constructing the park. The valley of ashes might have remained indefinitely as Fitzgerald had described it were it not for the fact that Parks Commissioner Moses had several other strings to his bow. He was at one and the same time secretary and executive chief of the Triborough Bridge Authority, which was building the bridge that would connect Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens; and he was also chairman of the Long Island State Park Commission, which was building the Grand Central Parkway to connect the Queens end of the Triborough Bridge with the central spine of Long Island.
Moses decided to use his several powers to get rid of the dump. He planned to construct the Grand Central Parkway along the western edge of the Corona-Flushing dump, cutting a path through the mountain of cinders. This scheme offered a way to begin removing the mountain: Some ashes would be needed to fill low spots on the parkway route, and some could be used to fill Horse Creek, a minor tributary of the Flushing River to the west of the Grand Central Parkway. Moses hoped to save enough money from the highway construction fund to coat the vast mountain to the east with a thin covering of topsoil and grass.
Photographs of the early construction scenes of the Grand Central Parkway indicate what the area would have looked like when finished. A thin strip of landscaped roadway would have skirted the edge of the valley of ashes. The rest would have been park in legal name only.
The Flushing Meadows Park that New Yorkers know today came into existence not because the citizens of 1934 were willing to tighten their belts in order to make a park possible, nor because planners were able to persuade the state or national legislature that long-range wisdom called for a park constructed on the cinder dump. The park came about because a small band of New Yorkers thought in 1934 that the city should stage a World’s Fair in 1939 to mark the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington in New York. When this group reached Moses, and its members agreed that the Flushing Meadows would be a suitable site for the fair, he brought his influence to bear on their behalf, for he realized that if he could not get legislative money for a park, he might be able to get it for a World’s Fair. At the very least, the fair money would pay for leveling the mountains and landscaping the terrain, and if things went well, the money would pay for the installation of many of the basic park facilities.
And so it turned out, two fairs and one United Nations later, that the city got Flushing Meadows Park with hardly any basic budgetary expenditure on its own, except for the condemnation costs of acquiring the land that was needed to supplement “Fishhooks” McCarthy’s holdings and, of course, the cost of acquiring the dump from McCarthy and his company.
Although it looks easy in retrospect, the orchestration of the several projects—the Triborough Bridge, the Grand Central Parkway, the World’s Fair, the removal of the cinders, and the preparation of the park facilities—required of Moses a tyrannical mastery of raw material that resembles the activities of a composer integrating a complex symphonic score.
For example, in the late winter of 1936, six months after the original sponsors of the World’s Fair had announced their plans, Moses felt that the coordination of the parkland, the parkway, and the Triborough Bridge was imperiled by the State Legislature’s delay in voting funds for the preparation of the World’s Fair site, so he ordered the legislators to proceed at once. Obviously, no such order would sway the legislators unless there were a threat behind it. Moses’s threat was simple: He would proceed immediately with the construction of the Grand Central Parkway at its original grade. This would have altered the whole land configuration in such a way that there would have been no basin in which to stow the cinder mountain! The legislators, faced with having to take responsibility for the failure to provide a proper setting for the fair, passed the necessary appropriation the following day.
The Moses technique was applied continually over the next year. In June, when the city received bids from contracting firms for the work of moving the cinders throughout the park area, Moses demanded that the Board of Estimate reject the two lowest bids on the grounds that the contractors were unqualified to complete their job on time. There were noisy objections from the contractors and their lawyers, and Borough President James Lyons of the Bronx cried that he refused to be stampeded by a “speed demon”—but the Board of Estimate accepted Moses’s recommendations.
Later in June 1936, after the city had acquired about five hundred acres of land to round out the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company’s holdings, Moses demanded that the buildings be evacuated so that highway construction and grading could proceed. It may seem incredible to those who have lately tried to clear sites for public improvements, but it is a fact that residents were given thirty days from the time of acquisition until their eviction by marshals. Moses magnanimously increased this by another thirty days; but at the end of that time, the marshals descended on the remainder of what is now Flushing Meadows Park, and all its occupants left—including a tombstone manufacturer whose inventory was more difficult to move than people.
Moses has calculated that over $220 million in public funds were invested in the permanent facilities in and around Flushing Meadows Park. The largest share came from the highway funds that paid for the Grand Central Parkway, the Van Wyck Expressway (along the east side of the park), and the Long Island Expressway. It might be argued (and has been) that the figures are somewhat misleading because only a small part of the highway funds was actually spent on the park itself. But it can also be argued that without the highways, and the highway funds, there would be no access to the park today.
It is also true that the representatives of the people of New York City voted practically no funds from city sources for the development of the park itself. Anyone who has seen the other major parks in New York City which lack development, such as Marine Park in Brooklyn, would be skeptical of whether the city would ever have allocated enough money to develop Flushing Meadows Park.
The valley of ashes lives on only in literature. Few who spread their blankets under the trees of Flushing Meadows or play soccer on its fields are aware that they are enjoying themselves on the grounds of Fitzgerald’s wasteland. Instead of a barren wilderness, parkgoers find something closer to the haunting image at the book’s close, “a fresh green breast of the New World” that flowers for generations of New Yorkers to come.