The Iron Triangle
In a small corner of Queens in the shadow of Citibank Field there is a place that looks like the set of a dystopian movie. Willets Point, Queens, known for its junkyards, auto repair shops and recycling plants, has been nicknamed “The Iron Triangle” and for good reason. The streets are unpaved, cars are stacked on top of each other and tires float in puddles the size of lakes.
The businesses have been fighting a long battle with past and current NYC administrations over eminent domain, but they have lost. The area has now been slated for redevelopment. There has been talk about turning it into everything from an Olympic Stadium to a convention center.
My motive in creating The Iron Triangle was to create a visual record of the area before it is all sanitized by shopping malls and frozen yogurt stands. To examine the stories of the people I met there – the immigrant worker whose family just left him; the small business owner being pushed out against his will; the people who work on minimum wage and are trying to get their car fixed cheaply because they need to get to work tomorrow.
These photographs show an area that was forgotten in time and asks the question: Does every place need to be completely developed? Is there no place for the run down, the beat up and untamed or does every corner of New York City have to be cleaned up and sanitized of its past? Willets Point is like a one eyed junk yard dog – only scary if you don’t know how to approach it.
I am a Brooklyn-based photographer who documents New York’s disappearing neighborhoods and the void that is left there. I primarily work with medium and large format film and often uses alternative printing methods to connect the finished piece with the subject matter.
For the last two years, I have been working on “The Iron Triangle” a project about the City of New York trying to push out small businesses in Willets Point Queens in order to give it to connected land developers. You may know Willets Point as the inspiration for the “Valley of Ashes” described in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby”.
Willets Point is an industrial area with no sewers or sidewalks. The roads have not been paved and severely floods when it rains. The businesses there are mostly auto repair shops, scrap yards and recycling plants. The area also contains the Citi Field Park where the Mets play. According to an article in the New York Times, it has a population of one, but I know first had from being there that many people use the place as a home; most of them illegal immigrants sleeping in shipping containers.
The push for urban renewal is an all too common story in NYC. When Bloomberg was in office, he wanted to use it to build a stadium for the Olympics or for a shopping mall. Like the Barclay center, this is another land grab at the expense of taxpayers for the friends of whoever happens to be in office at the expense of the community. The stadium, so far has been a financial train wreck and the promised affordable housing has yet to materialize. This should be a lesson in the future development of other places in NYC that already have a vibrant and successful community.
This area is important because it is one of the few places left where working class people who are living an a shoe string budget can come and get their car fixed at a low price. It is one of the few places where people with no higher education can work. I met and talked to quite a few individuals who say that if this place weren’t here they would be in jail. Another worker told me about how that day he came home to find his wife and daughter had cleaned out the apartment and left. He had nowhere else to go. He told me how the police would consistently harass anyone that was walking through the area. The owners tell me that if they had this same shop by itself in another neighborhood, the business would fail. It’s through the community that they survive, helping each other.
One of the tactics that the city uses to claims of eminent domain is to deny the area service for years. They never fix the roads or plow the streets. Police do not patrol the area and it is left to rot. Then when the place looks like it has the infrastructure of a third world country, the city comes in and claims it is a blighted area. The have done this in areas like Manhattanville, Coney Island and Hells Kitchen.
I sometimes worry about the character of the city as more and more individual and unique places that I used to frequent disappear. Some say for the better, but maybe their version of New York City is different than mine.
The continuous stories of the area being shutdown, has already caused business to plummet. The owners are left in limbo knowing that any day know the final axe will come and they will be forced to close.
I am looking to continue photographing the area as it transitions for the next 5 years. As of the 2016 the new idea is to use the area as a parking lot for LaGuardia Airport. I would use the money from the grant for two things; making a small zine to hand out to the people who work there and the people who come there to get their cars fixed. The other main objective would be to rent a garage there and hold an exhibition where the people being affected can benefit from seeing the work. I want to get a group of varied artist whose work tackles similar issues and present it in other areas that are going through similar transitions. Places like Crown Heights, Bedstuy and Sunset Park. In 6 years I plan of having a book out documenting the areas history and how it has changed over the years. The book would hopefully explain why sometimes we need places like Willets Point. Places where communities grow organically from the people who are have the most invested there. Ultimately we need to ask the question; does every place in the city need to be fully developed, filled with frozen yogurt shops that will be replaced with the next fad? Is there no place safe from the overreach of connected developers with empty promises of an urban utopia.