“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” – Joni Mitchell from the song “Big Yellow Taxi”
Those were the words that came to my mind when I last saw this neighborhood from the balcony section of the upper level stands in Citifield, New York.
Deep under the shadows of the stadium that the New York Mets call home, lies the neighborhood of Willets Point, also known as The Iron Triangle, a little-known corner of Queens. It is a dystopian landscape, forgotten in time, more developing world than cosmopolitan, where locals complain about a lack of basic infrastructure like sewers and drains, poorly paved streets, and intermittent internet access.
The story of this neighborhood is a classic case study on several important issues – gentrification, immigration and eminent domain to name a few.
Most photo enthusiasts visiting NYC or even native New Yorkers are probably unaware of this neighborhood. From the outside, it just looks like a bunch of auto junkyards and body shops in a shady looking neighborhood. But step in here and you will realize that it is a hidden gem with a heart of its own. There is an unmistakable human element here that begs to be photographed along with the grit and steel of millions of auto parts scattered around.
A winter ago, I got a chance to photograph this hidden gem thanks to this Loculars experience offered by Greg Brophy, a photographer committed to documenting New York’s disappearing neighborhoods. Greg has been photographing the community for years.
The first thing that struck me after stepping into the area was suspicious looks from many of the folks working here. I was quickly told by Greg that the community here has a large immigrant population and they generally do not like people with cameras. Given that immigration has been such a hot topic in the recent political environment in the US, it was understandable.
However, through Greg’s connections, I was able to strike up a conversation and photograph many of the owners of the shops as well as their workers. I was struck by the diversity of the community. Spanish is the language of the street here as the main working population here is Latino. The ownership of the shops here is divided between three major groups – Hispanic, Arabs and Jews. The shops here service cars from American classics to German sports cars. Apparently, you can find any part for any car over here.
The city has been trying hard to raze this neighborhood down and redevelop it over the years. Parts of the neighborhood have already been demolished. And it seems that the end is near…..it may just be a matter of months as of this writing (Mar 2018). Some owners have taken government money and left while others continue to fight to save this community.
What lies in the future for a lot of the community members here remains to be seen. After spending a crisp winter afternoon in this cold, corrugated metal, shanty townesque neighborhood, it was the warmth of the people and their stories that left a lasting impression on me.
Stories of leaving home to make a living in America.
Stories of rough work environments that is more third world than New York.
Stories of an uncertain future for some.
And for some who are relocating..stories of hope.
Last summer, while watching a concert at Citifiled, I took this picture of The Iron Triangle from the upper-level balcony of Citifield on my iPhone. It reminded me of these words –
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”