She is not one of New York’s Grande Dame parks, those Olmsted beauties with Victorian park houses, manicured lawns, rolling hills and forest glades. She lacks the high-stepping strut of Central Park and the hipster slouch of Prospect Park.
And she has no Daddy Warbucks conservancy to shower her in gilt and so pay for a revitalizing face-lift.
Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is a homely beauty, a many-acre stepchild of two World’s Fairs, stepping gingerly between noisy highways and stadiums and a polluted bay. All she possesses are a handsome Unisphere, a Hall of Science, a zoo, an art museum and tens of thousands of immigrant New Yorkers who pour out of the densely packed streets of Corona, Elmhurst, Flushing and Jackson Heights to run across her soccer fields, seek shade under her still-adolescent trees and stroll, bike and roller skate around her lakes.
Ask Olaris Gutierrez [member of Make the Road New York] of Corona if her two children play in this park and she laughs.
“Of course! All the time.”
Is it crowded?
Her eyes widen. “So crowded! On weekends, your elbows touch other elbows.”
Now this park faces threats from the city that should care for her. The Bloomberg administration has in mind multiple insults. In pursuit of its Xanadu dream for Willets Point, it wants to let the owners of the Mets and the Related Companies build a huge shopping mall on the park’s western end, which admittedly is nothing more than a vast parking lot now.
They are intent on letting the United States Tennis Association put up new parking lots and new roads. And, most perilous, city officials seem intent on letting Major League Soccer build a 25,000-seat stadium not on the park’s edge, but at its very core.
It’s as if Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, in distorted homage to “Men in Black,” wanted to park a flying saucer here, obliterating soccer fields and a pond.
It is a fact of 21st-century life that the upstairs/downstairs class divide applies with great force to New York City’s parks. To ride your bike from Brooklyn Bridge Park to Battery Park to Hudson River Park, and perhaps stop and take a stroll on the High Line, is to experience New York as Paris, beautifully kept parks with gardeners and omnipresent officers.
To ride out to the Shore Park by the Verrazano Bridge and east to Marine Park or to bike up to the city’s largest park Pelham Bay is often to bounce along roads as rutted as any in backwoods Vermont. I walked Flushing Meadows-Corona Park with Donovan Finn, a passionate 41-year-old resident of Jackson Heights and a professor of environmental studies at Stony Brook University. He pointed out lawns scarred by hardscrabble patches of dirt, soccer goal posts rusting, and the Fountain of the Planets surrounded by acres of asphalt.
We walked beneath a stand of adolescent sycamores that would be destroyed by the tennis center. We came to a stop by the soccer fields, crowded on this weekday, which would disappear during years of construction.
“This is where my 3 ½-year-old son runs around the fountain,” he said. “This is our park. Why is it O.K. to do this to us?”
City officials hint at bags of cash for this plain beauty of a park; perhaps the soccer stadium could provide it with a revenue stream. The league might eventually rebuild even prettier fields. Maybe, perhaps, could be, some day.
Why have mayors not demanded that the United States Tennis Association and the taxpayer-subsidized New York Mets pay fees to this much-abused park? And would the mayor, whose mansion is steps from Central Park, conceive of asking the worthies on the Central Park Conservancy to underwrite its operations by placing a professional soccer stadium in Sheep Meadow?
To ask is to know the answer. More than a few residents of Manhattan had made clear they did not favor placing this stadium along the Hudson River.
Four years ago, the parks department released a strategic plan for Flushing Meadows. It is a dispatch from a different, green-edged age of Bloomberg. It “re-envisions” a “new greener landscape” with less pavement, cleaned-up lakes and a spectacular Fountain of Industry edged by lawns and playgrounds. And it suggests that the city force baseball owners and tennis barons to ante up their fair share of fees.
To read this report is to feel that surge of optimism when New Yorkers dream grandly of public spaces. As the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa, a champion of parks across the globe, once said: Public space is for living, kissing and playing. “Its value can’t be measured with economics or mathematics; it must be felt with the soul.”
No hint of such vision was on offer last week in a crowded public school auditorium, where the Economic Development Corporation came to solicit comment on its plan for the shopping mall. A city interpreter began by standing and explaining in Spanish to a vastly Latino crowd that it would offer no simultaneous translation into Spanish.
But, he noted brightly, you are welcome to use the agency’s Spanish language Web site.
Ms. Gutierrez sat in that audience, desperate to hold to what’s left of her children’s shrinking park. She fears a done deal.
“Why does the mayor come to Queens with this idea?” she asked. “People in Queens, we need good jobs, vacations, sick days and parks. We need beautiful, beautiful parks — just like people everywhere in this city.”
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