“This is a valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms 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.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. Willets
Point is said to have inspired this passage.
Vultures are circling the men of Willets Point, a crumbling community of garages, salvage lots, and chop shops. While decades of redevelopment plans have been floated and failed for this graceless corner of Queens, the current scheme—$3 billion worth of malls, condos, and hotels—seems likely to stick.
Conditions in the area haven’t changed much since Fitzgerald’s day. The primitive toilets installed by the first arrivals are still being used; Willets Point isn’t hooked up to the New York City sewage system. Bicycle is the only way to get around; cars would be swallowed by the craters that litter the unpaved streets.
The workers are almost universally male, Latino, and hostile to outsiders. Trust is a precious commodity in a place where so many have troubles with the law.
But there’s an unmistakeable air of pride and machismo pervades Willets Point. The area may be dim and crumbling, the men may be resigned to their fate, but that doesn’t keep the from showing pride of place. The area is decorated with fantastically twisted signs, a “tree” of taillights and other environmental sculptures. Gravity-defying pompadours are common, overalls are pressed, name tags are white and pristine.
A group is fighting the development plans in court and trying to rally a show of political might at City Hall. Instinctually, I pull for the underdog. Sometimes, though, when I’m spitting windblown grit from my mouth or greeting—again—the seller of used windshield wiper assemblies who doesn’t move from his perch on the driver’s seat of an old corvette, I can’t help but wonder if it’s time for something new at Willet’s Point. But I guess home is where you find it.