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Farewell, Iron Triangle

Aerial view of the Iron Triangle before and after demolition. Google Earth, 2012 and 2019.

One of the more unique landscapes to emerge in Queens was the collection of automotive engine, body, and tire repair shops at Willets Point, known colloquially as the Iron Triangle. Over the last decade, the City of New York has been engaged in an effort to clear the Iron Triangle to make way for 'higher and better' uses.

Willets Point is a heavily industrialized zone located in Western Queens, bounded by Roosevelt Avenue to the south, Northern Boulevard to the north, Grand Central Parkway to the west, and Flushing Creek to the east. It includes Citi Field, home to the Mets, as well as a giant parking lot, a 7 Train station, and two highway interchanges. Dozens of industrial facilities are scattered throughout Willets Point to take advantage of the navigable waterway, especially gravel and cement operations.

View of cement plant along Flushing Creek at Willet's Point.

The Iron Triangle took shape in the central portion of Willets Point to the east of stadium, a 'bottom land' characterized by extremely low water table. Because of its susceptibility to flooding and a lack of sewer and water infrastructure, very few formal industrial operations would locate there because they feared flood damage or because they could not secure insurance. However, since World War II a large number of automotive enterprises set up shop in the Iron Triangle, largely on an informal economic basis. They made use of World War II surplus Quonset Huts as well as shipping containers, manufactured trailers, prefabricated utility sheds, and makeshift shacks. City planners did not relish the presence of this rag-tag assemblage, but they tolerated the operation because it was a crucial source of employment for new migrants.

Chop shop vernacular, Iron Triangle, 2014.
One of the last remaining automotive businesses in Willet's Point, 2016.

Over the decades, the Iron Triangle gained a reputation as one of the premier 'chop shop' sites, where stolen vehicles could be dismantled in a matter of hours, and their parts metabolized and dispersed across the various repair shops. All of this with few questions asked. Touts posted at the various entrances to Willets Point in order to drum up business and direct motorists to shops in the Iron Triangle. A range of ancillary businesses set up to provide food for workers, including small cantinas, taco trucks, and barbeque outfits with tables and chairs under tents. The area drew large numbers of truck drivers, who would pull off the surrounding highways for repairs or to get some sleep. With high levels of transience, the area also became well known for prostitution and low-level drug dealing, themes explored in two feature films shot on site: Chop Shop (2007) and Willets Point (2010). Mostly, however, the Iron Triangle housed legitimate businesses interested in building up clients for engine, body, and tire repair.

Poster (left) and still image (right) from the film Chop Shop (2007).

Given its proximity to the commercial core of Flushing, the land beneath the Iron Triangle grew substantially in value. However, multiple schemes over the last half century to redevelop the area have faltered in the face of the high costs of overhauling and remediating the site--a toxic stew of sewage, motor oil, and auto body paint. In 2007, the City Council voted to allocate four billion dollars to the Economic Development Corporation to transform of Willets Point. A range of schemes came and went featuring various admixtures of high-end and affordable housing, commercial spaces, and large venues. At one point, it seemed likely that the EDC would allow a massive Casino to locate at Willets Point, and then a large scale shopping mall, though community opposition to both proved fierce.

The Iron Triangle after large-scale demolition, 2018.

Amid the multiple court challenges, city officials moved ahead with demolition, since the controversies involved replacement plans, but had little to do with the existing land uses. The EDC commenced demolition of the 12-acre Iron Triangle site in 2016, and by 2018 very little of it remained standing. Currently, the area is slated for 3000 residential units, one third of which are designated 'affordable,' as well as small-scale commercial buildings, a public school, and a 25,000-seat soccer stadium with adjacent hotel.

This redevelopment program came at a cost to working class New Yorkers. Very few of the people who worked in the Iron Triangle will be able to afford the 'affordable' units slated for the site. Only a few of the automotive businesses survived the demolition of their facilities, relocating to Hunts Point in The Bronx and other districts; most saw their livelihoods evaporate. The Iron Triangle had provided generations of shopkeepers with a very low-cost entrée into small business ownership. It also offered countless immigrant men and women an opportunity to earn wages, usually in cash, so that they could establish themselves in New York and send money home to families. It was a place where many people accomplished a lot with very little--a kind of space increasingly rare in New York City.

Concept sketch of Willets Point Redevelopment, courtesy of the Economic Development Corporation.

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