On the one hand, urban planner Robert Moses did a good thing by creating Flushing Meadows–Corona Park in the 1930s. On the other, he completely surrounded it by overcrowded highways that scar much of New York’s landscape. He’s a complicated fellow who left behind a legacy of both altruistic deeds and urban blight fed by astounding arrogance and a lust for power. This park, fortunately, falls into the former category.
New York City’s fourth-largest park, just shy of 900 acres, began as unspoiled wetlands, later spoiled, in the 1910s, when it was turned into a dumping ground for ashes. Converted into a park in the 1930s, it was ready for the World’s Fair in 1939 and another in 1964. After the latter ended, the park fell into disrepair for a few decades until improvements resuscitated it and made it an attractive place to spend the day.
I began my visit at the Queens Zoo, a fairly small, 18-acre home opened in 1968 for more than 75 species native to the Americas. A single circular route makes it easy to navigate and see all the residents, including Andean bears, pumas, California sea lions, Canadian lynxes, elk, bison, and the world’s smallest deer, the utterly adorable Southern pudu. There are plenty of birds to admire, both outdoors and inside a geodesic dome—thick-billed parrots, owls, cranes, bald eagles, trumpeter swans, and king vultures among them. Domestic animals live in a farm-like setting in a separate section, where you can check out the Flemish giant rabbits, baby doll sheep, alpacas, and noisy domestic geese.
Leaving the zoo, I crossed the bridge over the rushing traffic on the Grand Central Parkway and made my way to the heart of the park. Although the iconic symbols of the 1939 World’s Fair, the Trylon and the Perisphere (depicted on a three-cent U.S. postage stamp issued that same year), have been razed, several from the 1964 fair remain.
A couple of them stand as ruins—the rusting remnants of the observation towers, the tallest of which rises up 226’, and the deteriorating New York State Pavilion, which once held the record for the largest cable suspension roof in the world.
Others have fared better. One of them is Freedom of the Human Spirit, just outside the gates of Arthur Ashe Stadium. Of this massive bronze statue depicting a nude male and female with wild swans soaring skyward, sculptor Marshall Fredericks said, “I tried to design the work so that it was as free of the earth, as free in space as possible…the thought that we can free ourselves from earth, from the material forces which try to restrain and hamper us.” As such, the sculpture alludes to one of the central themes of the World’s Fair for which it was created—space exploration.
Another bronze sculpture, the 43’ tall Rocket Thrower, also acknowledges that theme, as the muscular, god-like man launches a small sphere into the sky, leaving behind an arcing trail of flames, with one hand, while the other is raised toward the sky, reaching for a swirl of stars that encircle the rocket’s path.
Rocket Thrower stands midway along a promenade that terminates, at its eastern end, in the Pool of Industry, a three-quarter-moon–shaped body of water. I turned in the opposite direction, and started walking on the etched granite panels on the ground, with images tracing the history of the park, from prehistoric times to the 1964 fair. Leaning heavily toward space exploration and technology, the multitude of panels includes depictions of such advancements as televisions and robots as well as of the 1964 fair itself, including the cable cars that carried passengers above the fair, Rocket Thrower, and the fair’s iconic symbol that I was most excited to see, the Unisphere.
Surrounded by 48 pairs of fountains in a reflecting pool painted a pale aquamarine, the Unisphere is a massive spherical stainless steel representation of Earth. The world’s largest globe measures 140’ high, has a diameter of 120’, weighs 700,000 pounds, and took only 110 days to complete. It tilts at the astronomically correct angle of 23.5 degrees. Five hundred steel pieces were molded into the shapes of the continents, and three rings, representing the trajectories of the first American astronaut, the first Russian cosmonaut, and the first communications satellite to orbit Earth, circle the hollow orb. Like the symbols for the prior World’s Fair in New York, the Unisphere was also pictured on a U.S. postage stamp, a five-cent commemorative issue from 1964. Restored in the 2010s, it now shines as brightly as it did during the World’s Fair, when 51 million people came to see it. Map lovers and geography buffs like me will especially enjoy the walk around the Unisphere, identifying the raised mountain ranges, like the Alps, Andes, and Himalayas, and picking out such islands as Madagascar, Sicily, and Cuba.
In between all those sights, the park also appeals to nature lovers. Its two lakes provide watery vistas as well as homes for largemouth bass, American eel, and white mullet. Berry-producing trees and shrubs attract migratory bird species. Autumn is a particularly pleasant time to roam around and inspect the trees that show off in seasonal colors. Strategically placed benches offer pleasant respites with views of grassy fields perfect for picnics and of Cornelian cherry, forsythia, redbud, horsechestnut, sweetgum, and dozens and dozens of other trees and plants. More than 260 animals, from American robins to groundhogs to Asian lady beetles, will keep you company.
Flushing Meadows–Corona Park also affords plenty of indoor options, should the weather work against you, such as the New York Hall of Science, the Queens Theatre, an ice skating rink, and a huge swimming pool. I decided to finish my day in the Queens Museum, directly across from the Unisphere. I was fairly disappointed—this large building offers shockingly few exhibits, with more space given over to the building itself. When I visited, there was only a small collection of Tiffany lamps, a scale model of New York’s water and reservoir system, and a few showcases containing memorabilia from the World’s Fairs.
However, there’s a fourth exhibit that makes the trip worthwhile: “The Panorama of New York City.” Created for the 1964 World’s Fair, the panorama is an enormous map of all of New York City, from the northern border of the Bronx to the southern tip of Staten Island, from the west side of Manhattan to the Queens–Nassau County line. At its longest, it measures 154.5’; its widest point is 137’. The map is a 3D scale model and contains more than 830,000 buildings as well as all of the city’s numerous bridges (made of brass). I strolled along the upper-level walk to peer down at this masterpiece—the world’s largest scale model at the time, which took more than 100 full-time workers three years to create. Using aerial photographs and fire insurance maps, the artists created an excruciatingly detailed panorama of the city, and I stopped, often, to pick out landmarks and neighborhoods with which I was familiar—the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, John F. Kennedy International Airport (complete with runways), Central Park, Roosevelt Island, Yankee Stadium, Brooklyn Heights, and the grounds of the World’s Fair itself—and to locate those I had never been to. A looped lighting feature, involving nearly 3,200 colored lights, plunges the city into the darkness of night before returning daylight to the metropolis.
Thanks to this laborious accomplishment, on my way home I was able to look out the windows of the above-ground number 7 subway line as it wove its way through Queens neighborhoods I had just spied in miniature and easily pinpoint them for future exploration.
Leave a Comment
Have you been here? Have I inspired you to go? Let me know!