Biodiversity in the Hood–Flushing Meadows, Queens

by Spencer Oakes Dawson

One of four counties on Long Island, Queens is the third most diverse county in the United States; with representative cultures from across the world pocketing different neighborhoods. Flushing Meadows Corona Park is in my neighborhood and bordered on the east by Flushing and to the west by Corona. To the naked eye it would seem to be flourishing with rich activity, and biodiversity. When digging deeper into the history of the area it becomes crystal clear how the park is lacking in a truly rich bio-diverse ecosystem.

At the beginning of the 20th century, and for centuries prior, the neighborhoods of Flushing and Corona were not neighborhoods at all but were an extensive salt marsh that was fed by the Flushing River, which now runs underground. In 1909 the Brooklyn Ash Company relocated to Corona and began using the salt marsh as dumping grounds for ash and garbage. The extent of the dumping was so grand that it even had notoriety in the form of classic literature. F. Scott Fitzgerald featured the mountain of ash in his novel The Great Gatsby:

About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land.  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 ash-gray men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.


In the early 1930’s, then Parks Commissioner Robert Moses envisioned for the land to be the site of the World’s Fair. New York City purchased the land from the Brooklyn Ash Company, and began construction. Highways were built on either side of the park and, eventually, built straight through the park. Moses said it was to provide easier access to the first World’s Fair, which opened in 1939.  The second World’s Fair opened in 1964. Recently the United States Tennis Association (USTA) was granted permission to expand on the park’s grounds, and Major League Soccer (MLS) had planned to construct a stadium in the park but was ultimately turned away.[1] Meadow Lake, and Willow Lake were both constructed for the 1934 World’s Fair in order to provide water sports attractions. [2]

Given that the salt marsh was covered with garbage and ash well over a century ago, there is not much information online about the species native to the area. One very important plant species that is native is Spartina. This reed grass thrives in salt water, as it is able to excrete salt. It provides protection and food for various animal species, and [3] helps to ease erosion. It is currently being used to revitalize parts of the East River. Meadow Lake and Willow Lake were both constructed for the 1939 World’s Fair. Meadow Lake was used as a recreational site, while Willow Lake was created as a nature reserve. They were both formed with water from the Flushing River that now flows underground. Both lakes have hollowed out, rounded bottoms, and do not mimic natural lakes, resulting in a lack of biodiversity.  The biodiversity in the lakes would have been greater had these lakes formed naturally. The bottom of a natural lake would sharply rise and fall, and would provide more shelter for different species. Due to the design of Meadow and Willow lakes they are also responsible for the seasonal loss of biodiversity as oxygen levels in the lakes are lower during the summer. [4]

There are fish in Meadow Lake, but they often times end up like this:

Spencer 1

Easily the most common plant along the water’s edge is the common reed, or phragmites. It loves to grow in brackish water, often times thriving in water that is compromised.

Spencer 2

Much of the shoreline around Meadow Lake is strewn with trash, like the photo above. In one area along the shore, park visitors can set up cookouts, and discarded, uneaten food can be seen along the waters edge. Chicken wings and tortilla shells sit, uneaten by the geese and ducks that are floating nearby. Additionally, much of the path, and recreational area around the lake is often flooded, even when it’s not raining. This is due to the underground piping system that runs flushing river underneath the entire park.

Spencer 3Spencer 4

Willow Lake had originally been created as a nature preserve; however, over the course of decades of neglect, it had become a prime retreat for the homeless, and for drug dealers. It was eventually surrounded by fencing and closed off to the public. In 1996, however, a local high school and boy scouts troop revitalized the nature trail around the lake. A successful bioremediation was conducted and new trees and shrubbery were planted. The new plantings were very specific so as to attract wildlife back into the area.

Now the Willow Lake preserve is touted as a “bird watchers paradise.” [5]  Many of the trees and shrubs planted are fruit, and berry bearing, and include Black Cherry (Prunus serontina), Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis).  Other trees planted in the Willow Lake section of the park are the White willow (Salix alba), Weeping willow (Salix babylonica),  Blue Flag iris (Iris versicolor), and the Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoids). Not only do the plants chosen for the Willow Lake transformation provide food for the migratory birds, but they also provide great shelter.

The distinction is clear to see. Willow Lake, which has limited access, teems with wildlife and remains one of the last freshwater wetlands in the greater New York City area. Meadow Lake, which is open to the public year round, with almost no restrictions, sees a great deal of abuse. Park goers are able to camp, and cookout, and many local soccer leagues play in the fields. Many of those fields have been covered over with astroturf. Park rangers do patrol the expansive public areas, but rarely enforce the carry laws that are marked on signage throughout the park. Garbage can be found in all corners of the park.

There are other man made fountains, and bodies of water within Flushing Meadows Corona Park that were never part of the Flushing River system. One such body of water is the Pool of Industry. This once remarkable fountain is now a trash dump, not literally, but in every sense of the word. The water is beyond unsightly, and gives off a very unpleasant scent if the wind blows the wrong way. Thick, slick algae collects in the corners of the fountain.[6]

I had the unpleasant experience of trying to save a poor duckling that was floating on a Styrofoam plate, while her mother and siblings floated nearby. I was rollerblading through the park, on my way to a set of workout bars, when I saw the mother floating near a collection of trash. I decided to stop and snap some photos. I didn’t notice the duckling in peril until after I finished taking pictures. I heard a little chirp. After failing to find a viable option of who to call on my smartphone I jumped into action. I had an extra pair of socks, and a plastic bag that I hadn’t removed form my backpack yet, and I always wear my helmet. So I hopped the guard rail, anchored my leg in between the rails, and magically the  plate drifted right over to the edge. I lifted the poor creature out of the water, still on the plate, and picked it up with my sock covered hands. I was able to find some park employees at the Park Academy building which is adjacent to the USTA center. After some back and forth with the employees, and getting the park rangers on the phone, they decided to try and reintroduce the duckling into the lake. I knew this wasn’t a good idea, as I could tell the poor thing was spent. It had no energy left after trying to keep itself afloat on the Styrofoam plate. Sure enough, after several attempts to keep its head above the water, and putter it’s little wings to swim around it disappeared underneath this dilapidated dock. Minutes later it reappeared thanks to the wind, and current of the water with only the top of its head and bottom above the water. The poor thing couldn’t keep up with the demand of energy needed to stay swimming, and drowned.

Spencer 5

Spencer 6

Spencer 7

The entire experience led me to understand that the biodiversity that exists currently within the park is due only to human’s intervention. While the remediation from an ash dump into amazing fair grounds was quite remarkable, and a great feat of human ingenuity, the current state of affairs leaves much to be desired. The New York City Parks department maintains that the area is cleaned once a week. I have been to the same area where I attempted to rescue the duckling for weeks in a row, only to see the same floating blue container that reads “DANGER” in different areas of the fountain. Limited resources are one thing, but the bigger issue at hand is human intervention into natural ecosystems. At one time a great salt marsh, Flushing Meadows Corona Park now houses human made waterways that need constant intervention by man in order to maintain a relative stasis.


“Flushing Meadows Corona Park.” Seminar 3 Science Technology in NYC. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 June 2015.

“The Corona Ash Dump: Brooklyn’s Burden on Queens, a Vivid Literary Inspiration and Bleak, Rat-filled Landscape – The Bowery Boys: New York City History.” The Bowery Boys New York City History. N.p., 09 May 2013. Web. 17 June 2015.

“Flushing Meadows Corona Park.” Highlights. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 June 2015.

“Neglected Fountain of the Planets Has Few Friends in Queens Park.”DNAinfo New York. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 June 2015.

Foderaro, Lisa W. “With University’s Help, New Park on Harlem River Is a Marshland Sanctuary.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 19 Jan. 2014. Web. 17 June 2015.

Narula, Svati Kirsten. “The 5 U.S. Counties Where Racial Diversity Is Highest—and Lowest.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 29 Apr. 2014. Web. 17 June 2015.









One thought on “Biodiversity in the Hood–Flushing Meadows, Queens

  1. Pingback: Biodiversity in the Hood (My Hood) | EnviroSpence

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