New York’s Forgotten Toxic Waterway: The Flushing River

By Michelle Bangert and Lauren F. Friedman

Like the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek, the Flushing River is toxic, troubled and adjacent to residential neighborhoods—yet it’s been largely forgotten.

For years, industrial sites along the water polluted the river. The two World’s Fairs in Queens brought some attention to the area’s waterways, but for decades, the river has been neglected and unmaintained. Now, garbage lines the banks in some areas, and sections of the river give off a foul odor.

Queens resident Sergey Kadinsky grew up in Forest Hills, a block from the Flushing River. He wishes this corner of New York could be improved.

“C’mon, Queens, do better,” he says.

Kadinsky, a journalist and historian, hopes that growing concern about environmental issues—as well as recent attention to Flushing, one of the city’s fastest-growing neighborhoods—will create renewed interest in the river. Kadinsky would like to see the river “daylighted,” or turned into an accessible, navigable waterway. With so much public interest in green initiatives, like bike lanes and recycling, he thinks now is the time for the city to put more resources into the river and the adjacent park.

Recent progress by the Parks Department indicates that Kadinsky may be onto something. The Bloomberg administration is working to popularize the New York City Water Trail, which includes a boat launch right on the Flushing River.

The Flushing Meadows Corona Park Strategic Framework Plan, commissioned by the city in 2004, also includes new ideas for the Flushing River and the surrounding parklands. It’s the first comprehensive vision for the park since a 1988 plan that, according to the report, “went largely unrealized and unheeded.”

But things are looking more promising this time around: In 2005, the city awarded the contract for the plan’s execution to a multidisciplinary team of architects and landscape designers, who have already made some changes.

A promenade is in the works for the Flushing River waterfront, and its boathouse is currently under construction. Separate efforts are underway to add new waterfront developments to the residential and commercial corridors of Flushing itself. The 2004 Parks plan listed three main goals: improve the World’s Fair core, restore Meadow and Willow Lakes, and reconnect the park to the neighborhood and the city.

One part of the plan offers a hypothetical—and hopeful—“page from the guidebook of the future,” which shows how integral the river is to the future vision for the park. “Flushing Meadows Corona Park is defined by its connection to the water,” the report says. “It has become popular for boaters to launch a canoe or a kayak from the area just beyond the tide gate and paddle the entire length of the Park.”

The Flushing River has been partly filled in and re-routed over the years, and it’s now crisscrossed by the Van Wyck and Long Island Expressways. Kadinsky hopes to someday see an uninterrupted waterway would restore the river to its natural state.

“I know the Flushing River is covered by highways,” he says, “but the river itself could also be a natural highway, one that’s you know, zero emissions.”

The Gowanus Creek, the Bronx River, the Harlem River and other waterways around New York are in the process of being restored. “But when will the day for Flushing River come?” Kadinsky asks. “When will Queens get its respect?”

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