Saturday last, I headed over to the newly renovated Queens Museum at the former World’s Fair Grounds in Flushing Meadow Corona Park. The trip was a true bit of joy, given that I don’t own a car and the 7 train was undergoing one of its periodic spasms of maintenance work, so I had to get there from Astoria via a train ride to Forest Hills whereupon I was meant to catch a bus. The bus was leaving when I got out of the station, so I hailed a cab. Neither the cab driver nor his GPS seemed to have ever heard of the Queens Museum or Flushing Meadow Corona Park, but somehow I got there in time for a NYC H2O event celebrating the massive Watershed Relief Map which has been given a place of pride and honor at the institution.
The map was prepared in the 1930s by the Work Projects Administration for the institutional ancestors of our modern Department of Environmental Protection – the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity and the Board of Water Supply. All city agencies were tasked with producing displays that depicted their functions for the World’s Fair of 1939, and the water people decided to go big.
540 square feet and composed of 27 individual pieces, the topographical map accurately depicts the NYC watershed and system of reservoirs which feed the city. It was never displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair, as a fear that German saboteurs could glean information useful for an attack on the United States from it became paramount. The map was displayed in public just once, in 1948, I believe.
The map is adorned with lights, whose path depicts the journey that water takes from the reservoir to the local distribution pipes that supply homes and businesses. Illuminated above is the Ridgewood system. The group learned that Jamaica, Queens still pumps ground water and is largely separated from the water system enjoyed by the rest of the City, which I found surprising. The map is 32 feet long by 20 feet wide, by the way, and represents an area that is more than a hundred miles square miles.
After it’s singular outing in the late 1940s, the map’s 27 pieces were warehoused in the Bronx at the (now) DEP’s Jerome Avenue Pumping Station where time and neglect did their work upon it. A DEP engineer rediscovered it in 1991, and by 2006 the map had been restored to its former glory. The Queens Museum now houses two of these grandiose maps, as the Panorama of the City of New York – created for the 1964/65 World’s Fair – is in the building as well.
Pictured above in Matt Malina, Director of the NYC H2O organization which had organized the gathering. Matt was our host, along with two civil engineers who asked me to keep them out the shots, and they provided narrative and answered questions about the map and the incredible water system that sustains NYC. A large and enthusiastic crowd attended the event.
A slide show exhibited some of the actual locations found on the Watershed Relief map, and also discussed some of the nuances of the system. One thing I can tell you about the Queens Museum is this – if the heat is out in your apartment, go to the Museum to warm up. Maybe it was just the fact that I was dressed for the mid-20s cold weather outside, but it was seriously warm in here.
Zoomed in and heavily cropped, the image above – focused on Western Queens with my beloved Newtown Creek just to the left of center – indicates the incredible level of detail which the artists of the 1930’s included on this map. Notice all the docks in Brooklyn and Manhattan? At bottom, on the right side, that’s Flushing Creek. Once upon a time, there was a plan to connect the two waterways via an industrial canal, which would have rendered Western Queens into an island separate from Long Island. The canal would have allowed shipping from New England to enter NY Harbor via the Long Island Sound rather than having to go around Long Island to access the Ambrose Channel and the Narrows nearby Gravesend Bay and Bay Ridge, and was originally proposed by Maspeth’s own DeWitt Clinton who was the father of the Erie Canal.
Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.