Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

In Gatsby's Tracks: Locating the Valley of Ashes in a 1924 Photo

By Levi Asher on Thursday, February 25, 2010 06:57 pm

I began investigating the real-life setting of some key scenes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby after discovering an amazing new online historical map of New York City, a photographic mashup that allows you to see detailed images from 1924, 1951 and the present time. When I saw that 1924 was represented on this map, I immediately realized that it would yield a rare opportunity to see New York City exactly as F. Scott Fitzgerald would have seen it during the period that he lived in the Long Island town of Great Neck (represented in Gatsby as West Egg) and traveled frequently to Manhattan. Therefore, since Gatsby was set in Fitzgerald's present time, it would allow us to see New York City exactly as Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan, Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson would have seen it.

According to the biography Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Matthew Bruccoli, one of Fitzgerald's earliest inspirations for The Great Gatsby was the striking vision of a vast, desolate "valley of ashes" -- a gigantic trash burning operation -- on the road between Great Neck and Manhattan. The infernal vision seemed to provide an ironic counterpoint to the opulent social swirls of New York City and Great Neck, as if the passage revealed some deeper truth about the souls who traveled it. Fitzgerald described a small edge settlement just east of the valley of ashes where a billboard with blazing eyes advertises the services of eye doctor T. J. Eckleburg, and where Tom Buchanan's mistress Myrtle Wilson's husband George runs a decrepit auto garage.

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 men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.

The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and, when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour. There is always a halt there of at least a minute, and it was because of this that I first met Tom Buchanan’s mistress.

It's well known that Fitzgerald was describing the vast trash-burning operation located in north-central Queens in the exact spot that is now Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, home of two Worlds Fairs and two major sports stadiums. Only a few photos of the trash-burning operation before the area was turned into a park have ever been seen, so naturally I was eager to see the overhead view of the site on the 1924 photographic map. I found a stunning image of the wide area, and began zooming into the image looking for more precise details about the scenes described in Gatsby. Here's a wide view of the whole area, including Flushing Bay at the top and several bridges crossing "a small foul river" -- Flushing Creek.

The Great Gatsby characters travel several times between West Egg and Manhattan, sometimes by railroad and sometimes by car, always passing through the valley of ashes in the middle of the trip. In 1924, before the Long Island Expressway or Grand Central Parkway existed, Northern Boulevard would have been the main route by car towards the Queensboro Bridge for a driver from Great Neck. Trying to trace the route between Great Neck and Manhattan as described in The Great Gatsby, I sketched a line showing the Northern Boulevard route on the map at the top of this page. Northern Boulevard skirts the top of the valley of ashes, so the travelers departing from Gatsby's mansion would have taken the automobile bridge just under the railroad bridge near where the creek meets the bay here.

I spent a lot of time looking at this part of the map, but finally concluded that it could not match the description in the novel. First, the highway (above) does not join with the railroad (below). Second, the section of town just east of the valley of ashes here is the main section of Flushing, a well-populated village that does not resemble the dusty outpost Fitzgerald describes. After traversing many possible solutions to this puzzle, I came to a firm conclusion.

For reasons not fully clear, the Gatsby/Buchanan motorcade must have not taken Northern Boulevard all the way into Manhattan, but instead must have turned off the main road to take a slightly slower route through less developed streets, exactly as depicted in the lower line drawn in the center of the image at the top of this page. That is, they didn't take the most direct route between Great Neck and Manhattan, but instead detoured slightly south through Flushing, allowing them to drive directly through the most vivid section of the trash-burning operation. The detour they must have taken is illustrated by the lower diverging line in this detail from the center of the aerial image above:

This would have taken them on a smaller set of roads through the center of the valley of ashes. Why would they have turned off the main road? I don't know, but it's not too far a stretch to imagine that Gatsby and the Buchanans would have done this precisely for the scenery, because they wanted to show off the full stark vision of New York City's valley of ashes to their visitor Nick Carraway. Who hasn't sometimes taken the long route on a car ride to impress a guest?

If Gatsby's caravan took this southern route, the railroad and highway would have merged exactly as described in the novel. Here, then, is the bridge they would have crossed. I can't tell for sure that it's a drawbridge, but I'm willing to believe it must be one. The tiny settlement to the right, then, is exactly the spot where Dr. Eckleburg's billboard would have stood, and where George Wilson would have kept his auto garage.

This is therefore the spot where drunken Daisy Buchanan hit and killed Myrtle Wilson in her speeding car after a dizzy and upsetting day at the Plaza Hotel.

Here's a wider view of the larger area around this bridge crossing. You can see the smokestacks near the center.

Desolate enough? The sight of workers toiling among these giant piles may have even reminded Fitzgerald of Dante, and Fitzgerald's real-life encounter with this spot must have played a part in the genesis of the entire novel. This part of New York City remains striking and dramatic today, though for different reasons.

The spot where Fitzgerald had a vision would soon become world famous, because the trash burning operation at Flushing Meadows was closed shortly after The Great Gatsby was written. The creeks were drained and turned into artificial lakes, beautiful Flushing Meadows Park was invented, and this park hosted the 1939 Worlds Fair and then the 1964-65 Worlds Fair. Shea Stadium was built to host the New York Mets on the northern side, and was then replaced by CitiField on the same spot. Every year the US Open Tennis Tournament is held at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center south of the baseball fields. Here's what the same spot looks like in an aerial photograph from 2009. Shea Stadium is on the top left, the US Open tennis courts on the bottom left.

And what of the tiny edge settlement itself, the spot where Myrtle Wilson was killed under Dr. Eckleburg's metaphorical eyes? Today it's still a vision of busy desolation, an unremarkable small and wedge-shaped industrial center next to the Van Wyck Expressway where, significantly enough, a large sign-making business is in operation. Here's a closer look at this intersection as it stands today:

After spending many hours studying the map and carefully determining the exact coordinates represented in Fitzgerald's novel, I walked by the exact spots described in the passages above. I saw a small auto repair shop. I saw a couple of rundown coffee and fried-egg breakfast/lunch cafes, where the people who work in the nearby factory take their breaks. The main factory makes signs -- large mounted billboards, specialty plastic displays. It looked like this business had been there a long time, and I now believe (though I have not yet verified this, and am not sure exactly how to do so), that if F. Scott Fitzgerald had ever seen an actual sign for an eye doctor at this spot, it might not have been because the eye doctor was located nearby. Rather, the sign-maker might have been constructing the sign, or may have been displaying it to advertise his work. (UPDATE: I've now put up some photos of the locale.)

Thanks to everybody who posted a guess about this mystery photo, and thanks to GalleyCat and Jacket Copy for sending readers this way. This blog's tagline is "Opinions, Observations and Research" and I hope with this exercise I've fulfilled some of the "research" portion of that promise. Another Litkicks Mystery Spot will be revealed in these pages soon!


This article is part of the Litkicks Mystery Spot series. The next post in the series is An Infernal Love Nest: Litkicks Mystery Spot #2. The previous post in the series is A Murder and a Metaphor: Litkicks Mystery Spot #1.


32 Responses to "In Gatsby's Tracks: Locating the Valley of Ashes in a 1924 Photo"

Top notch research, Levi. I enjoyed this!

Levi I just read an article about another desolate but inhabited area that exists only twenty five miles from NYC, and is populated by a people called variously the Jackson Whites or the Ramapough Mountain Indians. This area is in the Ramapo Mountains of New Jersey, in Bergen County, on the northeast tip of NJ where it borders New York.
Unlike the ash valley of Fitzgerald's day, this still exists. It is build on a toxic site of waste from a former Ford plant and an abandoned mine. The Ramapough Mountain Indians are descended variously from Dutch Slaves, Native Americans, and apperently English prostutes. No Dr Eggleston sign that I know of. The article is in the current New Yorker. Check it out.

by Sean on

Really enjoyed this, thanks!

Great research, and great post! I'm looking forward to future mystery spots.
Thank you!

by Chad on

Awesome! Deepens Gatsby on yet another front.

by T on

I was correct - yeah! Gatsby is one of my all time favorite novels so it was great fun seeing all these old aerial photos and learning about some of the history surrounding the area. I was especially impressed by your deduction that the troupe veered off the main road which is how they came to be in that particularly desolate section....very good work. Thanks for the post!!

"We had developed a system of presenting supernatural phenomena that we called the 'three-point construct.' There always had to be at least three points."

--Tamper, Bill Ectric Tamper

haha! Thanks for the quote, Frances.

Hey, this discussion of a desolate valley of ashes reminds me of a movie with Demi Moore and Chevy Chase called "Nothing But Trouble." You don't hear much about the film, so maybe the critics didn't like it, but I thought it was great! The plot involves a carload of people getting lost in a desolate junkyard/smelting town called Vulcan-something.

Bill,
Help me!
Draining pipes. Signers. Hanging together. Declaration of Independence. Double albums. The White Album. Diptychs. Sundials. Revolution. What else?

by Liz Stein on

Neat! Good research and interesting thoughts.

Did you ever write about our literary driving tours through "East Egg" and "West Egg?" I knew the story of Gatsby, as a tale told in cars, driving past fancy mansions, long before I was ready to read the book. The book has sort of mythical, fairy tale status for me, because of that.

by Steve on

Michael, interesting that you brought this up about the Jackson Whites. I live about 5 miles away from the Ramapo mountains. They are a very misunderstood people. As a kid we always heard these crazy stories about them that became the stuff of urban legends. You know, that people would venture into their enclave to never return, etc.

Fact is, that Ford dumped their paint sludge all around the Ramapos for decades and are just now being called to task on it. The Bergen Record recently had a series of articles about how the Whites are all suffering from various forms of cancer and premature death. I believe the lawsuits have culminated, but how much money is a person's life or health really worth?

Really, a truly sad situation and a blight on Ford's reputation.

by BOSCUTTI on

Naturally, you tried to locate this exact spot on the 1924 map?

That's amazing. Thank you so much for uncovering the past the snapping the novel to life.

http://boscutti.com/

by David H. Fox on

I happen to live in Flushing and the location of this literary incident has always been of interest to me.

From my readings, there were two railroad bridges, a vehicular bridge, and a vehicular causeway over Flushing Creek. The northernmost bridge was the Northern Boulevard bridge. South of that was a bridge for the College Point/Whitestone branch of the Long Island Railroad. The Northern Boulevard bridge moved for marine traffic and this railroad bridge would have done the same.

The third bridge to the south was for the Port Washington branch of the Long Island Railroad. One can see on the photo where the College Point branch joined this line west of this bridge. However, I am not aware that this bridge ever accomodated cars or that it could open. I do note cribbing to protect the bridge piers from watercraft and some boats moored south of the bridge, but question whether these would require a bridge lift to pass under.

The fourth and oldest passage was a causeway built near Jewel Avenue for vehicles. This, however, is not so close to the railroad.

I suspect some "artistic license" was used with the geography and that the Northern Boulevard Bridge was more likely the one in question with the now defunct College Point spur being the railroad. I am not aware that there were any roads a private person could use to go south after crossing the Northern Boulevard Bridge to view the ashes. Unfortunately, detailed insurance maps of the period often show proposed streets, none of which were ever built in the Valley of the Ashes.

Thanks for this. I'm a Gatsby aficionado, and I also happened to grow up in Elmhurst, Queens. I had always assumed that the Valley of Ashes was closer to the bridge, most likely Long Island City. That area was more factories than garbage dumps, so it didn't quite make sense. Now I see that it was even closer to me than I thought. Just a couple of miles.

by Neal Baker on

Northern Blvd. did meet the railroad. Specifically, the Whitestone branch of the LIRR crossed Northern Blvd. (then called North Hempstead Turnpike or Broadway) east of Flushing Creek. The Whitestone branch was in service from 1913 to 1932.

by Levi Asher on

Neal, that's partially correct, but the Whitestone branch of the Long Island Railroad crosses Northern Blvd, rather than joining it. Fitzgerald says, as I quote in the article above:

"the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile"

As seen in the 1924 photos above, the Whitestone/Northern Blvd. crossing could not be described in this way -- the railroad doesn't run beside the road at all. Rather, it's a perfect description of the railroad just south of Northern Blvd, which then runs right through the valley of ashes.

"Why would they have turned off the main road?"

Levi,

I absolutely love this post; Gatsby is my favourite book. I always assumed that the Valley of Ashes was simply made up for the story -- amazing to see that such a place actually existed! It sort of gives another layer to the story, no? Instead of a literary device, the fact that Fitzgerald would have passed this spot means (in my mind) that he was making more of a direct social commentary than I first believed. (Of course, the irony is that he and Zelda were part of that social scene that he seems to deride, but that's for another post...)

Anyway, I wanted to give you another possibility for your above quote. Why did they take this route to the city?

I think this might be that case of "artistic license" as you might call it. In the story, Fitzgerald makes the southern route the "main" route, simply because it works better in his story. The cross roads, the better view of the Valley, the railroad hastily joining the road...

In other words, in the fictionalized world of The Great Gatsby, the northern route doesn't exist. For his purposes, Fitzgerald makes the southern route the "main" route simply because it has a greater literary impact.

By the same token, the bridge wasn't necessarily a drawbridge in real life either (though it could have been). He might have made that up too, in order to keep the characters in his book bound by the Valley of Ashes, forced to look upon the dregs of society (literally) as they pass from one life of opulence to another.

Of course, this is pure speculation. But I can tell you that, as a writer, I have done this myself -- changed the facts slightly to suit my fictional needs. It makes sense to me that he might have too.

Thanks again for this research -- it's another Gatsby/Fitzgerald location I'll have to visit someday!

~Graham

by Robert Reid on

Wonderful post. It's almost eerie looking in on Fitzgerald's Jazz Age NY 80-some years later. Thanks for all your research.

I grew up on the North Shore of LI in 50s and 60s and we only took Northern Boulevard when we went into the City. This is a great analysis of Myrtle's last journey. And I love that the irony of sign business being at Dr. Eckleburg's spot.

Are you familiar with the site Small Demons, Levi? This would make a wonderful addition - it is a site where the characters, places and things of books come to life.

Best wishes.

by Jaclyn on

Thank you for posting this. This is really incredible! I've just started reading this book.. after years of being curious. Never read it in high school either, I hated books back then. And now, 32 years old, I'm fascinated, like a teenager. Thank the google gods for bringing me to your blog. I can't get enough. Thanks!

by Sam on

This is a cracking piece of research and online publishing. It is what the internet should be about. It helps that The G.G. is my favourite book.

by m heckman on

Willets Pt. Blvd seems to fit the description of the road in the story. Apparently, Roosevelt Ave. did not cross the creek back then. Somebody coming from the city might have driven out Roosevelt to Willets Pt. Blvd, then parallel to the College Pt. LIRR through the dumps and crossed the creek at Northern Blvd.

by m heckman on

Having posted my comment two days ago, I found the NYC map site which shows aerial views in 1924, 1951 and the present. I take back almost every thing I said. By dragging and enlarging the maps, I have to conclude that in 1924 Willets Pt. Blvd. was no more than a dirt track and Roosevelt Ave did not extend east of about 114th Street. So I would have to agree with David Fox's opinion that Fitzgerald used artistic license in describing the route through the dumps which would have to have been along Northern Blvd..

by Samantha Kleine on

Fascinating! Great detective work! Thanks for sharing it.

by David Fox on

The recent Gatsby film has likely sparked renewed interest in the book's geography. Unfortunately, I suspect that one of the landmarks of the Valley of Ashes, the eyes billboard, was likely fiction. The medical ethics of the era would have strongly condemned advertising of this sort. Indeed, this prohibition did not end until the Federal Trade Commission went after the American Medical Association around 1981.

It would be nice if someone would recreate this billboard near Northern Boulevard in Flushing where it could be seen in the Citifield area.

by C Carrick on

Definitely agree with M Heckman and David Fox. Very interesting to see a progressively more defined picture emerge in this string over time--thanks to Levi Asher for creating the forum.

Yes, Fitzgerald no doubt took artistic license to create the effect he wanted--i.e., to have Nick and Tom be able to get off an LIRR train and walk quickly to the gas station--100 yards according to the text. In reality, Northern Blvd (and hence the gas station) and the LIRR Port Washington Branch were about 1/2 mile apart where they crossed Flushing Creek. Tom presumably got on the train at its first stop in Port Washington ("East Egg") while Nick would have boarded at Great Neck station at the base of "West Egg" (assuming those stations existed then).

Also, Fitzgerald says, "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." The use of the phrase, "shrink away from" does indicate a road that skirts the valley of ashes rather than running through the middle. Northern Boulevard, jammed up against Flushing Bay, does give the impression of "shrinking" away from the area in question.

As already noted by others, Roosevelt Avenue did not yet run all the way to Flushing. But the IRT Flushing line (now the 7 train) that runs above that street was completed in 1928. On the zoomed in photo you can see what looks like an extension of Roosevelt Ave running part way through the Valley of Ashes which may have been part of or a precursor to the IRT/Roosevelt Ave extension construction.

by Kate Clark on

Having just seen the movie, we were curious about the route from long island to manhattan and found your information fascinating . Thanks for all your investigatory work!

by Robert Turk on

Thank you for your research. Very interesting! Just saw the movie, now want to read the book.

by Mike German on

Really great research and comments all around. First read TGG in HS, and have reread it at least twice since, and am always fascinated by the VoA, both as an actual place and for all the imagery it invites. Sure hope they locate the 1926 film version of the book, and resolve whatever silly copyright issues prevent the 1949 version from being shown. Shelley Winters as "Daisy?" Who knew!

by Wiseking on

The grim Corona Ash Dump and wetlands clearly served as inspiration for Scott. Did you consider the possibility that Alley Pond ( a glacial valley traversed by Old Northern Blvd and the Pt Washington Branch of the LIRR just a bit further east between Bayside and Little Neck) may also have?

by nywanderer on

Without asking you to do any more work, I'm wondering if it's possible to translate all this research into current street addresses/locations for the billboard and garage, the spot where Daisy Buchanan's car hit Myrtle Wilson, and for the 'motorcade' and the 'Valley' more generally.

by Levi Asher on

Sure, nywanderer -- if you look at this follow-up blog post you'll see this Google Maps link that pinpoints my best guess as to the actual location of George Wilson's garage.

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