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!