Once More to West Egg, Through the Valley of Ashes

American Classics Fiction Jazz Age Modernism New York City Visual Art

This is Willets Point, a sprawling center for automobile salvage located just west of Flushing Meadows Park in New York City, a place of amazing squalid beauty. CitiField, where the Mets play baseball, is visible just beyond the scrap yards. Willets Point, one of the last remaining vestiges of the Great Gatsby's Valley of Ashes, that glorious Danteesque wasteland, is about to disappear forever. It will be replaced by a gleaming mixed-use development project encompassing "retail and entertainment amenities, a hotel and convention center, mixed-income housing, public open space, and community uses".

Willets Point was not the whole of the gigantic Valley of Ashes, which is now covered by the main area of Flushing Meadows Park (still and always my favorite park in New York City). CitiField, the US Open Tennis Center and the bygone Shea Stadium and Worlds Fair grounds were built directly on top of the original burning trashworks. And, once Willets Point is replaced by shiny new buildings, we will still keep some remainders of the desolate vision that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald, because the asphalt and gravel factories on the east bank of Flushing Creek will continue to operate under the shadow of the Van Wyck Expressway overpass. Maybe the Valley of Ashes will never completely disappear.

The art directors for the Baz Luhrmann Great Gatsby film that premiered earlier this year must have scouted out the Queens location carefully, because they did a great job of capturing the ambience, as seen in film stills like this one. The similarity to my photo at the top of the page seems quite remarkable:

Back in the 1920s, here's how the whole vista appeared to Francis Cugat, who produced this sketch as one possible idea for the book's cover:

When the Willets Point development project was announced last year, NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg even talked about the Fitzgerald connection (this article quoting Bloomberg also shows the original Litkicks graphic image of the old Valley of Ashes, cited here as a WikiCommons image, which I guess is close enough). Bloomberg is correct that Willets Point was part of the original trash burning operation, although I wish he had clarified that the specific spot by the train tracks described in Gatsby is many blocks south of Willets Point, and on the other side of Flushing Creek. The actual block where Myrtle Wilson was hit by a yellow car (on Sanford Avenue between College Point and DeLong) is also being "developed" all too quickly right now. The sign manufacturing center that once produced Dr. Eckleberg's famous sign has just been closed, and the humble Home Depot that once anchored this desolate industrial neighborhood under the Van Wyck Expressway has now been joined by a Target, a Best Buy, a BJs and a Marshall.

The summer of 2013 felt like a Great Gatsby summer to me. Not only because of the Baz Lurhmann movie, which I loved, but also because something of the panicky, desperately beautiful emotion of the book seemed recently to be in the air. I know 'Blurred Lines' is the song of the summer, but F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel feels like the literary classic of the summer of 2013, at least to me.

Since I've written so much about the Valley of Ashes on this blog, I thought it'd be a good idea to finally complete the journey and take you all to West Egg -- that is, to Great Neck, the fashionable town on Long Island's north shore where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald briefly lived while he thought up the idea for Gatsby. The "Gatsby house" can be found at 6 Gateway Drive, in the southern inland section of town right near Middle Neck Road. It can be a little confusing to find, because this section of Gateway Drive appears to be a section of Deepdale Drive. To start, look for this intersection:

And then turn to see a beige house on the triangular corner, unmarked by any literary sign. It's a fairly large residence, glamorous but not particularly unique in this neighborhood. The fanciest houses in Great Neck, of course, were and still are by the water, which this one is not.

Weirdly, there is a painted plaster cow on the lawn of this house!

This section of Great Neck seems both arty and otherworldly, since many Orthodox Jews now appear to live in this exact neighborhood -- making it more likely that the descendants of Meyer Wolfsheim now reside in any of the homes on Deepdale or Gateway Drive than the descendants of Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

I didn't find my stroll through Fitzgerald's mythical West Egg nearly as thrilling as any of my regular strolls through Flushing Meadows Park ever are. It seems odd that the "Gatsby house" is just a private residence, with nothing to mark its special provenance. As I walked by, a young man left the house and got into a black pickup truck. I bet he knew why I was standing there taking pictures with my iPhone, but I doubt that many of his neighbors are aware.

The feeling of ironic detachment doubled back on me after I stepped onto Middle Neck Road, the shopping street just east of Gateway Drive, and saw this marquis on the local movie theater, listing a film called simply The Gatsby as one of several features in rotation:

Are people actually seeing the new Great Gatsby movie just one block from where the novel was written, without knowing about the literary holy ground they are standing on? It seems incredible to me. I stood at this spot for a few minutes, allowing my mind to simply boggle. I didn't see a yellow car anywhere around.

4 Responses to "Once More to West Egg, Through the Valley of Ashes"

by Liz on

I grew up in Great Neck, and it's just about impossible to live in ignorance of the Gatsby connection. The film didn't cause a revival of interest in the area's literary history - it put it into overdrive! The awning to the right of the theater - that's for the Great Neck Arts Center, which hosts a film festival and series. They hosted a screening of the film two days before its premiere, with Luhrmann as a special guest speaker.

You might be interested in pictures of Lands End, believed to be the inspiration for the Buchanan's house (who, by the by, were across the water in East Egg/Sands Point, Port Washington - not West Egg/Great Neck!). There is a great photo gallery here: http://www.chrisbain.com/album/gallery.html#folder=Lands%20End. Haven't been there myself, but seems like another example of the film's stunning visual accuracy.

The house you scouted in Great Neck was Fitzgerald's residence, but not the novel's setting or inspiration. "West Egg" refers more specifically to Kings Point, the northernmost village in Great Neck. If you had made it as far north as the subtly-named Gatsby Lane, you may have found the setting more to your liking. That's where you'll find a large estate covering the tip of the peninsula, the closest to an actual "Gatsby House" I can imagine. It's large and grandiose, and previously owned by Richard Church, who threw the wild parties. My younger brother went to school with a girl who lived there, whose parents both died on the property of uncertain causes. Tragically, she was the one to find her mother, in the pool no less. Much earlier, her maternal grandmother died after crashing into a tree on the same property. They have since sold the property.

by Levi Asher on

Great info, Liz -- thanks!

by Janet Chall on

Dear Levi, As a Great Neck resident (living 2 blocks from the Fitsgerald home) I want you to consider the possiblity that the valley of Ashes was actually closer to Great Neck on Northern Blvd, also next to the LIRR track, going over a small creek with a little bridge in Little Neck at the site of the present Golf Driving Range. As a former Queens resident I had heard this was the spot! Its where Kiddy City originally was and for a very long time there was a gas station as well. If you look on your map it is quite similiar in landscape to the Willets pt. location. Sincerely, Janet

by Levi Asher on

Very interesting, Janet! I've never heard that theory, and the fact that the theory exists is noteworthy. But, it's not just me but virtually every other commentator or expert on "Great Gatsby" who states that the valley of ashes was the Corona ash dump. So I think we have to conclude that they have it right! At least I hope so. Thanks for commenting.

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