Flushing: New York’s forgotten airport and most contested development site

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Flushing: New York's forgotten airport and most contested development site

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Flushing: New York's forgotten airport and most contested development site
The Goodyear Blimp visiting Flushing Airport in 1976 / Photo: Jay Beck-Alan Gross

The old Flushing Airport lies vacant, returned, 30 years after its closure, to the wetlands that sprawled across this part of Queens a century ago. Waterfowl patrol the site now, and whatever other creatures can handle the pollution from decades of small aviation and maintenance, and decades more of illegal dumping. At the southern end, Mill Creek – which once flowed unimpeded to Flushing Bay through the floodplain separating the villages of Flushing and College Point – emerges from the overgrown vegetation, sludgy and glistening green. In the background, cars hurtle along the Whitestone Expressway.

Opened in 1927 on city-owned land leased to private operators, Flushing Airport was briefly New York City’s busiest airfield, until the much bigger La Guardia, which opened in 1939, superseded it. But ever since its closure by mayor Ed Koch in 1984, it has become largely forgotten, save by aviation and history buffs, and Queens old-timers.

Alan Gross, who grew up in an apartment with a view of the field, said in its heyday the airport hosted dozens of small planes, along with police and television helicopters and, in the mid-1960s, the Goodyear blimp. Second world war-era planes used for sky writing took off from the field. “It was busiest on weekends, with people going out to the Hamptons,” said Gross, who had his first flight at the age of nine with the field’s longtime manager, Anthony “Speed” Hanzlick. “I had an aviation radio and would listen in.”

Today the field has lost its aviation significance and acquired a new one as a contested development site. A 70-acre triangle, it is one of the last large vacant tracts in the city, and the only one near a high-density area. Downtown Flushing, a frenetic retail and banking hub and the largest of New York City’s five Chinatowns, is one mile to the south. In between, atop the wetlands, are light industry, parking lots, city services and the new police academy. […]

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