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See All the World in Queens

Few visitors make it to Flushing, Queens, but (in more than one sense) you can see all of New York City here

People returning from New York City to their smaller city or town, which is most people returning from New York City, will often feel a little let down for the first while back. Not much can compare with the size and mythology of New York, but often travellers tend to stick to the prettier parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn – the Midtowns, Sohos, Park Slopes and DUMBOs – that are the postcard parts of the city. It’s like walking onto a movie set.

But most New Yorkers don’t live 5th Avenue lives, so to get a more down to earth grasp of the city it’s useful to visit some of the everyday parts of the city. Queens has a lot of those parts.

Roosevelt Avenue runs underneath the 7 Subway, the line that runs from Midtown east into deep Queens, through the Corona neighbourhood, before reaching Flushing Meadows Park. It’s a classic elevated subway that, from the underside view, evokes The French Connection’s famous car-chase scene. Even out here New York feels like a movie. As much of New York has cleaned up since its cinematic 1970s dirty days, the noisy steampunk nature of the elevated trains gives streets like Roosevelt a timeless feel.

Get off at the 111th Street station, the last station before the park, and before the 7 continues on into the Flushing neighbourhood, home to one of New York’s Chinatowns. 111th sounds like a nothing station, just another nearly no-name stop on the near-endless subway system, but when you step off there’s a civilization to discover. Here there’s a large Latino population, with traces of Flushing’s Chinatown in the mix, and bits of everything else. (The closest thing Toronto has to this magnificent jumble are the strip malls out in Scarborough. No subway there yet.)

Shawn Micallef/Billy

At the bottom of the station stairs there are street vendors, some selling food, big plumes of steam coming from their carts; some selling food such as ceviche and tamales, others various and sundry items like T-shirts and socks. You can buy a lot of stuff in New York. The street below the Elevated is a mix of dollar stores, Latino and vaguely Chinese takes on the classic New York diner, clinics, bars and the rest. Eat something here, it’s cheap: It’s nice not to be in the oligarch part of New York for a spell. The surrounding residential streets are lowrise, mostly single family homes on tiny plots of land with bars on the windows and fences around the postage stamp yards. This is still New York, where even the safe and pleasant neighbourhoods have the strongest deadbolts in the hemisphere. It’s an Archie Bunker landscape here, and it goes on and on.

New York truly feels endless here. Its size can almost be imagined, but you still might need a bit of help to truly grasp the scope. So walk a few blocks east to Flushing Meadows. There you’ll find the empty parking lots of Citi Field, waiting for the return of Mets fans at the next game. Walk south by Arthur Ashe stadium, home to the US Open, to the Queens Museum. Pay your admission and go directly to the New York Panorama, perhaps the most fantastic room in the city because the whole city is in that room.

Built for Robert Moses’s rogue 1964 World’s Fair – it was a “rogue” fair because it wasn’t sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions in Paris – the model is a 9,335-square-foot replica of all five boroughs of the city at a scale of 1:1200. Every building built prior to 1992 is there, and miniature planes even fly into and out of La Guardia on wires. An “adopt-a-building” program lets people sponsor new models of individual buildings to slowly bring the diorama up to date.

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Panorama of the City of New York at the Queens Museum

Standing on the balconies around the model, that New York bigness can be seen in one glance – but it’s a long glance, as even miniature New York is immense. It’s daunting too: How can anyone ever know this place? It might prove impossible, even for residents, but nobody will be bored trying. Wander out the back of the museum to the Unisphere, a massive representation of Earth made out of stainless steel, also from the 64 World’s Fair.

From the New York Panorama to the whole world, there it is, all in Queens.

Published Wednesday, June 22nd 2016

Header image credit: Alex Lopez/Courtesy NYC & Company

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