If you haven’t yet seen Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby—go see it now. Besides being based on one of my favorite novels, the film also shows some great images of old New York, from the Queensboro Bridge to the Plaza Hotel.
Not everything, however, is glitz and glamour in this Jazz Age film. Halfway between the grand estates of Long Island and the vibrant energy of Manhattan lies the Valley of Ashes. I had read The Great Gatsby six times while attending high school and college in San Diego (and I re-read last weekend the same paperback version that I bought as a freshman in high school). To me, a non-New Yorker at the time, the Valley of Ashes was powerfully symbolic, a setting F. Scott Fitzgerald created to characterize George Wilson—and many of the novel’s other characters. This bleak, gray place symbolized death and unchanging fate. From dust we were made, and to dust we shall return.
Little did I know then that the Valley of Ashes was a real place, the dumping ground of the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company from 1909 through the 1930s. As City Journal explains in a 21-year-old article,
Since oil as a domestic heating fuel was virtually unknown in the 1920s, ashes were produced in vast quantities by the coal-fired burners in practically all the buildings of the city. At that time, the city’s own dumping grounds were insufficient, so it paid private operators, including the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company, for the privilege of dumping on their property.
In an ironic twist, the Valley of Ashes, the symbol of death and unchanging fate, was in fact transformed. With the help of Robert Moses, the dumping grounds were cleared, and Flushing Meadows Corona Park was created, home to the 1939-40 and 1964-65 Worlds Fairs.
As City Journal concluded,
The valley of ashes lives on only in literature. Few who spread their blankets under the trees of Flushing Meadows or play soccer on its fields are aware that they are enjoying themselves on the grounds of Fitzgerald’s wasteland. Instead of a barren wilderness, parkgoers find something closer to the haunting image at the book’s close, “a fresh green breast of the New World” that flowers for generations of New Yorkers to come.
Just as he transformed almost every corner of this city, for better or worse, Robert Moses helped change the Valley of Ashes into the home of Citi Field, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and the Queens Museum of Art.
For images of the Valley of Ashes as it once was, check out this CUNY site.
Finally, if you’re a big Gatsby fan as I am, you might enjoy these links that I posted to I Happen to Like New York’s Facebook page over the last week:
The Real Life Towns that Inspired The Great Gatsby
Mapping the 1920s New York City of The Great Gatsby
Recipe for a Gin Rickey