Van Wyck Expressway

4 miles

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

The Van Wyck Expressway, named for former Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck (1849-1918), was built to connect John F. Kennedy Airport (then called Idlewild) to several of the main east-west thoroughfares that run through Queens. Beginning at the intersection of the Whitestone Expressway and College Point Boulevard, near Flushing Bay, it runs north-south through Queens, and at the southern end in the JFK Airport, it twists through the terminal nucleus and turns into the JFK Expressway.

Robert A. Van Wyck was born in New York City in 1849. A graduate of Columbia Law School, he was elected to a judgeship on the City Court in 1889. Tammany Hall (the corrupt and dominant City political institution of the time) boss Richard Croker (1841-1922) nominated Van Wyck for Mayor in 1897, and assisted him in becoming the first mayor of Greater New York after consolidation in 1898. Several notable accomplishments took place during Van Wyck’s term in office. In 1899, he signed into law the renaming of Broadway north of Columbus Circle, which had previously been called Western Boulevard. On March 24 1900, Mayor Van Wyck broke ground in front of City Hall for the City’s first subway, which eventually would connect Brooklyn to Manhattan.

Van Wyck’s administration was decidedly under the Tammany Hall thumb that had elected him; his campaign slogan was “To Hell with Reform.” His years in office were marred by accusations that he accepted $500,000 of stock in the American Ice Company, though Governor Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) cleared him of any wrongdoing in 1900. Still, in the election of 1901, Van Wyck lost to the reform-minded Republican nominee Seth Low (1850-1916). Van Wyck died in Paris in 1918.

The Van Wyck Expressway was built in large part to relieve traffic congestion at the entrance of the Municipal Airport at Idlewood, now JFK. Before World War II (1939-1945), traffic and housing development in the area had not hampered convenient access to the airport. However, 1945 saw the return of many servicemen who contributed to a boom in housing development in the region, and this inevitably led to traffic congestion around the airport. As a result, Queens Borough President James A. Burke and Arterial Coordinator Robert Moses (1888-1981) faced a major project of moving homes and relocating tenants when planning the Van Wyck Expressway.

The City obtained the land for the expressway on March 6, 1946, and planned to build a 3.2 mile long highway with 9.345 acres of parklands and public spaces. The expressway cost approximately $30 million, paid with State and Federal funds. Five parks were built at that time in conjunction with the expressway, including those now known as Norelli-Hargreaves Playground, Dr. Charles R. Drew Memorial Park, Marshal Foch Plaza, and Playground 140. Initial construction of the Van Wyck Expressway (I-678) was completed in 1950, and the roadway was officially opened on October 14 of that year.

One of the most challenging aspects of the Van Wyck Expressway’s construction was how to run the road through the Long Island Rail Road switching yards and terminal in Jamaica, Queens. That area was the site of one of the world’s busiest commuter railroad junctions, with 1,100 commuter trains running through each day. Robert Moses and his engineers worked around the problem by literally lifting the railroad yards into the air and building the expressway underneath, with trains remaining in full service for the seven months of construction. In December 1949, the City obtained another tract of land between the Grand Central Parkway and Queens Boulevard, which enabled developers to build three additional parks and one additional public space.

Every day approximately 110,000 vehicles travel along the Expressway from the Whitestone Expressway to the interchange in Kew Gardens. From that interchange to the John F. Kennedy Airport, the estimate of 160,000 vehicles daily gives testament to the road’s popularity and function.

Saturday, Dec 01, 2001

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