All That’s Utopian Melts Into Asphalt

Illustration by Josh Gosfield.

Utopia Parkway. It’s a name that sounds like an oxymoron, so impossible, so perfect it shouldn’t exist. Yet it does, a 5.1-mile gash—four lanes of asphalt, sometimes two—running through New York City’s largest borough, Queens.

The roadway begins, if a line can be said to begin, in Beechhurst in the north, right at the water’s edge. From there it runs past the Long Island Expressway, down through Clearview, Flushing, and Hillcrest to Jamaica Estates in the south, where it fragments just before reaching the behemoth of Grand Central Parkway. This intersection is one of the most dangerous in the city, a place where bodies, bikes, and sometimes lives meet the harsh reality of the pavement. For much of this route, the road is banal, an endless procession of squat brick houses broken up by the occasional gas station or bagel shop. But as it approaches its southern end, it narrows and shifts, becoming something else entirely: a quaint, tree-lined street that deposits its travelers in a place that may or may not exist. The maps call it Utopia, but the residents call it Fresh Meadows, which is its own kind of irony.

Most New Yorkers probably haven’t been to Utopia Parkway, haven’t traveled its stingy curves, but they may have heard of it in passing, from local traffic reports or perhaps from a line of poetry or song. With a name like Utopia Parkway, the bards were bound to discover it, mining it for meaning. Lawrence Joseph turned it into a poem, as did Julio Marzán. Charles Mee turned it into a play. In the 1990s, the indie rock band Fountains of Wayne spun it into both an album and a song. When the lead singer croons, “I’m on my way / Down Utopia Parkway,” he means that he is on his way to somewhere bigger, somewhere exciting—somewhere else, anywhere else. It sounds almost like an anthem—or a dare. Or maybe it’s a promise, bound to be broken.

Utopia Parkway—both the idea and the place—is a deeply New York phenomenon: high and low, longing and stasis, bravado and banality, all pulling in the same direction. While it’s certainly possible it could exist somewhere else, it’s also unlikely.

To understand why, it’s necessary to go back in time to another moment of mass movement and flux, when utopian dreams seemed to be everywhere: in illicitly printed pamphlets, in the underground safe houses of banned Russian revolutionary movements, and carried on the waves by a new mass of immigrants heading to New York City.

It was the late 19th century. After the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 and the wave of pogroms that followed, Jewish immigrants began to pour into the United States. By 1902, there were 585,000 in New York, making up over 17 percent of the city, most of them Eastern Europeans packed into the Lower East Side, where they sweated in the garment trades and began the now familiar story of economic ascent. But thousands of them had grander ambitions. Witness to political repression and racist mob violence, inspired by forbidden thinkers like Marx, Kropotkin, and the Russian radical Nikolay Chernyshevsky, these socialists and anarchists still nourished the dangerous dreams that sent them across the ocean.