The 14-mile-long Van Wyck Expressway is best known to New York City drivers for congestion and convenience as a connection to many Queens neighborhoods and Kennedy Airport.
The expressway was named in honor of Robert Van Wyck, the first mayor of the unified five boroughs of New York City, who was in office from 1898-1901. One of Van Wyck’s greatest accomplishments was breaking ground in 1900 on the city’s first subway, which eventually connected Brooklyn to Manhattan.
A graduate of Columbia Law School, he was born in New York City in 1849 and became a successful lawyer. He was elected as a judge on the city court in 1889 and later served as chief justice.
A large majority elected him mayor on the Democratic Party line. He signed into law the renaming of Broadway north of Columbus Circle, which had been called Western Boulevard, and brought together the municipal corporations in the city to adjust their finances and promote order.
But Van Wyck’s administration was scarred with corruption. He was accused of accepting a $500,000 bribe of stock from the American Ice Co., but was cleared of any misconduct by then Gov. Theodore Roosevelt. Van Wyck was also nominated for mayor by the tainted and powerful political institution of the time, Tammany Hall.
In the 1901 election, Van Wyck, whose first mayoral campaign featured the slogan, “To Hell with Reform,” lost to reform-focused Republican nominee Seth Low. The American Ice Co. scandal was generally seen as the reason for his defeat.
Van Wyck spent much of his remaining years in Paris, where he died at the age of 69 in 1918. In addition to having the expressway named after him, there is also the Van Wyck Boulevard stop on the E train, named in 1937 and MS 217 in Jamaica.
The expressway is a north-south connector in central Queens, starting at the airport and changing its name to the Whitestone Expressway at the other end. Also known as Interstate 678, it opened in October 1950, cost about $30 million to build and was later linked to the Kew Gardens interchange at a cost of $40 million.
The construction plan for that phase was created by Robert Moses and also included the creation of eight parks and other public spaces. From 1961 to 1963, the expressway was expanded between Grand Central Parkway and Northern Boulevard.
More than 110,000 vehicles are estimated to travel along the expressway each day. That’s why its legend grew even more when Seinfeld character Elaine Benes, stymied by traffic, famously acknowledged that “no one’s ever beaten the Van Wyck.”