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Jane Jacobs had published The Death and Life of Great American Cities seven years previously, in 1961; a year after Rudolph began his study of the Expressway, in 1968, Governor Rockefeller would freeze Moses out of the city's transportation agencies. By the time Rudolph stopped working on this proposal in 1972, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and grand building schemes like this one were relegated to the realm of fantasy. In a review on the Design Observer blogs, Mark Lamster wrote that Rudolph's was "an extraordinary vision, if not a practical one."
Rudolph's drawings are indeed amazing, especially the ones that compare the hugeness of his vision to existing landmarks (the red drawing above frames the towers of the Williamsburg Bridge, which is huge in its own right, in the center).
The show is powerful not just for its audacity, but for what we know now, forty years later, when the historic neighborhoods that Rudolph and Moses would have liked to have bulldozed are worth hundreds of billions of dollars. In hindsight, it's easy for us to say, "something like that could never actually happen."
Except for one thing: something like Rudolph's vision actually did happen. A few miles away, on the same island of Manhattan, urban renewalists and highway builders had actually finished a massive cross-island expressway, topped with apartment towers and a major transit hub, several years before Paul Rudolph started designing the LOMEX.
This is the Trans-Manhattan Expressway, also known as I-95, the only Interstate highway that crosses Manhattan Island. It was opened in 1963, when a second deck was added to the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey. It crosses the island in Washington Heights, where the island is only one mile wide, but its construction still required the demolition and clearance of dozens of buildings on eight dense city blocks.
"This is the first expressway to be built across Manhattan, and we hope that the Lower Manhattan and Mid-Manhattan expressways, both of which have been the victims of inordinate and inexcusable delays caused by intemperate opposition and consequent official hesitation, will follow. These crosstown facilities are indispensable to be effectiveness of the entire metropolitan arterial objective of removing traffic through congested city streets."
Of course, the scorn for opposition that Moses has on display in this quote was even then sowing the seeds of his downfall. And with the benefit of hindsight, it's easy for us to chuckle at the notion that building a fast and convenient route for cars and trucks to enter Manhattan would do anything to remove any traffic from New York's streets:
The Trans-Manhattan Expressway wasn't merely a freeway, though. It was a linear megastructure that stacked a complex of modernist transportation hubs and huge apartment blocks overhead. On the western end, Moses built a winged bus terminal that squatted over the freeway's entrance ramps:
On the eastern end, the city sold development rights to private developers who built four enormous apartment towers, known today as the "Bridge Apartments." The New York Times did a story a few years ago called "Life on the Road," a chronicle of the apartments' history and what it's like to live there. "If the windows are open, the noise is most deafening on the middle floors, and people inside find that they need to raise their voices to hold a conversation or talk on the phone," writes reporter David Chen. "The winds carry vehicle exhaust upward, which is especially noticeable on the terraces. And on most floors, the vibrations of trucks can clearly be felt, along with those of any construction equipment."
The Bridge Apartments loom over Washington Heights like mother ships from a sci-fi movie. I remember catching sight of them from time to time when I worked as a park ranger in Inwood Hill Park, two miles away, and being startled by their incongruous appearance on the skyline. This in a city known for its tall buildings - but the four towers, lined up in a row and hulking over a major freeway, have an otherworldly quality to them (Mario Burger's photo at the top of this post is the best illustration of this feeling that I was able to find online).
*The Ford Foundation's involvement in promoting LOMEX was probably not a self-serving effort to get more New Yorkers into Fords, as I'd initially suspected. By the late 1960s, the Ford Foundation, most famous for sponsoring the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was separating itself from the Ford Motor Company through stock divestiture and new members of its Board of Directors (source). Instead, the Foundation seems to have hired Rudolph in a well-meaning - if misguided - effort to promote "urban renewal" in what were then some of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods.