Transportation

The Colossus Cross Brooklyn Expressway

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Picture an alternate dimension in which the ubiquitous Robert Moses built even more skyscraping highways around New York City. In this alternate timeline, Southern Victorian Flatbush might have been the site of the Cross Brooklyn Expressway, a highway part of an enormous plan designed to change the realities of 20th century cities in America and around the world.

According to one 1941 “master plan” from the New York City Planning Commission, the large highway would have run over the Bay Ridge Division of the LIRR, currently the cut-out tracks that run under Coney Island Avenue south of Avenue H. The train line would have boasted passenger service in various versions of the highway’s plan, not all that different from what was proposed in 2008 by the MTA.

One version of the expressway was in planning as early as 1929 but was repeatedly pushed back as other Kings County projects such as the Bushwick Expressway (another phantom road) took priority.

The 12-mile, eight-lane CBE expressway would exist “to close the missing southern link in the city’s outer circumferential loop around Manhattan,” argued the Planning Commission in 1965.

The highway would have been depressed below street level (in the same way the Bay Ridge Line is today) until Glenwood Road when it would have risen up above the street and even above the raised-railroad track as it headed east. Several neighbors recall a facet of the plan that would have turned the dead-end at East 12th Street into an exit ramp instead of a residential street.

What a strange twist that would have been, a couple of pow-wowed East 12 St. residents wondered out loud about the plan. Well, one said, “there would have been upsides and downsides, that’s for sure.”

The plan was estimated to cost $266 million in 1966, coming out to a little over $1.5 billion dollars today’s money.

Those are the modest versions of the plan.

If the city government of the 1960s had its way, the Cross Brooklyn Expressway would have been the first step in building a linear city, “a structure that might be a mile wide and 20 miles long containing every possible urban function,” wrote Karrie Jacobs. In this vision, highways would minimally disrupt homes, shops, services and “an otherwise pristine natural landscape.”

That was the ideal anyway.

Although multiple uses for transportation rights-of-way were not a new concept, Linear City was seen as a vehicle to revitalize a community. Below the expressway, the LIRR Bay Ridge branch could be supplemented by passenger service. Above the expressway and its environs, at least 6,000 new housing units would be constructed. Also, an “educational park” – with multiple school facilities and anchored by Brooklyn College-CUNY (pictured at the top of the post)- would be built to accommodate 20,000 students in grades K-12, as provide for adult education. The “educational park,” through a public-private partnership, could also attract new businesses.

By 1967, Mayor John Lindsay pushed to build the 5.5 mile dense “Linear City” atop the Cross Brooklyn Expressway. Linear Cities were  “mid-century urban idealism,” according to Jacobs. “At the time, even the steadfastly sensible critic Ada Louise Huxtable supported the plan: ‘It almost seems to be in the cards, logically and inevitably…You can’t outlaw the 20th century.'”

It’s impossible to predict how such a gargantuan ultra-urban structure would have done to the middle of Brooklyn but it’s difficult to imagine the differences not being drastic. Think of a Gowanus Expressway-sized beast only bigger and full of more stuff. It would carry cars, trains, businesses and schools as it cut through. For better or worse, we wouldn’t live in the same neighborhood that we do today.

While Mayor Lindsay and the city government pushed for the idea, many in Brooklyn were opposed.  Brooklyn legislator Stanley Steingut said the expressway would “dislocate the whole face of Brooklyn.” Although the highway made it onto Federal maps as late as 1968, it was defeated in the heavily Democratic State Assembly and withdrawn by Mayor John Lindsay in May 1969 as he faced a tough election in November.

How do you think the Expressway would have changed the face of Brooklyn?

Art: New York City Department of Traffic, Information: NYCRoads.com, Dwell.com

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Why is C-Town responsible for the condition of the street and the storm sewers? This seems to be only a ‘red herring’ to distract us from the failure of the 66Pct and other city agencies to do their job and clean up CIA.

  2. Okay Patrick, this is eerily similar to my comments to a post 4 days ago, down to the questioning how the face of Brooklyn and our neighborhood in particular would have been so different. How about a bit of disclosure here.

  3. How funny. Good article though, however you did forget to mention the infamous Robert Moses. Perhaps a follow up dedicated to him?

  4. One thing is for sure – had this “Linear City” happened, diesel exhaust and inhaled PAH would likely have made Brooklyn the number one borough for childhood asthma – or at the least, tied with the Bronx. Let’s consider ourselves lucky this plan didn’t survive. Perhaps we can revisit when cars fly a la The Jetsons.

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