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Monday, March 3, 2014

Work Below, Glide Above

Most people today have difficulty understanding the motivations behind elevated highways, especially along waterfronts. With luxury housing rising to take in the views, there is generally no hint left of the work that formerly dominated the waterfront, forming the demand and context for the highways. These unattractive structures, and the dark, foreboding spaces they seem to create below, can appear to be nothing other than wanton acts of brutality against the city. That is, unless there is some historical perspective.

The leisure spaces of the waterfront today bear no resemblance to the intense workspaces of the past. Docks with their stevedores and drayage once spilled out into wide, nondescript marginal streets. Vendors crowded along the street between the dock workers and the landlocked stretches of the city. It was an immense hustle and bustle out in the open air and the workers were all subject to the capriciousness of the sky.

The New York docks in the days of the square rigger.
New York Public Library

A Jam in West Street, North River
New York Public Library

Scene on West Street along the Hudson River, in front of Pennsylvania Railroad freight stations. (1899)
New York Public Library

The elevated highways bypassed all the congestion and chaos of the street below. It was a truly remarkable, modern transformation to be able to move goods quickly from the docks past the rest of the waterfront. Moreover, the emerging auto drivers had the thrill of taking in the view of the waterfront on a smooth trip in and out of town.

In addition to avoiding the former messiness of the waterfront streets, the elevated highways provided some organization and shelter for the work spaces underneath. The columns demarcated separate areas while the roadway served as a roof that kept the activities below dry.

Pier 58, North River. View from Street
New York Public Library

Change has completely overtaken every aspect of this historic landscape. There are no more urban waterfront docks. The shipping industry has been containerized and moved into enormous reservations beyond the view of urban centers. The peddlers have disappeared along with the small-scale shipping that provided their goods, and today's working-class customers largely shop at big box retail that is also spread out of sight of the urban core.

The highways no longer serve the function of moving goods from the port, nor do they offer any advantages as a sheltering space. Those highways that have not already been removed act as a visual barrier between increasingly affluent communities and waterfronts that are now clean and attractive. There is still some argument in their favor for providing safe pedestrian access to the waterfront, but there may be a case to be made that removing a barrier may outweigh the risks of at-grade crossings.

Some of today's inland highways bear some remote similarities to the old waterfronts. Although not always the case (residential neighborhoods were sometimes eviscerated), elevated highways often run above urban industrial areas. This makes sense, since highways are less compatible with residences and condemning a business property is an easier task than removing citizens from their homes. Yet, while many highways ran above areas with industrial activities and active truck use, in very few cases did these ever develop a truly productive relationship. The Bronx Terminal Market, which relied on the Major Deegan Expressway as a roof for the open-air market, is the only case that really comes to mind (and it has been closed for years).

One key difference may be the intensity of the uses. The waterfronts were crowded, and quickly filled into the spaces below the highways with the general pressure to use any available space. The industrial areas the highways cross don't seem to have had the same pressures. Rather than intense exchanges of goods, the main demand on these areas has been parking. And trucks and cars below the highways is typically what you see. That is, if you see anything at all.

As often as not, it seems the space below elevated highways has become a sort of demilitarized zone, fenced off with nothing to fill the vacantness (except for the windblown trash, and sometimes homeless encampments with access cut through the fences). There are surely reasons for this. For example, truck parking, and certainly storage, can come with risks. A major, multi-megaWatt fire could damage the structure and imperil the regional transportation network. Leaking vehicles can contaminate the site. Managing leased property requires dedicated staff and management attention, and a State department of transportation may find these tasks to be a distraction from its mission. The space below the highway is periodically useful or necessary for access while performing maintenance work, as well as for laydown areas. With a proliferation of issues and little obvious benefit for regional transportation, bureaucratic inertia favors the simple solution of putting up a fence.

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In addition to the institutional indifference to use is the general deindustrialization of American cities. Following decades of sending production jobs overseas, there is generally not much demand for more intensive uses in industrial areas. The pressure in recent years has been to convert industrial areas to residential uses. The result has been to shift more focus to removing highways that supposedly blight areas that might otherwise become attractive as the next hot urban neighborhood.

Such efforts may ultimately prove to be shortsighted. I suspect we are at a historic low point for domestic manufacturing. The ability to offshore jobs may well have run its course. As China and other low-wage countries continue to develop, they will gradually demand higher wages. They will also increase their own domestic demand for the same products we import, increasing price pressure. If fuel costs increase by any significant margin, that would further erode the cost advantage of importing virtually all our goods. A resurgence of American manufacturing may not be guaranteed, but it is a very likely future. To the extent it can be influenced by policy decisions, we should grab the opportunity to restore working-class jobs.

If we do begin making things in the United States once again, we probably shouldn't just give away all the industrial space in our cities. There is something to be said for tucking away the less sightly industrial odds and ends below existing highways. The alternative seems to be spending public money to gentrify productive landscapes and then trucking everything much longer distances from remote, exurban locations that are inaccessible to workers and results in more fuel usage, emissions, and congestion.

We should explore new forms of productive work areas below these highways. If nothing else, I would be perfectly happy with an outcome of reactivated industrial areas, where the space below the highways was used for nothing more glamorous than truck parking interspersed with occasional food truck courts that urban workers can walk to safely while the trucks from their factories zoom along overhead. It very well could be preferable to creating yet another landscaped "boulevard," where pedestrians unnecessarily cross too many lanes of traffic at grade to get from one gentrified neighborhood to another, while the workers and their jobs are all forced out to impoverished suburban and exurban locations, far from view of the leisure cities that enjoy the fruit of their labors.

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