Antes de las revueltas contra las autopistas en San Francisco, antes de que ciudadanos de Boston pusieran freno a una propuesta para correr la I-95 directamente a Back Bay, estuvo LOMEX- el Lower Manhattan Expressway, una autopista elevada de 10 carriles que dinamitaria su paso a través de SoHo y Little Italy en NYC .
El super constructor Robert Mosés propuso la carretera, corriendo por la calle Broome, para facilitar el flujo rápido del tráfico de Nueva Jersey a Long Island. Los conductores pasarian velozmente a través del Holland Tunnel, a través del bajo Manhattan y tomarian cualquiera de los puentes el Manhattan o el Williamsburg para cruzar el East River.
Alla en 1960, Moses usó el argumento de que el barrio que hoy se conoce como Soho -hoy son de los más valiosos bienes raices urbanos en el país, si no del mundo-, era una zona deprimida que sería el lugar perfecto para poner una carretera. Era un tugurio postindustrial asediado por incendios, apodado “Las 100 acres del infierno” por aquellos que promovian la renovación urbana en ese tiempo. Pero un grupo combativo y ecléctico de neoyorquinos se levantó en rebelión, horrorizado de que alguien quisiera arrasar casas y negocios para sustituirlas por concreto, asfalto y acero. Cincuenta años después, sería difícil encontrar a alguien que no está contento de que lo hicieran.
La historia de la lucha contra el Lower Manhattan Expressway vuelve a contarse en una exhibicion, abierta hasta marzo, en el elegante edificio Municipal Archives de la calle Chambers, organizada por el Departamento de Registros y Servicios de Información de la ciudad de Nueva York en colaboración con Below the Grid Lab y el Asian/Pacific/American Institute en la Universidad de Nueva York. “A la sombra de la Carretera: la autopista de Robert Moses y la lucha por el centro urbano” es un viaje en el tiempo al pasado, sorprendente tanto por la audacia de la planificación urbana auto-céntrica de la época y como por los esfuerzos pioneros de la ciudadanía para detener la locura de construir carreteras atravesando el corazón de las ciudades.
LOMEX was one of four crosstown expressways envisioned by Moses, joining the Midtown Expressway along 34th Street connecting the Lincoln Tunnel and the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and the Upper Manhattan Expressway or Cross-Harlem Expressway at 125th Street linking a new Hudson River crossing withthe Triborough Bridge. Only the fourth, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, was actually built.
Across America, highway-building through cities was seen as the road to salvation, a way to reduce congestion and compete with suburbs. The fervor resulted in the construction of the elevated Central Artery through downtown Boston in the 1950s, torn down and depressed into a tunnel at a cost of nearly $15 billion in the megaproject known as the Big Dig.
The Lower Manhattan Expressway was exactly the same model as the Central Artery and many other elevated expressways of the era, and would have required similar destruction. Cast-iron façade buildings along Broome Street would have been demolished to make way for the viaduct—a replica of which occupies the exhibit space, its steel supports painted green, as if that would gussy up the infrastructure. The exhibit also includes bizarre renderings of Paul Rudolph-designed Brutalist structures on either side of the highway, a further attempt to conjure a Le Corbusier-style urban development to help justify the project.
Against this tide of inevitability, a patchwork coalition came together, with assemblymen, city council members, business owners, future mayor John Lindsay, and neighborhood activists including some, shall we say, influential representatives of Little Italy. One of the most intriguing figures was the dashing Father Gerard LaMountain, pastor of the Church of the Most Holy Crucifix on Broome Street. (Ben Affleck would be a good choice to play him in the movie.) LaMountain took a lot of heat for his work assembling the rebellion; Moses had connections with the Archdiocese. Ultimately, Jane Jacobs joined the fight, culminating in her arrest for inciting a riot at a 1968 hearing on the project, which ended with the stenotype record being shredded and tossed into the air like confetti.
“In the Shadow of the Highway” ably leads the visitor through the story of the grassroots fight against LOMEX, a key drama in my book Wrestling with Moses. But new documentation released by the NYC Department of Records provides some revealing additional detail. The curators were kind enough to send me the full 226-page transcript of a 1962 Board of Estimate hearing, where the first brave citizens stood at the microphone in the early stages of the battle. The way these folks were treated, not so much heard as tolerated and more than occasionally patronized, reflects the paternalistic stance of government hell-bent on redevelopment.
LaMountain served as master of ceremonies, introducing speakers, while the leader of the hearing, Manhattan borough president Edward Dudley, urged everyone to keep it short and check emotions at the door. “No booing, please,” he says at one point. One exchange with a resident, Henry Berger, is typical:
Berger: “We expect to make a decision on this today, do we?”
Dudley: “If you want to be a comedian here and act in front of an audience, I don’t think this is very funny.”
Berger: “Neither do I and I am not acting as a comedian.”
Dudley: “Well that’s exactly what you are trying to be.”
Berger goes on to say he plans to ask some very pointed questions, to which Dudley replies, “And you are going to get some very pointed answers, too.”
Cities across the land have the gumption of New Yorkers to thank for standing up to the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which inspired so many other freeway battles, some successful, some not. But LOMEX was also an important turning point for citizen input on urban planning, development, and major infrastructure projects. These days, no smart developer proposes building anything without checking with the community first. Cities trying to do master planning don’t cook up a plan behind closed doors and then trot it out to get reaction from the populace. Planners today seek more open-ended ideas about the future.
The Regional Plan Association has thought a lot about civic engagement in the shaping of the 4th Regional Plan, conducting focus groups and enlisting on-the-ground community groups to guide the process. Boston’s current comprehensive planning process, Imagine Boston 2030, is following a similar script. It’s a particular arabesque, because at some point someone has to put forward concrete proposals and projects in the physical planning stage. But the goal is to convey the notion that citizens are in charge.
Father LaMountain and his lineup of speakers might not have realized they were setting a new standard for urban redevelopment to decades to come. Even Henry Berger became apologetic at the end of his testimony: “I’m sorry to be a little bit angry and rough with you.”
Not at all, Mr. Berger. The floor is yours.