I'm thinking about freeways...
Growing up in the twilight years of the American romance with an ever expanding interstate highway system, after acres of pristine prairie and forest had been paved and chunks of vibrant (usually African-American or immigrant) neighborhoods had been either bulldozed or severed from their surroundings by freeway construction, after the land-use patterns that resulted from that construction bred the worst kind of blight and sprawl from the edges and deep into our cities, I began to wonder what would become of these automobile environments that we had created. If the new construction of limited-access interstates and loop arterials were the first phase in the life of freeways in the United States, and the capacity saturation, gridlock and subsequent expansion of the 1970's through 1990's is the second, what is the next step, the third phase?
I live two blocks from the East River in Manhattan. The breathtaking view that I enjoy, with churning steel blue water reflecting the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Verrazano Narrows Bridges, the mighty borough of Brooklyn and the new Brooklyn Bridge Park under construction across the way, joggers and cyclists competing for space with tourists on our side the river's shores - all of this would have been unthinkable in the late 19th century. To New York in the 19th century, the East and Hudson Rivers were places of filth and vice, sylvan banks had long since given way to piers, tanneries, shipyards, counting houses and trash heaps, prostitution and gambling flourished in the neighborhoods that serviced the great seaport that had grown much of the way up both rivers. The banks of the river were unpleasant places for cultured folk. For one thing, they smelled awful and the shouts of stevedores unloading fish from the Chesapeake did not lend itself to residential accommodation. It says volumes about the way New York felt about its rivers that the city's toniest thoroughfare, the home of the monied elite and the commerce that sustained them - the famous Fifth Avenue - runs down the center of the island, as far from both rivers as was possible.
As commerce and patterns of transportation shifted (shipping across to places like Elizabeth, New Jersey, transatlantic travel replaced by jet airplane, etc. ) and the rivers began to lose their grip on the elite's imaginations as conduits foul smells and loose morals, an earlier, more romantic view of the river as something pleasurable to look at, to be near, reestablished itself in Manhattan. River House, Beekman and Sutton Places and the like sprung up as acceptable alternatives to Fifth and Park because the East River was once again seen as an asset rather than a liability, with thousands of glowing windows framing views of cruise ships, pleasure craft and ferries slicing through the currents. The land beneath them whose value had plummeted with the departure of commerce became valuable again. On the west side, the Hudson riverfront has become one of the island's premier real-estate assets, with hyper-luxurious condominium complexes and elite financial institutions vying for space along the nearly complete Hudson River Park.
Fast forward to the early 21st century and those freeways. Freeways are to us what the rivers were to 19th century New York. In fact, for many American cities that came of age in the 20th century, the freeway as a lifeline that connected it to customers and suppliers in other cities functioned in much the same way as the East and Hudson rivers. They are also universally unpleasant place to live near, because they are noisy and they smell. Sound familiar? But what if cars and trucks weren't loud and didn't emit harmful chemical clouds out of their tailpipes? Is it possible that we could repopulate the shores of our freeways, with picture windows to capture the beautiful trails of head and taillights bending toward the horizon? Anyone who has driven or nearly been run over by a Prius knows that quieter car engines are the future. If we go further and rethink the way we design cars to reduce the noise created by rubber meeting asphalt, and if we continue to raise emission standards, could we reduce the negative aspects of life along a freeway to a tipping point, converting the interstate's incessant flow of traffic into a real estate asset? How many millions of acres of fallow land could we recapture?
Sunday, November 8, 2009
In today's New York Times Automobile section is an article that identifies the freeway interchange as a twentieth-century work of civic art, or at least having the potential to be. This reminded me that back in high school, when the intersection of I-35W and I 20 in my hometown of Fort Worth was being rebuilt into a mesmerizing knot of flyovers, I began to think that such marvels should be treated as such, with the unused open land below repurposed for parks or trails or forests and the concrete structures beautifully lit at night. Still a good idea...