The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

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JUL-AUG 2010 Issue


There isn’t much to look at under the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge. A tangle of loop ramps and interchanges hide the original masonry arches, and any bit of ground space that doesn’t have cars on it is fenced off for construction. Hugging the nearby shoreline is a shared bike and pedestrian lane, but most of it is obscured by FDR Drive and the makeshift storage facilities beneath it. Edenic by comparison, the Brooklyn side features the brand new Brooklyn Bridge Park, where on summer weekends couples on manicured knolls turn their backs to Manhattan and pose for wedding photos. Families stroll past them on a boardwalk wide enough for a marching band and some come back at night for outdoor film screenings.

The discrepancy brings up some questions. Why was one side left to its smog burns and Rent-A-Fence and the other given a makeover? Who was in charge of the latter and how did they make it happen? Why doesn’t anyone do something like this for the neglected end?

Monroe street view.
Monroe street view.

For decades the Brooklyn side sat in termite-infested ruins until a group of local residents wondered if they could reclaim some of the land for public recreational use. They formed the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy and set out to transform the rotting piers into grass fields and promenades. But the proposal took 20 years to get approval. It became one of the most fiercely disputed park projects in the borough’s history, with the sharpest barbs aimed at the luxury high-rises that would help fund the operation. Many felt the park would mainly serve wealthy residents and tourists, and wondered aloud why these public-space projects never got much steam in lower-income or minority neighborhoods.

A birdseye view of Manhattan.
A birdseye view of Manhattan.

Despite these valid criticisms and the fact that the park is still exploring ways to pay for itself, it’s hard to look at the teeming playgrounds, locally sourced art and the packs of Brooklynites getting sunburned on the lawns and argue that the waterfront was fine the way it was two decades ago. Perhaps it’s too squeaky-clean for some people’s tastes (including this observer’s), but the hard fact remains that we now have free, publicly accessible recreational space in an area that was once abandoned and falling apart. Most of the project is privately funded, meaning the mayor won’t be diverting hundreds of millions of tax dollars from schools or senior centers. And it wasn’t city brass that came up with the idea back in 1987. It was a bunch of regular citizens like you and me.

At least one group wants to implement similar changes to the Manhattan side of the bridge. They aren’t exactly “regular citizens”; their members live all over the world and happen to have careers in mass transit planning and urban design. But they’re not politicians or engineers with long-term government contracts either. They are the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, and their reimagining of the Brooklyn Bridge and its environs is just one part of an ambitious worldwide program for alternative transport. The program, called Our Cities Ourselves, pairs 10 major architecture firms with 10 metropolitan areas around the world—cities that ITDP believes will double in population size by 2030.

Park below the Brooklyn Bridge. Images courtesy of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy,
Park below the Brooklyn Bridge. Images courtesy of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, "Our Cities Ourselves" exhibit.

Michael Sorkin, the laurelled architect and urban design theorist, is the head creative on the New York proposal. Here’s a breakdown of his plan:

•Create an “eco-zone” of public parks, gardens, and walkable streets in the areas around the Brooklyn Bridge.

•Create protected, two-way bike lanes on the lower level of the bridge and leave the elevated walkway entirely to pedestrians.

•Restrict private car use on the bridge and a large portion of Lower Manhattan.

•Knock out the entire section of FDR Drive south of the bridge and all connecting ramps.

This last point is what makes many reactions go from a skeptical “if only” to “keep dreaming.” Repurposing structures and spaces in ruin could be a realizable dream. Banning cars and demolishing part of an active highway to make room for an “eco-zone”—these sound more like fantasies, especially in light of the construction that’s already started in the area, which will supposedly improve traffic flow and allow even more cars to pass between the FDR and the bridge.

At the opening reception for Our Cities Ourselves, which is on view at the Center for Architecture (through mid-September), many of the guests are a bit suspicious of the site plans.

“I’m happy that they’re doing this,” says architect Will Martin from Williamsburg. “But it seems unrealistic. For a city based on quadrangles and grid traffic, this is a complete shift to the opposite.”

“It’s like they just painted it with vegetation,” says a woman from the DOT who didn’t want to be named. “This shit doesn’t just grow on its own.”

On one artist’s rendering, FDR Drive has been replaced by curvy waterfront properties and every rooftop in Lower Manhattan is a light green square. In another image, the bridge itself is lined from end to end with coniferous trees. Others show Chinatown and the Lower East Side as veritable jungles, with shoppers mingling beneath the dense canopies. The pictures are breathtaking in a way that makes you feel both delighted and confused—delighted because who wouldn’t want beautiful parks and tree-covered walkways in their city? Confused because, well, is this even New York?

Michael Sorkin’s studio is “devoted to both practical and theoretical projects on all scales with a special interest in the city and in green architecture.” He’s also the director of the graduate urban design program at City College, an academic who splits his time between imagining the future and practicing his craft all over the world. As such, he is equal parts professional and augur—at once sharply articulate and dreamy-voiced, down-to-earth and starry-eyed. Two days after the reception, I meet him at a symposium on alternative transportation and ask if maybe these images are a bit extreme.

“We are propagandists,” he admits with a grin. “But this is not radical. It dovetails with ideas people are already thinking about.”

He cites as examples recent projects like the High Line, which was an elevated railway before a citizens’ group partnered with Parks and Rec and turned it into a public promenade. The city has waged its own war against the automobile since 2007, painting miles of bike lanes over parking spaces and banning cars from major intersections. Many of these measures are the work of DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who happens to chair the host committee for Our Cities Ourselves.

“She closed Broadway for god’s sake,” says Sorkin, on last year’s pedestrianizing of Times Square. “She’s repainting the streets of Manhattan for bikes and pedestrians.”

But Sadik-Khan is also overseeing a major “rehabilitation” of the Brooklyn Bridge that will, among other things, increase the number of car lanes on the connecting ramps from the FDR and improve the roadway above the arch blocks—the same ramps and roadway Sorkin et al. want to tear down. The difference in staying power between the city’s plan (which, by the way, is going to cost $508 million) and ITDP’s is that the former already has approval. The measure was passed last month and the overhaul will continue until 2014.

Sorkin doesn’t budge when I ask him if his project will adapt to these changes. “We’re not trying to increase traffic,” he says. “We’re looking to frustrate it. But we are doing so in favor of something less dangerous, less polluting, and less selfish.”

He talks about “eliminating FDR as a destination” and calls Lower Manhattan “the low-hanging fruit of possibility.” He imagines the city as completely self-sufficient and literally green, with vegetation on every rooftop “for thermodynamic, agricultural, and recreational uses.” But he doesn’t directly address the fact that part of his vision, the removal of bridge ramps and FDR Drive, flatly contradicts a construction plan that’s already moving forward.

So what’s the point? Are these fancy renderings of the future just pipe dreams? Or are they only meant to inspire, in the way concept cars get to line production piecemeal, through ideas and select features?

Walter Hook, executive director of ITDP, maintains that these are very real imaginings (my weird oxymoron, not his). I pull him aside during the symposium’s lunch break and ask him about the realistic functions and goals of the project.

“Everything we do has intensely political motivations,” he says. Like Sorkin, he’s likable and easygoing and scarily well-spoken even in the face of criticism. “Our role is to politicize issues that people never thought were open to public dialogue.”

He and his group hope to take transportation design out of the esoteric realms of engineering and nuts-and-bolts urban planning. They want to convince skeptics that extreme-sounding alternatives like banning private car traffic and getting 60 percent of New Yorkers to walk to work by 2030 are well within reach. If doing these things means standing in direct opposition to plans already in play, then so be it. From a common-sense standpoint, he argues, turning the bridge areas into public parkland and a functional waterfront would best serve the needs of the majority.

“I was looking out over FDR Drive during rush hour one day and it was empty,” he says, referring to the portion of the highway he hopes to get rid of. “It was empty because it doesn’t go anywhere. The only people really using that part of the road are bypassing Lower Manhattan altogether. It doesn’t make sense for it to be there.”

The cyclist and waterfront lover in me wants to believe him. But what doesn’t make sense is a city spending half a billion dollars to expand traffic access to a highway no one uses. Surely the administration wouldn’t be financing a roadway overhaul during a recession if there wasn’t an overwhelming public demand for it. Right?

There’s a scene in the film Fight Club when the Tyler Durden character imagines a dystopian utopia in which the American megacity has gone back to its prehistoric state:

In the world I see, you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center…You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty carpool lane of some abandoned superhighway.

Standing below the bridge later that afternoon, I try to imagine the few pedestrians around me making use of the noisy space where FDR Drive blights out the sky. We’re on a stretch of asphalt for passing by, not stopping, and the only people I manage to talk to are German tourists trying to get to the South Street Seaport. It’s rush hour on a Tuesday and the southbound vehicle ramps to FDR are packed, which makes me wonder exactly when Walter Hook came over here and saw an abandoned highway just waiting to become a walkers’ oasis.

Here’s the thing. No one is shooting for some Fight Club wilderness in Manhattan or trying to wipe cars off the face of the earth. But bear with me through a few nuggets of data. Four out of five New Yorkers take public transportation to work. Commuter cycling has more than doubled in the past five years, with a 26 percent increase occurring last year alone. Traffic accident deaths are at their lowest in a century and pedestrian fatalities have dropped 23 percent since 2001. And two of the biggest complaints in the district I’m standing in, according to a recent New York Times survey, are street noise and sidewalk maintenance, with 61 percent of the residents reporting unsatisfactory conditions for pedestrians. The bottom line is that city streets are safer, more people are taking trips without cars, and there’s an honest-to-goodness demand within neighborhoods for better places to walk and spend time outdoors.

“A good city,” the Danish architect Jan Gehl once said, “is one where people want to be out of their homes.”

It’s true that ITDP has some serious challenges to look forward to if they want to put their proposal in motion. Or they’ll have to drastically alter it to adapt to future developments. But more than just dreaming up a site plan, they might be asking us to rethink the ways we as urban citizens make use of our space and get around on it. Perhaps it’s time to consider what we don’t need as much as what we do. It’s very much the case that certain roadways are in poor condition, but what would happen if we made it so that we didn’t need those roadways anyway?

Until the 1950s, the only vehicles allowed on the Brooklyn Bridge were trolley cars—the mass transit of the time. In 1907, a typical workday saw over 250,000 people crossing the bridge using its elevated railways. Today, with private car and pedestrian traffic, that number hovers around 150,000. The bridge’s commuter capacity has gone down, way down, after 100 years. So it could be that we need to add more car lanes to the congested onramps and leave the sorry underbelly alone. Or maybe we could start bringing down these old approaches and put into practice alternatives that we actually want. You may need some better shoes for this.


Dave Kim

DAVE KIM is a writer based in Williamsburg.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

All Issues