Bustling highways were once an emblem of the nation’s growing vitality. Now, many cities are trying to move away from the often problematic legacies of expressways and their designers with invigorated and environmentally friendly redesigns.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this month the city’s plan to extend the life of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) cantilever for at least another 20 years. The cantilever is a 3-tiered piece of the highway along Brooklyn’s waterfront that is essentially crumbling at a glacial pace.
“We have the technology, the ideas, and the expertise to save the BQE, and we’re excited to execute this plan. But that’s just the start,” said de Blasio in a statement. “New York City can do more than patch up a highway in need of repair—we can use this opportunity to rethink how people, goods, and services move around our city.”
The Department of Transportation was forced to rethink their initial plans for the BQE in 2018. They had called for replacing the scenic and landmarked Brooklyn Heights Promenade Park, situated at the top of the highways, with a “temporary” six-lane highway.
The surrounding community immediately pushed back and offered up their own alternative plans to protect the park, reported the Brooklyn Eagle.
While focusing on the infrastructure was important to maintaining safety and the sights, others have criticized the BQE as being a prime example of the kind of egregious redlining and environmental racism that founded New York City.
Anthony Rogers-Wright is the director of Environmental Justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI). NYPLI represents many groups across the city who are fighting for environmental issues, such as the zero emission vehicles, sewage, and unwanted gas pipelines. “Environmental justice is about balance, balancing out past injustices and getting retribution for past injustices,” said Rogers-Wright, “that go back you could say to the founding of the country.”
Rogers-Wright said that people’s communities because of their race, more so than their class, were selected purposefully for the placement of disproportionate levels of pollution, including traffic emissions and toxic chemicals. To this day, a Black family with an average income of $100,000 annually is six times more likely to be situated in a more polluted neighborhood than a white family with a household income half as much as that, said Rogers-Wright.
The BQE was designed by famed city planner and juggernaut Robert Moses, said the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL).
Moses began changing the face of New York City and State with parks and highways in 1920. He had a reputation for designing open-space areas for people with cars, or the middle/upper class in that time, and leaving out Black, immigrant, or low-income neighborhoods in his plans.
“Thousands of people were evicted from their homes as neighborhoods were demolished or cut in two by highway construction,” said the BPL. “Whether forced into sterile, new housing projects or in vastly altered surroundings, people lost the sense of community and shared experience they had had in their old neighborhoods.”
The BQE, one of Moses’ crowning achievements, became a testament to the automobile industry and a symbol “of destruction and isolation” as it bifurcated the poorest neighborhoods along the coastline, like Red Hook in 1946 and Williamsburg in the ’50s, said the BPL.
Longtime environmental justice advocates, such as Brooklyn Borough President-elect and Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, are still demanding that the entirety of the BQE corridor be “reimagined” to benefit Black and Brown and low-income communities that were historically cut out when the highway was built.
Reynoso, a Williamsburg native, said the BQE has had long-term health effects among other things on the communities on either side and underneath the highway along Meeker Avenue.
This section of Meeker Avenue first opened to traffic in 1939 and was called the “Brooklyn-Queens Connecting Highway.” It wasn’t until 1950 that Moses started building the six-lane elevated highway above it.
“My parents were here before the BQE was built or it was under construction but not running through the community yet,” said Reynoso.
Reynoso said they ran the BQE down the middle of the Southside of Williamsburg, or everything from Metropolitan Avenue to Broadway in Brooklyn. Not to be confused with South Williamsburg, which is everything below Broadway, and a different neighborhood, he said.
“There’s no sense or reason or rhyme to where the BQE is exactly where it is,” he said.
Reynoso said that his community didn’t have the “political capital” the Brooklyn Heights residents had back in the day to push the roadway out of the way and get a cantilever with a beautiful park instead.
“The community got split and introduced borders for gangs, where you can and can’t pass. The BQE was a line that delineated the neighborhood’s parks, and we’ve got as many people going into Woodhull hospital for asthma related causes than anywhere else in the city,” said Reynoso.
According to an asthma report from SUNY Downstate, public health officials have referred to northern and central Brooklyn, or Williamsburg, Bushwick, East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, and Brownsville, as “Asthma Alley” since the 1970s.
The Community District 1 Health profile from 2015, which encompasses East Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Northside and Southside, and Williamsburg neighborhoods, indicates that Williamsburg still ranked 8th in terms of air pollution decades later.
Reynoso said that traffic collisions and fatalities are also largely understated as a consequence of the BQE and the “mini” highways that run through densely populated and residential neighborhoods. “We don’t even have crosswalks on half of Meeker Avenue which you have to cross to get to Greenpoint, the north half,” said Reynoso.
It’s no secret that Moses, while designing most of the city, wielded power with an “autocratic style” and reigned unchecked with many of his city plans, said the BPL.
“[Moses] was using political muscle. It was a great, terrible idea to bring people into the city through these highways and people bought into it,” said Reynoso.
The idea of “white affluence” pervaded even into the present day when his fellow council members started doing studies of just the cantilever portion of the BQE and not including Black and Brown communities along the rest of it, said Reynoso.
“The good thing is that the folks, the community itself, who were fighting for the cantilever in Brooklyn Heights called us too, and they agreed that this should be a conversation about the whole BQE,” said Reynoso.
Twelve years ago, Reynoso was part of a coalition called the BQGreen. They put out a plan to increase the community’s pitiful green spaces by building a park over a portion of the BQE that runs below the street level between South Third and South Fifth Streets. It was shot down due to “high building costs” said Reynoso, but it’s dated now anyways.
He said there should be a fresh round of community input about efficient, clean transportation and environmental justice. In some cases, he said, walkability in the city is more important than a highway. Reynoso said that one option to keep open is to take just down the highway in its entirety.
The mayor’s most recent plan, released Aug. 4, calls for preserving the structure of the 70-year-old highway from Sands Street to Atlantic Avenue using stop water infiltration to slow down visible corrosion.
The highway is going from three lanes to two, and the city will continue repairing concrete and rebar walls this year while beefing up traffic monitoring. The Smart Truck Management part of de Blasio’s plan reimagines the freight supply chain to rely less on diesel trucks that cause harmful emissions, especially during the most congested times of day.
Rogers-Wright said that even at the federal level, with the White House cutting some of the Environmental Justice Advisory Council Justice 40 plan or the Reconnecting Communities Act, forced bipartisanship is holding back “benefits” and monetary “investment” in the local community’s environmental progress. “I would say the Democratic party has a proclivity for getting outranked by the Republicans, and it appears that it’s happening again for the sake of some form of bipartisanship,” said Rogers-Wright.
At least with the “changing of the guard,” meaning a progressive Dominican borough president from north Brooklyn (Reynoso) and a moderate Black mayor from Brooklyn and Queens in Eric Adams, Reynoso said that things should be different.
“Right now people are doing the same thing Robert Moses did, pay attention to the loudest people who have the most voting weight as opposed to doing it by need,” said Reynoso. “As borough president, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to make sure that the tip, from Greenpoint all the way down to the South of Brooklyn, that we look at the most impacted areas, and see how we can build equity into how this should be built out.”
Reynoso said there needs to be a committee made up of stakeholders, businesses, residents, commuters, and elected officials that can thoroughly suss out a community-led vision of the new BQE for the new mayor. It won’t always be pretty and it’ll take a long time, he said, but that’s the best route.
Rogers-Wright agreed that political “rhetoric” is great, but the tangible implementation of the plan and who it benefits is more important to pay attention to in the future of the BQE’s development.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w