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Grant Whittington headshot

Bronx Highway May Get Capped: Here’s Why It Matters

Bronx

South Bronx residents may soon be able to breathe again. Nearly six decades after the first drivers entered the Cross Bronx Expressway, the city has received $2 million in funding to devise a plan to “cap” the highway with green spaces, pedestrian walkways and air filtration systems. The study should kick into motion federal funding of upwards of $1 billion with the hopes to depollute an area in South Bronx dubiously dubbed “Asthma Alley.”

The Cross Bronx Expressway is likely to meet the same fate as its fellow dilapidating highways across the country: it’s getting capped. Capping consists of building parks and other structures on top of the thoroughfares to push these roads underground, transforming pollutant-generating, neighborhood-splitting highways into green spaces that reduce noise and reconnect communities. Major U.S. cities like Philadelphia, Denver and Dallas have jumped on this trend, capping or lidding their highways with “deck parks.”

The study of the Cross Bronx Expressway is the first step in addressing the marred legacy of the New York highway. Though the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway pre-dated the highway building frenzy that followed the passing of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, it shared many of the troubling development patterns that haunt many communities of color still today. Highly populated communities of color were forced from their homes and flattened to pave way for highway construction. Bustling boulevards ripe with shops, music halls, and restaurants that served as the center of Black culture were converted into highways that separated the community.

Robert Moses, the chief architect and designer of Cross Bronx Expressway (along with many other roads, bridges, parks and pools in New York City), has been heavily criticized for the damage he left behind in many of his development projects. In the Pulitzer-prize winning book “The Power Broker,” author Robert Caro uses nearly all of his book’s more than 1,200 pages to tarnish Moses’ legacy as a master builder.

One of the 1974 biography’s most memorable chapters is titled “One Mile,” and tells the story of Moses’ determination, at any human or financial cost, to build one mile of road on the Cross Bronx Expressway that led to the forced relocation of 1,530 families (figures which are likely to be underestimated). While Caro says the other six miles that make up the Cross Bronx Expressway were designed more or less with “logic,” the sudden bulge that Moses proposes for the one-mile stretch is inexplicable. An alternative option that cuts just south would have required tearing down just six small tenement homes housing 19 families wasn’t given a second thought.

Despite the protests and cries from the community, Moses got his way: The Cross Bronx Expressway was to run right through the bustling East Tremont, requiring the demolition of 159 buildings, including 54 apartment complexes and 91 or 92 family homes.

“Neighborhood feelings, urban planning considerations, cost, aesthetics, common humanity, common sense - none of these mattered in laying out the routes of New York’s great roads,” Caro wrote. “The only consideration that mattered was Robert Moses’ will.”

Even those who defend Moses’ legacy as a tactful builder of many New York projects may struggle to defend the route he devised for the Cross Bronx Expressway. Along with displacing more than 1,500 poor families for the construction of one mile of road, the highway, seen by many residents as “America’s Parking Lot,”  is among the most congested and dangerous in the United States. The lasting health effects of the highway may be the worst of all - Bronx residents have one of the highest death and disease rates of asthma in the country.

Capping the Cross Bronx Expressway won’t be cheap. Similar projects typically run a price tag in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions, and the New York highway may exceed that given its congestion. But creating deck parks can also yield generous economic returns. Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park, which sits atop Woodall Rogers Freeway, cost $110 million to construct in 2012 but has generated $312.7 million in economic benefits, according to one impact study. Beyond the financial impact, 90.9 percent of park visitors said the 5.2-acre park improved their quality of life. It’s no surprise then that the city approved plans to expand the park an additional 1.7 acres to relocate a popular dog park, enhance a children’s playground and build “an iconic water fountain” which will draw crowds for nightly light shows.

Just three hours south, in Austin, Texas, residents and advocacy groups are pleading with the Texas Department of Transportation to meet I-35’s challenges with anything other than highway expansion. TxDOT has remained steadfast that the only solution for improving the city’s most dangerous road for pedestrians is to use $4.9 billion to build up to 20 additional lanes. Advocacy groups, well armed with data and case studies proving the ineffectiveness of highway expansion, are lobbying hard to cap the highway instead, pointing to their fellow Texans in Dallas as inspiration.

Bronx residents hope projects like Klyde Warren Park in Dallas can be replicated in their backyard. As the $1 trillion infrastructure bill welcomes levels of spending on highways not seen since the Eisenhower-era Federal-Aid Highway Act, cities are clamoring to not only repair their crumbling roads, but also right the wrongs the paving left behind.

While reversing Moses’ lasting and visible legacy won’t happen overnight, rethinking the Cross Bronx Expressway is a first step in hiding the road that US representative Ritchie Torres called “a structure of environmental racism.”

Image credit: Matthew LeJune via Unsplash

Grant Whittington headshotGrant Whittington

Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

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