John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
An improbable proposal from the 1930s would have joined New York to New Jersey with a new neighborhood built over water.
Who would howl the loudest over this plan to fill in the Hudson River: Environmentalists upset over the new habitat for cars and greenhouse gases, or Manhattanites who found themselves attached at the hip with their low-rent neighbors across the water? As one commenter on Modern Mechanix put it: "[E]ww… connected to newjersey [sic]. I shudder to think."
Norman Sper was an engineer of sorts who dabbled in PR and whose Internet existence seems solely tied to this one ridiculous proposal. Reputedly concerned about traffic and housing congestion in Manhattan, Sper devised a plan to dam up the Hudson and divert its flow through a deeply dredged Harlem River into the East River. Then, for what he estimated to be a cost of $1 billion, he would build a virtual second city on top of the empty riverbed, complete with skyscrapers and an underground network of train tunnels, a four-lane highway, and pedestrian crossings. Bamn – right there is 10 square miles of virgin real estate. Who would even miss the old river?
The quest to turn the Hudson into New York's trendiest new 'hood, which today no doubt would be stamped with a sexy name like West Chelsea or Watertown, received an amazing five pages of coverage in the March 1934 edition of Modern Mechanix, that non-stop malfunctioning megaphone of bad ideas. Sper seemed earnest in his appraisal of the fill job being within the "abilities of modern engineers," who were coming off a hot streak of major infrastructure projects. Writes the story's author:
The seemingly invincible Colorado river has been diverted to build the biggest dam in the world – Boulder [now Hoover] dam. Fifty-foot tunnels were hewn out of the stubborn rock on either side of the river to make way for diversion of the water, which, in flood seasons, becomes a raging torrent.
Look at the engineering wonders accomplished in construction of bridges. The two bridges now being built across San Francisco bay, one over the Golden Gate and the other from San Francisco to Oakland, defied problems which seemed unsurmountable even a few years ago.
Consider the success of Colonel George Goethels in finishing the Panama Canal and opening it to traffic of the world’s largest ocean going vessels after others had failed.
That virtually closed Mr. Sper’s case.
Critics might cry that the proposal would destroy what remained of the natural beauty of the urban Hudson, ratchet up air pollution and the heat-island effect, and wipe out almost half of Manhattan's beloved and valuable waterfront real estate. But just think of the possibilities of a sixth borough in New York, Sper argued. The mythical land mass would double the number of avenues in Manhattan, relieving daily traffic jams (to those about to point out there would be much more parking and thus more cars, shush). Then there would be the boost to the economy from the construction of electric and commuting infrastructure, as well as the profitable leasing of buildings on 99-year plans, because nothing says desirable location than "sited below a dam." The subterranean commuters' labyrinth also would be a "great military defense against gas attack in case of war," Sper's reasoning went, "for in it would be room for practically the entire population of the city."
This was not the first scheme to transform one of New York's rivers into money-growing terra firma. "I recall some years ago a man named Thompson had a plan to fill in the Harlem River and eliminate the East River entirely," said one prominent engineer interviewed for the Mechanix piece. And in 2009, Charles Urstadt, the former head of the Battery Park City Authority, suggested doing the same thing by damming the Harlem on both ends to create "thriving neighbors." As he put it in an editorial in The New York Times: "To ignore today’s opportunities would leave Manhattan lagging behind other forward-looking places like Dubai, Hong Kong, Tokyo and the Netherlands, all of which have reclaimed land from the waters around them."
Images from March 1934 edition of Modern Mechanix, via Modern Mechanix