A new exhibit shows how residents' organized resistance to a major highway through SoHo influenced modern community-involved planning.
Before the San Francisco freeway revolts, before the citizens of Boston put the brakes on a proposal to run I-95 straight into Back Bay, there was LOMEX—the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a 10-lane elevated highway set to blast through NYC’s SoHo and Little Italy.
Master builder Robert Moses proposed the highway, running down Broome Street, to facilitate the swift flow of traffic from New Jersey to Long Island. Drivers would speed through the Holland Tunnel, across lower Manhattan, and take either the Manhattan or Williamsburg bridges to cross the East River.
Back around 1960, Moses used the argument that the neighborhood now known as SoHo—today some of the most valuable urban real estate in the country, if not the world—was a downtrodden area that would be the perfect place to host a highway. It was a post-industrial slum beset by fires, dubbed “Hell’s 100 acres” by those pushing urban renewal at the time. But a feisty and eclectic group of New Yorkers rose up in rebellion, aghast that anyone would want to lay waste to homes and businesses for concrete, asphalt, and steel. Fifty years later, it would be hard to find anyone who isn’t glad that they did.
The story of the fight against the Lower Manhattan Expressway is retold in an exhibit, on view through March at the elegant Municipal Archives building on Chambers Street, put on by the New York City Department of Records and Information Services in collaboration with Below the Grid Lab and the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University. “In the Shadow of the Highway: Robert Moses’ Expressway and the Battle for Downtown” is a trip back through time, both for the audacity of the car-centric urban planning of the era and the pioneering efforts of the citizenry to stop the madness of building highways through the heart of cities.
LOMEX was one of four crosstown expressways envisioned by Moses, joining the Midtown Expressway along 34th Street connecting the Lincoln Tunnel and the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and the Upper Manhattan Expressway or Cross-Harlem Expressway at 125th Street linking a new Hudson River crossing with the Triborough Bridge. Only the fourth, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, was actually built.
Across America, highway-building through cities was seen as the road to salvation, a way to reduce congestion and compete with suburbs. The fervor resulted in the construction of the elevated Central Artery through downtown Boston in the 1950s, torn down and depressed into a tunnel at a cost of nearly $15 billion in the megaproject known as the Big Dig.
The Lower Manhattan Expressway was exactly the same model as the Central Artery and many other elevated expressways of the era, and would have required similar destruction. Cast-iron façade buildings along Broome Street would have been demolished to make way for the viaduct—a replica of which occupies the exhibit space, its steel supports painted green, as if that would gussy up the infrastructure. The exhibit also includes bizarre renderings of Paul Rudolph-designed Brutalist structures on either side of the highway, a further attempt to conjure a Le Corbusier-style urban development to help justify the project.
Against this tide of inevitability, a patchwork coalition came together, with assemblymen, city council members, business owners, future mayor John Lindsay, and neighborhood activists including some, shall we say, influential representatives of Little Italy. One of the most intriguing figures was the dashing Father Gerard LaMountain, pastor of the Church of the Most Holy Crucifix on Broome Street. (Ben Affleck would be a good choice to play him in the movie.) LaMountain took a lot of heat for his work assembling the rebellion; Moses had connections with the Archdiocese. Ultimately, Jane Jacobs joined the fight, culminating in her arrest for inciting a riot at a 1968 hearing on the project, which ended with the stenotype record being shredded and tossed into the air like confetti.
“In the Shadow of the Highway” ably leads the visitor through the story of the grassroots fight against LOMEX, a key drama in my book Wrestling with Moses. But new documentation released by the NYC Department of Records provides some revealing additional detail. The curators were kind enough to send me the full 226-page transcript of a 1962 Board of Estimate hearing, where the first brave citizens stood at the microphone in the early stages of the battle. The way these folks were treated, not so much heard as tolerated and more than occasionally patronized, reflects the paternalistic stance of government hell-bent on redevelopment.
LaMountain served as master of ceremonies, introducing speakers, while the leader of the hearing, Manhattan borough president Edward Dudley, urged everyone to keep it short and check emotions at the door. “No booing, please,” he says at one point. One exchange with a resident, Henry Berger, is typical:
Berger: “We expect to make a decision on this today, do we?”
Dudley: “If you want to be a comedian here and act in front of an audience, I don’t think this is very funny.”
Berger: “Neither do I and I am not acting as a comedian.”
Dudley: “Well that’s exactly what you are trying to be.”
Berger goes on to say he plans to ask some very pointed questions, to which Dudley replies, “And you are going to get some very pointed answers, too.”
Cities across the land have the gumption of New Yorkers to thank for standing up to the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which inspired so many other freeway battles, some successful, some not. But LOMEX was also an important turning point for citizen input on urban planning, development, and major infrastructure projects. These days, no smart developer proposes building anything without checking with the community first. Cities trying to do master planning don’t cook up a plan behind closed doors and then trot it out to get reaction from the populace. Planners today seek more open-ended ideas about the future.
The Regional Plan Association has thought a lot about civic engagement in the shaping of the 4th Regional Plan, conducting focus groups and enlisting on-the-ground community groups to guide the process. Boston’s current comprehensive planning process, Imagine Boston 2030, is following a similar script. It’s a particular arabesque, because at some point someone has to put forward concrete proposals and projects in the physical planning stage. But the goal is to convey the notion that citizens are in charge.
Father LaMountain and his lineup of speakers might not have realized they were setting a new standard for urban redevelopment to decades to come. Even Henry Berger became apologetic at the end of his testimony: “I’m sorry to be a little bit angry and rough with you.”
Not at all, Mr. Berger. The floor is yours.