Brooklyn Road Odysseys

by John Delach

Part Two: The Moses Empire


While America slept, World War II raged in Europe, Robert Moses, (RM) opened the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair while completing about 75% of the Belt system plus the Grand Central Parkway and the Interborough Parkway. He also extended these roads into Nassau County by way of the Northern and Southern State Parkways and a separate network of parkways that serviced Jones Beach.


From the Northwest corner of Queens, the Triborough Bridge access highway connected with the Grand Central Parkway and the northern end of the Brooklyn-Queens Connecting Highway (soon to be re-christened the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, (BQE).)


The Connecting Highway only ran about a couple of miles before reaching a dead end at Northern Blvd. in Jackson Heights. A one-mile long gap to Queens Boulevard followed. At Queens Blvd, he constructed an elevated highway above the road that divided New Calgary Cemetery that headed south to a junction with the Midtown Tunnel Expressway and the entrance to the Kosciusko Bridge that crossed Newtown Creek into Brooklyn. The highway ended at Meeker Avenue in Greenpoint in a maze of streets. South of the bridge stood RM’s greatest challenge to completing the Belt; a series of high density neighborhoods. All work ceased until the war ended. Planning did not.


RM had to force his Connecting Highway through Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Clintonville, Fort Green, Downtown Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights, Red Hook, Gowanus and Sunset Park before it could reach the Belt Parkway in Bay Ridge. This route also had to connect to the Williamsburg Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.


Simultaneously, RM was busy with two other equally arduous projects, the Long Island Expressway (LIE) and the Cross-Bronx Expressway (CBX). Robert Caro in his biography of RM, “The Power Broker,” concentrated his reporting on RM’s arbitrary forced displacement of thousands of Bronx residents to push the CBX through densely populated areas on a straight line. For whatever reason, Caro chose to ignore the misery of the residents of Maspeth, Queens in the path of the LIE and all those in the way of the BQE.


Maspeth was a suburb of mostly one-family connected houses built just before and just after World War II. Unfortunately for some of these residents, their homes were in the path of where RM wanted the LIE to go. Worse yet, the expressway cut across Maspeth’s grid on a diagonal ripping out whole blocks at a time to include its service roads. Further east, the LIE was constructed along what had been Horace Harding Boulevard. Again, the old Blvd. couldn’t accommodate the new six-lane highway and two service roads so all the houses lining one side of the new highway had to go.


The tell-tale signs of Sherman’s march to the sea were the railroad rails bent into bow ties and the free-standing brick chimneys where factories and plantations once stood. The tell-tale signs of a RM built highway are the absence of buildings facing one or both sides of the highway.


Unlike Sherman, RM understood who he could screw and who’s asses should be kissed. The BQE is a classic case. South of the Kosciusko Bridge, Meeker Avenue only went about halfway to the Williamsburg Bridge. Another grid had to be crossed on a diagonal and Moses pushed an elevated highway through with a vengeance. Same M.O. south of this bridge. To bypass the Brooklyn Navy Yard, RM widened Park Avenue and built an elevated viaduct above this misnamed avenue at the same time the City of New York was tearing down elevated subway lines as being unsightly nuisances; go figure.


Upon reaching the Manhattan Bridge, the BQE ran through an old industrial area before reaching Brooklyn Heights. Now, boys and girls, the name Brooklyn Heights conjures wealth. Remember, Moonstruck, the Cher / Nicolas Cage film? Cher’s family town house was in Brooklyn Heights.


RM put the engineers to work and they produced a brilliant solution. They would build the highway at the very edge of the bluff and cantilever it over the road above the docks in three layers stacked one above the other. The bottom two layers would each support three lanes of traffic and the top layer, a pedestrian promenade overlooking the harbor and Downtown Manhattan. This created a spectacular view for strollers to enjoy. But, more importantly, for the millionaires whose homes lined the lots facing this view. Do I hear a nay? The yays have it.


The folks living south of Brooklyn Heights in Cobble Hill didn’t have this clout so all they got was a depressed highway, but they lost all the homes that once occupied that trench. To make the run south from the Gowanus Canal to Bay Ridge, RM selected Third Avenue to be the route. Like Park Avenue, this section became an elevated highway and Third Avenue was widened accordingly.


The Belt stood completed except for that annoying gap in Jackson Heights. Over the years, RM ate away at it, but it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the last section opened.


By then. God got even, and RM met his Waterloo. Still, by then he was an old man when this came to pass and, only the good die young.


(To be continued.)