Brooklyn Road Odysseys
by John Delach
Part Three: “The Times They Are a-Changin”
Robert Moses’ (RM) last hurrah was a masterpiece of engineering and design; the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.*
First proposed in 1927, RM’s powerful Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) became actively involved in the mid-1950s with construction being approved in 1959. The bridge would connect Bay Ridge, Brooklyn with Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island. Two exits were designed for the Brooklyn side; one, a loop that would allow Queens and Long Island bound automobile traffic to use the eastbound Belt Parkway. These ramps would fly over the Fort Hamilton army base and were accepted without controversy.
This certainly was not the reaction to the main entrance and exit that would carry all commercial vehicles and cars toward Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the state legislature approved RM’s request for a route right through Bay Ridge along Seventh Avenue. This direct path displaced 7,500 residents living in 1,500 residences along a two-mile stretch. However, this was 1959 and RM’s will was still done as he willed it. Neither politicians nor the public stood in his way.
Almost twice as many Staten Island residents were displaced but they lived along the eight-mile route of the new Staten Island Exp. that connected the Verrazano Bridge to New Jersey. The tradeoff was worth it; a reasonable number of citizens were forced from their homes vs a bridge and highways to Brooklyn and New Jersey.**
RM proposed two new expressways and two parkways (cars only) to connect the Verrazano to the other two NJ bridges, the Bayonne Bridge and the Outerbridge Crossing,*** Only one would be built, the West Shore Expressways and short stretches of two others.
Construction took five years and the bridge opened on November 21, 1964. That same night my cousin Bill drove three of us over the bridge. As we approached the toll booth I asked Bill to see if the toll taker would give us a TBTA map. He did, and Bill handed it to me. I realized to my delight that the man had time-stamped the map as proof that we crossed on opening day.
*Although the bridge was named after the Italian explorer, Giovanni da Verrazzano, the official name only had one “Z.” It would take 69 years for the state legislature to add the missing Z.
**RM’s original name for this expressway was the Clove Lakes Exp. but he relented to allow the S.I. Borough President a victory that would shut him up.
***The Outerbridge Crossing was named after Eugenius H. Outerbridge and naming it Outerbridge Bridge would have been redundant.
Next on RM’s agenda was the construction of two cross-Manhattan expressways, the Mid-Manhattan Exp. from the Queens-Midtown Tunnel to the Lincoln Tunnel along 30th or 31st Streets and the Lower Manhattan Exp. with branches coming from the Williamsburg Bridge and Manhattan Bridge, joining together to reach the Holland Tunnel.
The design for midtown route was not actually along either of the two streets. Instead, buildings along the route would be razed to be replaced by new buildings that provided space for a two-level elevated highway making this undertaking highly improbable. Even then, land was too valuable in the middle of Manhattan to accept a major disruption. RM knew this, so he pressed ahead with the Lower Manhattan Exp. (LME) postponing the midtown road for another day. In theory it’s proposed route took it through less valuable and sought-after neighborhoods, the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Little Italy and Soho.
What RM didn’t for see was that a storm of protest of biblical proportions would erupt. These Manhattanites were not the docile residents of Bay Ridge, the Bronx or Maspeth. These were activists and radicals. It was no longer the 1950s, Manurable Bob Wagner was no longer mayor and the new boy on the block, John Lindsey, was going to do things his way with a stable of young Turks to back him up.
The 1960s had arrived and the protests and strikes carried the day. Lindsey and Co, were no fans of RM and the LME was shelved, then cancelled and de-mapped as time went by.
Without the Manhattan crosstown routes, other Brooklyn projects fell by the wayside. The Cross-Brooklyn Exp. and the Bushwick Exp. both designed to direct traffic to this new Manhattan crossings couldn’t be justified. This outcome spared citizens in Flatbush, East New York and Bushwick the disruptions that befell Williamsburg, Cobble Hill and Red Hook.
RM rule began to slip / slide away. Mayor Lindsey created the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to coordinate the subways, commuter railroads, buses, the tunnels and bridges in New York City into this single mega-agency. The MTA gobbled up the TBTA. RM remained chairman until 1981, but he did so without real power.
His final defeat came at the hands of his old partner, Governor Rockefeller, who cancelled RM’s last ambitious project, a bridge across Long Island Sound from Rye, NY to Oyster Bay, Long Island. Free of Lindsley’s reach, this was his alone to build, but Rocky caved in to howl of pain from the wealth of those who resided in both landings.
Long Island remains a dead end to this day.
As for Robert Moses, like Douglas MacArthur, old builders never die, they just fade away.