Art: Jason Torchinsky

December 15, 1973, was a chilly and cloudy day in New York City. The city’s fortunes had already begun to take a downturn. A single dump truck, overloaded with more than nine tons of asphalt, rumbled down the old elevated West Side Highway, which promptly collapsed. And in a moment of almost hilarious corruption that typified the highway’s brief existence, that very truck’s construction company won a no-bid contract to clean up the wreck.

The West Side Highway began in 1913 as a faint idea in the nearly-all powerful city planner Robert Moses’s head before it was felled by that asphalt truck, coincidentally bound for repairs on a different section of the road. The New York Daily News described the aftermath thusly:

The Edenwald truck, it developed, was 9 tons overloaded. But no charges were brought, and, indeed, the company was awarded a no-bid city contract to clean up the wreckage, this being a matter that some observers felt called for an investigation.

This was what New York City was like in the ‘70s, full of corrupt accidents that left the city in utter disrepair but, sometimes, had a nice sense of poetry about them. For drivers and residents, it could be frustrating, but, looking back now, it’s hard not to sit somewhat in a turgid mix of awe and disgust that all of these things happened to begin with.

And while today in New York, the West Side Highway is a major artery, extending down a big chunk of the Hudson River and connecting drivers to two major Hudson River crossings, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, its existence is relatively new, having only been in its current form since 2002. For decades before that, it was a non-functional, abandoned relic of a previous era that was full of corruption, poor urban planning, and ideas that were big on ambition but small on foresight.

The chief architect of much of this was Moses, who held various titles throughout decades of service in public life. No official position quite described his actual work as the shadowy bully who built much of the city’s transportation network following the Great Depression. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway? That was Moses, as was the Whitestone, Throgs Neck, and Verrazano-Narrows bridges, among many other projects. And the reason why New York doesn’t have a more fully-realized subway and commuter train system, is because of him, too. He, more than any other person, is singlehandedly responsible for why New York looks the way it does today. His fingerprints extended to the elevated West Side Highway, which was started by the city in 1927 but not fully completed for another 24 years.

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The highway under construction. Image: AP

As the highway progressed, Moses’s bulldozing reputation, meanwhile, cemented itself, in ways both big and small. Here’s Robert Caro in his legendary book The Power Broker, quoting a New York Times reporter who saw one incident with Moses up close at an opening of a section of the highway:

“It was raining and we had to go to some kind of tent. Some little old character—just a minor functionary in government—was there and Moses said to me, ‘Wait’ll you see what I do to this guy.’ He went over and grabbed him and almost literally picked him up by the scruff of the neck and shook him. It was very embarrassing. I said, ‘What did he do?’ He said, ‘He hasn’t done anything yet, but I just wanted to head him off.’”

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The highway, meanwhile, kept going up in fits and starts, construction that was as haphazard as the planning behind it. By 1931, four years after construction started, construction stopped because of the Great Depression, though, as Caro points out, that didn’t really matter, since there were no exit or entrance ramps. The highway also wouldn’t have solved the city’s traffic problems at the time, since there was no way to get through upper Manhattan then aside from taking local streets. Still, construction went on, with the whole length of the highway, from 72nd Street to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which was finally completed in 1951.

A procession for King George VI in 1939. Image: AP

The highway was a symbol of progress for postwar New York, to be sure, but it didn’t obscure just how industrial and unsightly the city was. Manufacturing was still around, the meatpacking district was still filled with people butchering and packing meat, and New York’s port was still the bustling and filthy driver of its economy. A drive down the West Side Highway gave you a full view of the polluted Hudson in all of its glory. The view on the other side, of warehouses and traffic, wasn’t much better.

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Still, reporters were pleased.

Here’s Caro:

“The most beautiful drive in the world,” wrote one from the Daily News. “Always the man in the car has he river in full view,” marveled one from the Times. Simeon Strunsky said in “Topics of the Times”: “The West Side Highway as a name ... utterly fails to do justice to the ... new masterpiece out of Robert Moses’ atelier ... The traveler comes and goes in a setting of beauty which [it] is not too much to call intoxicating.” (Strunsky was also to write: “The poet Wordsworth stood on Waterloo Bridge and said about the Thames view that earth had no finer sight; but Wordsworth should have stood at the north end of the Henry Hudson Bridge and looked south and west.”)

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Journalists, it seems, were about as easy a sell then as they are today, though it might’ve seemed then that, for the road at least, the future was bright.

But almost immediately, problems started cropping up.

Maintenance costs, for one thing, pretty quickly began to soar and, by the 1970s, with estimates running into the tens of millions of dollars to fix the road, the city finally gave up.

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How did things deteriorate so fast? Well:

The cost of the neglected maintenance is astonishingly high: the West Side Highway, for example, could have been kept in perfect repair during the 1950s for about $75,000 per year; because virtually no repairing was done, by the 1960s, the cost of annual maintenance would be more than $1,000,000 per year; and in 1974 the highway had begun literally to fall apart—a condition that would take tens of millions of dollars to repair. By the time Moses left power in 1968, the city would be utterly unable to make even a pretense of keeping its physical plant in repair.

It was the early ‘70s, and New York was approaching its nadir. The subway cars were graffitied; the murder rate was sky high; the city was heading toward bankruptcy; the Bronx was burning; a blackout led to widespread looting; and then there was Son of Sam. Against this backdrop, the ails of the West Side Highway seemed relatively paltry. Its closure also made it prosper in other ways—The New York Times at one point called it the city’s “largest bicycle path.” It became a haven for the homeless, and an inspiration for artists. Presumably they were attracted to a bit of urban decay larger in scale than usual and, if you looked at it the right way, about as big a canvas as you could imagine.

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And of course it was a massive safety hazard. One boy who was riding his bike on the abandoned highway fell through a hole and died; motorists, meanwhile, frequently reported chunks of concrete falling from over head.

Officials pondered what to do, but money, as ever, was usually the stumbling block. In 1974, The New York Times ran through some possible replacements, none of which were very palatable. There were expensive options, like turning it into a proper six-lane interstate highway, and slightly less expensive options, like tearing it all down and making it just another road.

The city first tried to go down the expensive route, revealing, in 1981, a project called the Westway. It was to be largely a landfill underneath, much like the newly-built Battery Park City, and it was probably the most expensive plan the city could’ve gone with. The New York Times described it as basically a giant tunnel system:

The agreement reached yesterday on the Westway calls for a six lane Interstate System highway extending from 42d Street to the Battery on 234 acres of Hudson River landfill. Its completion is expected in 10 years.

Most of the highway is to tunnel through the landfill, leaving the area above for development and recreational use. Housing and light industry are to be built on the site, and 93 acres are to be set aside for a state park.

Unlike the old West Side Highway that the Westway is designed to replace, the new road is to carry trucks to and from the midtown business district. It is to connect to the Brooklyn-Battery, Holland and Lincoln Tunnels and local streets.

The current cost estimate for Westway is $1.7 billion, 90 percent of which is to come from the Federal Government and 10 percent from New York State. Mayor Koch and Governor Carey say a more realistic figure is $2.3 billion.

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The Westway was contentious with pretty much everyone. Many wanted there to be no highway at all, instead opening up the waterfront for pedestrians, undoing Moses’s original error. (Access to the East River on the other side of the island is also largely closed off by the FDR Drive). Others wanted the money to be spent on mass transit. Still others—mainly the city’s business interests—became big cheerleaders for the project.

The highway in 1934. Image: AP

None of it ended up mattering much, though, because the Westway never happened, collapsing, in the end, under its own corrupt weight. The Times in June 1984, for example, described how the private consultant in charge of Westway admitted to covering up scientific evidence that it was damaging to the environment. (The headline, “NEW YORK; CORRUPTION IGNORED” says pretty much all you need to know.)

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A little less than four years later, portions of the closed highway remained standing, while a new plan—something called Westway II—was now on deck, with hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for the first Westway having been diverted into mass transit. The full details of Westway II were never entirely sketched out, though it seemed to be less expensive than its forebear.

New York Mayor Abe Beame, right, and New York Gov. Hugh Carey, fourth from right, presenting Westway. Image: AP

From the New York Times in May 1988:

Interviews with Governor Cuomo, Mayor Koch, other officials, environmentalists and community leaders show that environmental and engineering studies will take three to four years, then public review will take two years, and building the road will take three to six more - depending on when the process begins and what road is built.

[...]

[New York Governor Mario Cuomo] and [New York Mayor Ed Koch] attribute the slow pace of Westway II - also known as Son of Westway, Daughter of Westway and the Hudson River Boulevard - to legal and technical complexities.

“This is not a normal highway,” said Mr. Koch. “This Daughter of Westway has more than seven veils. Whatever that means.”

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Meanwhile, the old elevated highway was still being torn down, piece by piece, coming all the way down by 1989.

In its stead rose, in 1996, a new road that officials made an extension of New York Route 9A, after years more of negotiations between the government and residents. The new highway turned out to be the one they probably should’ve built all along, a simple six-lane road with street lights and only a small elevated portion. Construction on it was completed in 2002, and, over the years, the city has made refinements to its western coast both big and small, adding running and biking paths and putting parkland where giant ships and longshoremen used to roam. The traffic is as bad as ever, but, for pedestrians at least, it’s gotten pretty nice.