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Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Episode 7Topic 3: Urban Renewal and ExpresswaysThe Destruction of Neighborhoods
The Destruction of Neighborhoods

Like no Moses project before it, the Cross-Bronx Expressway was a tremendous feat of engineering on an almost unprecedented scale. At 225 feet wide and seven miles long, Colonel William S. Chapin, builder of the formidable Burma Road in the Second World War, admired its construction when he said, "The [Burma] Road was tough, but it was nothing compared to this." Not only did its builders have to demolish many six- and seven-floor apartment houses to build it, they had to blast through a great ridge. The ridge housed one of the world's largest storm sewer mains, important gas mains, electric lines, telegraph cables, and a whole mass of utility lines, as well as the Concourse Line of the Independent subway, which carried tens of thousands of passengers everyday. All of these critical services had to be kept functioning during the expressway's entire twelve years of construction.

The Cross-Bronx Expressway

The Cross-Bronx Expressway.
On December 4, 1952, those who lived where Moses would build the Cross-Bronx Expressway were sent a letter telling them that their homes were in the paths of progress and that they had 90 days to get out. At a time when public protest was uncommon, the members of the targeted communities took to the streets, carrying signs that said things like "Moses the Dictator." Their assemblyman, Walter H. Gladwin, and their state senator, Jacob H. Gilbert, promised they would never approve of the proposal for the expressway. What is more, Robert Wagner, Jr., the then-mayoral candidate who would soon become mayor, promised that he would never allow the expressway to be built. But all these promises failed in the face of Moses' strength of will. When asked by historian Robert Caro about how he dealt with the resistance to the expressway, Moses replied, "They stirred up the animals there, so I just held fast, and that was all we had to do."

One of the neighborhoods destroyed by the Cross-Bronx Expressway was East Tremont. The expressway gutted East Tremont's heart. It had been a place where everybody knew everybody else. Many of those who had lived in East Tremont had been born there, shopped there, married there, and, had it not been for the expressway, they would have died there. Unlike the neighborhoods that slum clearance had reduced to rubble, East Tremont was a community in which many of the residents owned their homes. Its residents kept up their housing payments and tended to their gardens. But being a lively, self-sufficient neighborhood was not enough to keep East Tremont from being crushed by Moses' freeway.

East Tremont was not the only neighborhood to have been dissected by the expressway. More than twelve other functioning neighborhoods suffered the same fate. Built on a straight line, the shape of the expressway did not accommodate existing neighborhoods and the people who lived in their way. Moses build his expressway on a straight line because he could. The Cross-Bronx Expressway was the most destructive expressway-building project in the city but it was not the last: 13 expressways would be built throughout the boroughs, 130 miles of concrete laid, 21 separate neighborhoods torn apart, and the lives of more than 250,000 people upended.

Life in the Slums | Slum Clearance | Suburbanization and Highways
The Destruction of Neighborhoods | Jane Jacobs and Landmark Preservation

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