Robert Moses, the city planner responsible for much of the look of today’s city, proposed the idea for the BQE in 1940. Construction was interrupted by World War II, and work did not begin until 1945, with the first section opening in 1945. While the BQE has left Clinton Hill only mildly changed, it strongly affected other neighborhoods, like Red Hook. In 1940, Moses grew concerned that increased traffic from LaGuardia Airport and trucks using the Triborough Bridge would tax the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges and the smaller side streets in Brooklyn and Queens, and proposed an expressway cutting across both boroughs. “The present streets are narrow and congested, with crossings at every block,” he wrote in his proposal. “The crazy-quilt pattern of the streets inherited from the villages that grew together to form the present borough adds to the difficulty of travel.”
His plan proposed to build on an existing road which already connected Queens Boulevard and the Kosciuszko Bridge in Greenpoint, extending it northward to the Grand Central Parkway and southward through Brooklyn. The original plan called for the expressway to run directly along the shoreline from the Wiliamsburg Bridge down to the Manhattan Bridge, which would have bypassed Clinton Hill entirely. However, as this plan would have dramatically affected the Navy Yard – which was then still a military facility – the city altered the route a few blocks south, to its present location.
Even so, construction didn’t even get underway anyway until after the war. Construction began on the first new section in 1945, as part of Moses’ postwar development programs a section which connected the Williamsburg and Kosciuszko Bridges opened in 1950. Moses seemed fascinated by the construction – a 1974 biography reports that Moses rented the penthouse floor of the Marguerite Hotel for his office; the hotel was just alongside the construction site, so Moses could keep a sharp eye on the proceedings. However, sometimes Moses would just stare out the window, watching. One of his assistants later said in an interview that “I never saw him look happier than he did when he was looking out of that window.”
Moses may have been happy with the construction, but several other Brooklynites were not. Residents of Brooklyn Heights were concerned about the expressway’s impact on their historic neighborhood and its postcard views of Manhattan; when they complained, Moses shifted the route four blocks west to the very edge of the shoreline, and built a park above it – the Brooklyn Promenade. Residents originally asked that this park be used for private gardens, but Moses insisted it be made available to the public instead.
Other neighborhoods weren’t as lucky, however. Entire blocks were often cleared to make way for BQE overpasses, in the name of “slum clearance.” He did leave behind the occasional park here and there, but many found this cold comfort.
In Red Hook, instead of an overpass, Moses dug a below-ground ditch to run the expressway through, plowing it straight through the center of the neighborhood. Moreover, instead of covering it over as he had in Brooklyn Heights, Moses left the Red Hook section open, funneling pollution from passing traffic into surrounding Red Hook Streets. He also left behind very few options to cross over the expressway from either side of the neighborhood, which in effect cut off Red Hook from the rest of Brooklyn. At the time, Red Hook was a working-class neighborhood with active waterfronts; only a single exit connected the waterfronts with the BQE, causing traffic bottlenecks from trucks delivering goods. Red Hook’s industrial waterfront declined soon thereafter, and with it, the rest of the surrounding neighborhood.
Today, a number of residents alongside the BQE are brainstorming ways to take back some of the space Moses left us with. While here in Clinton Hill we’re brainstorming ways to use the space under the bridge, in Cobble Hill and Carrol Gardens Mayor Bloomberg has proposed constructing a roof deck over a nine-block stretch of the expressway, and then building housing on top of that. Moses may have largely ignored most neighborhood’s wishes in planning the BQE, but it seems many neighborhoods are starting to take it back.