Under the Over

A new book examines how to transform the dark and dirty spaces under bridges, elevated subway lines, and highways throughout New York City.

By Alex Ulam

Under the Elevated launch event at Pier i.
Under the Elevated launch event at the Pier i Café.

Aside from the surviving section of the hulking Miller Highway viaduct looming overhead, Thomas Balsley’s masterfully designed Riverside Park South is a serene place with tall, wavy grasses and meandering pathways. The viaduct, however, bisects the park, casting shadows and blocking views. The din from the traffic overhead can make it difficult to hear people talking on parts on the park’s distinctive curved pier that juts out into the Hudson River.

Such was the case last week, when officials from the nonprofit Design Trust for Public Space and the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) had to shout to make themselves heard as they announced the publication of a new 128-page book called Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities. The product of a two-year study, the book looks at ways to transform the often dark and dirty spaces beneath the 700 miles of bridges, elevated subway lines, and highways that run throughout the five boroughs of the city. According to the book’s introduction, the amount of space available for redesigning is nearly four times the size of Central Park.

With the publication of Under the Elevated, the Design Trust is seeking to inspire civic efforts throughout the city similar to the one it helped catalyze with its pivotal 2001 study for the High Line. “Not every neighborhood needs a High Line,” Design Trust Executive Director Susan Chin said. “However, the need to alleviate the negative impact from the presence of elevated lines is even greater in the outer boroughs.”

Broadway and Flushing Avenue under the elevated JMZ subway line in Brooklyn.
Broadway and Flushing Avenue under the elevated JMZ subway line in Brooklyn.

Most of New York City’s elevated infrastructure is in fact located outside Manhattan in low-income neighborhoods, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said, noting that the Design Trust’s initiative dovetails with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda for developing public open spaces in underserved communities.

Some of the spaces beneath the elevated structures potentially could be developed and maintained under the DOT’s NYC Plaza Program, which used to rely on private support for maintenance. “When it comes to plazas and doing median greenery, the city actually is going to be putting funds in for the first time,” Trottenberg said. “We recognize that neighborhoods have different capacities in terms of resources, and that this is one of the equity challenges.”

Looking at the remnant of the Miller Highway viaduct overhead, which once ran all the way to the tip of Lower Manhattan and was one of the first elevated highways in the country, I was struck by how, in the early 20th century, such obtrusive structures symbolized progress. At the time, they were viewed as a means to improve traffic safety and to reduce traffic congestion. However, there were significant social and environmental costs—many of these structures were either rammed through low-income neighborhoods or were built in places that, at the time, were part of the city’s industrial waterfront. Later, in gentrifying areas of Manhattan, many of the elevated highway and subway viaducts were torn down at enormous expense.

Division Street Pop-Up installation in Chinatown.
Division Street pop-up installation in Chinatown.

In recent years, there have been several notable examples of remaking spaces beneath elevated infrastructure. The space beneath the Miller Highway viaduct became a leg of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway. And then there are some of the formerly underused spaces beneath the High Line, which have been brought to life with fashionable restaurants and public plazas.

The Boogie Down Booth pop-up installation under the stairway to the 2/5 elevated subway line at Freeman Street in the Bronx.

Under the Elevated contains seven illustrated case studies for redesigning spaces underneath structures throughout New York City and describes two pop-up installations where Design Trust Fellows, the private-sector professionals who lead research, design, and planning for trust projects, tested some of their ideas. One was in Chinatown under one of the Manhattan Bridge’s massive arches, where the team installed lighting, seating, and a bulletin board for local residents to post messages about events. Under an elevated train trestle in the Morrisania neighborhood in the South Bronx, the Design Trust worked with a community-based development corporation, WHEDco, to design the Boogie Down Booth, a performance venue and gathering place illuminated by LED lights that plays local music.

The book also explores how plant life can be installed to help beautify these spaces and to mitigate the stormwater runoff from the structures overhead. In Flushing, Queens, dlandstudio designed the Highway Outfall Landscape Detention system to collect and filter stormwater from the drainpipes on the elevated highways that run through Flushing Meadows Corona Park. “You think, ‘Oh, I cannot plant under there because it is not going to get any light,’” said dlandstudio principal Susannah Drake, FASLA, who is one of the authors of Under the Elevated. “But the issue isn’t light,” she added. “It is actually water, because it doesn’t get any moisture, but then if you take the water off the highway and use plants that can actually withstand that crappy water, then you actually can have a self-irrigating system.”

Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities is available for purchase online at Design Trust for Public Space’s website.

Alex Ulam is a freelance journalist who writes frequently on architecture and design. His work has been published in the New York Times, the Nation magazine, Maclean’s, and other publications.

Credits: Launch Event, Sam Lahoz, courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space; Broadway and Flushing Avenue, © Krisanne Johnson for the Design Trust for Public Space; Division Street, Neil Donnelly, courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space; Boogie Down Booth, William Michael Fredericks, courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space.

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