A hated, mile-long highway shows an overlooked problem with America’s infrastructure — but it could soon come crumbling down

BI Graphics_Undividing America_800x100_Post

Sheridan ExpresswayThe Sheridan Expressway starts as an elevated highway in Hunts Point.Sarah Jacobs

  • The Sheridan Expressway is a six-lane highway that cuts through the South Bronx in New York City, depriving neighborhoods of access to basic amenities.
  • It’s just one of many highways built in the mid-20th century that have isolated low-income communities of color while ferrying white suburbanites in and out of city centers.
  • After decades of activism, the Sheridan may be the nation’s next highway torn apart as states shift their priorities to consider the role infrastructure plays in shaping communities.

It’s six lanes wide and just over a mile long, an unfinished stub symbolizing the larger ambitions of ruthless 20th-century city planners. When it opened to cars in 1963, the Sheridan Expressway helped whisk white, middle-class suburbanites into and out of Manhattan without having to linger in the Bronx along the way.

But neighborhoods along the Sheridan have suffered. The massive expressway helped drive out thousands of longtime residents who had the means to leave, and several businesses in its path were torn down.

Today, an auto-body shop can be found on almost every block, and trucks clog the streets near the expressway, coming and going from the wholesale food market that serves much of New York City. It has served as a literal barrier, preventing residents from accessing the Bronx River, parks, grocery stores, subway stations, and schools.

Hunts Point, a once vibrant jazz community, is now defined by the Sheridan. Roads are clogged by trucks exiting the Sheridan, and blocks are lined with chain-link fences, auto-salvage yards, and warehouses. The community suffers from abnormally high rates of asthma from vehicle exhaust.

“It’s isolated a whole population of Hunts Point,” Maria Torres, a 46-year-old Hunts Point resident, said in an interview. Torres has lived in Hunts Point for 20 years.

For years, decades even, residents like Torres have entertained a fantasy: What would happen if the Sheridan just disappeared? Would it bring back clean air and reconnect Hunts Point — a peninsula with a picturesque Bronx River waterfront — to the rest of the borough?

More than half a century after it went up, we could soon find out. The Sheridan is likely to join a number of highways that once isolated lower-income neighborhoods in cities across the US but are being torn apart as states shift their priorities and consider the role infrastructure plays in shaping communities.

Hunts Point

robert mosesRobert Moses is a controversial urban planner known for shaping modern-day New York.Wikimedia Commons

You can still see some signs of what Hunts Point was like before the Sheridan was built.

Prewar row houses with peeling paint hint at a time when Hunts Point was a suburban village with some farmland.

But the state officials in the mid-20th century thought little about this neighborhood’s residents.

“Having to cross a six-lane highway to get to a train station or to shopping … is difficult,” Torres said.

You can blame Robert Moses for that. The controversial New York urban planner was behind most of the New York region’s urban-renewal projects in the 20th century, from the creation of Lincoln Center to public pools and the building of the Triborough Bridge (now known as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge).

And while Moses had outsize power in New York, he wasn’t alone. The Sheridan is an example of one of several infrastructure projects constructed in the 20th century, including the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco and Harbor Drive in Portland, with little regard for the communities they were directly affecting.

Yet what happened to Hunts Point is more complicated.

After decades of community activism, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York is setting aside $1.8 billion to turn it into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard.

At a time when the national dialogue has centered on a proposed $1 trillion investment for new infrastructure nationally, Cuomo’s Sheridan proposal is about paring down — and giving previously neglected communities a chance to come back together.

But over the past half a century, Hunts Point has adapted in a way. As much as the expressway has made life harder for residents, it has also spawned businesses and industry. Trucks go on and off the Sheridan all day and night, heading to wholesalers and other businesses.

A border vacuum

Sheridan ExpresswayAuto shops line the Sheridan Expressway, servicing the 30,000 vehicles that drive on the highway daily.Sarah Jacobs

Take a stroll along the outskirts of the Sheridan Expressway and you will primarily see two things: food markets and auto-body repair shops.

It’s a mini economy that has developed out of the construction of the Sheridan.

Hunts Point is now an industrial neighborhood that has been shaped and influenced by the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center. The Center is composed of more than 150 public and private wholesalers, the biggest being the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market, the Cooperative Meat Market, and the New Fulton Fish Market.

The Center takes up 329 acres in Hunts Point — nearly half of the 690-acre peninsula. It is the largest wholesale market in North America, providing food to 22 million people in New York and the larger Northeast while employing tens of thousands of people.

The Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market opened in 1967, a few years after the Sheridan opened to traffic. The meat and fish markets would follow later.

The primary vehicles crossing the Sheridan Expressway are trucks hauling food into and out of the center. The auto shops and salvage yards that have popped up along the way all rely on those customers coming from the freeway.

It wasn’t always like this. At one point, Hunts Point was considered an epicenter of Latin music.

Manida Street, once occupied by a colony of jazz musicians and artists, is now lined with chain-link fences and red-brick warehouses. Major establishments like Hunts Point Palace, once home to live music and salsa dancing, are long gone.

Sheridan ExpresswayThe start of the Sheridan in Hunts Point is regularly congested with vehicles coming from the Bruckner Expressway.Sarah Jacobs

Moses’ highways — not just the Sheridan, but also the Bruckner Expressway and the Cross Bronx — contributed to the industrialization of Hunts Points. From 1970 to 1985, Hunts Point lost two-thirds of its residential population. Neighborhoods next door saw similar declines.

The Sheridan serves as a “border vacuum,” a term coined by urban activist Jane Jacobs, referring to the role infrastructure can play in blocking access to public spaces and depriving growth in the area.

And yet, the Sheridan itself is largely underused, with roughly 35,000 vehicles crossing the freeway on a daily basis. It also fails to provide direct access to the Food Distribution Center, forcing trucks to navigate local streets to get to their final destination.

Sheridan ExpresswayMaria Torres, 46, has lived in Hunts Point for 20 years.Sarah Jacobs

“There’s a tremendous concentration of truck traffic in this neighborhood,” Elena Conte, the director of policy at the Pratt Center, said in an interview. “Streets are unsafe, and having the trucks travel on local streets creates conflicts for people, creates unnecessary congestion, worsens air quality, and makes it harder to walk around.”

The Pratt Center is part of an activist coalition, the South Bronx Watershed Alliance, that has been rallying for the Sheridan’s removal since the late 1990s. The SWBA is composed of six other community groups, like the Pratt Center for Community Development and the Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice.

Torres said the Sheridan made walking so difficult that she had seen elderly community members take buses to cross the Sheridan and complete everyday tasks like grocery shopping.

But Torres tries to avoid the roundabout bus routes, preferring to run errands by foot, which poses its own challenges.

There are parts of Hunts Point, like Torres’ neighborhood, where the Sheridan is elevated.

She said trying to cross under it felt unsafe because of the number of lanes and low lighting.

“It is hard,” she said. “I still feel the DOT needs to get the timing down right for the lights. You still find yourself running those last couple of steps to get across.”

Sheridan ExpresswayThe Hunts Point 6 subway station sits right next to the Sheridan Expressway.Sarah Jacobs

The intersection of Hunts Point Avenue and the Sheridan, right near a subway stop, is “one of the most dangerous intersections in all of the Bronx,” Conte said.

“People unfortunately do regularly get killed there,” Conte said.

David Shuffler, the executive director of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, grew up near an at-grade portion of the Sheridan Expressway, at the intersection of Bronx River Avenue and the Bruckner Expressway. Shuffler said he knew someone in his neighborhood who was hit by a car while trying to cross the street near the highway.

“What motivated me to get involved was survival,” Shuffler said in an interview. “It was really about if folks are going to be able to live and survive.”

‘A country shaped by cars’

Ford Model T 1916A 1916 Ford Model T.Wikimedia Commons/ William Creswell

Moses originally intended for the Sheridan to extend to the New England Thruway, cutting right through the Bronx Zoo. But community opposition led Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to cancel the extension in 1971.

“This is a highway that is underused, was never fully built to its full scope,” Tovar said.

Roadways like the Sheridan were built for the benefit of drivers at the expense of city dwellers, a priority that can be traced all the way back to Henry Ford’s Model T in the early 1900s. Public transit was no longer the primary mode of transportation; cars were seen as the future.

“We have a country shaped by cars like no other: drive-ins, motels, you name it,” John Baick, a history professor at Western New England University, told Business Insider. “Certainly, car ownership is a very American characteristic. It’s something that matches the idea of Americans as individuals, and our cars define who we are.”

Though mass production spurred by the Model T’s assembly line helped transform the car from a luxurious ideal to an attainable goal ($895, or about $20,000 today), widespread financing of vehicles also triggered mass adoption.

“Cars in America were mass produced and made massively available through financing, but you see infrastructure following pretty quickly,” Baick said. “It certainly matches into American patterns of consumerism — we are what we buy.”

futurama exhibitA shot of the Futurama exhibit at the 1939/40 New York World’s Fair.Wikimedia Commons/ Norman Bel Geddes

American Highway Users Alliance, which GM founded in 1932, lobbied for tax breaks that would lead to sustained highway funding over time. GM even presented an idea for a massive highway system, dubbed Futurama, that showed interlocking highways that allowed cars to zip right through cities’ cores, an idea that looked a lot like Moses’ later plans.

In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Interstate Highway Act, which allocated $25 billion over 10 years toward 41,000 miles of interstate highways that often went straight through neighborhoods.

“It’s as if the car comes to dominate,” Lance Freeman, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University, told Business Insider. “So it makes for a much more decentralized city … and you see certain urban design innovations that are definitely designed to [make] things more accessible for cars.”

Removing the Sheridan

Sheridan ExpresswayFew footpaths allow residents to cross the Sheridan. Some are dark and lined with trash.Sarah Jacobs

Moses’ projects were born out of the notion that it was perfectly natural to build a highway straight through a city. The plight of residents wasn’t a big consideration.

“He put down highways through communities that were politically weak, that had no means of resisting,” Baick said.

At one point in the 1920s, Moses was so powerful that he held different government positions simultaneously, including head of the State Parks Council and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, according to the New York Times obituary for Moses published in 1981.

“He acquired a lot of power, power that was not very accountable,” Freeman said.

Low-income communities of color, like the South Bronx, succumbed to Moses’ grand visions.

“His priority was, in a way, very much prefiguring the Manhattan of today,” Baick said. “One that very much catered toward upper middle class and wealthy.”

And when the middle class and wealthy were threatened by his plans, they fought back and won.

Moses, for example, tried to build highway projects through middle-class white neighborhoods, like a proposed freeway through Washington Square Park, the center of wealthy downtown Manhattan.

Community opposition scuttled the plans.

Sheridan ExpresswayHunts Point community members look at proposals for the Sheridan transformation project.Sarah Jacobs

The Sheridan could have consumed a lot more of the Bronx, but because it was never complete, vehicles are constantly spilling out on the streets of neighborhoods like Hunts Point.

It’s enough of a headache that the South Bronx has been calling for change since 1997, when New York’s Department of Transportation proposed extending the Sheridan.

“To recommend putting more highways or expanded highways in our neighborhoods was something we were up in arms about,” Shuffler said. “These highways were set up to transport people through our neighborhoods, and that’s problematic for us.”

sheridan expressway mapThe Sheridan (green) was originally supposed to extend to the New England Thruway, cutting through the Bronx Zoo. The proposed extension is highlighted in red in this 1964 NYC Parks Department map.Wikimedia Commons/ Department of Parks

Cuomo is now budgeting for a plan that will allocate $697 million toward the first-phase of a $1.8 billion project to transform the Sheridan into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard that would also add ramps, allowing trucks to drive directly to the Food Distribution Center without cutting through the neighborhood. Some say that doesn’t go far enough.

“Because we were calling for the full removal, that was something that we had to grapple with because it wasn’t necessarily, entirely what we wanted,” said Angela Tovar, director of community development at The Point, a nonprofit dedicated to the economic revitalization of Hunts Point. “But then we realized that we could still advance most of the priorities that the community had asked for through the city’s process.”

“Since then we have been trying to make sure that that plan survives,” Tovar continued.

If everything goes accordingly, the Sheridan could be a success story like the Embarcadero Freeway — a roughly 1-mile, double-decker highway that was turned into a boulevard in 1990.

Though many feared that the Embarcadero Freeway’s removal would result in an increase in traffic, the opposite happened: It led to a revitalized neighborhood with a ferry service, pedestrians, and commercial and housing development.

The same goes for Portland’s Harbor Drive, a six-lane freeway removed in 1974, providing access to parks and a riverfront.

The removal of the Sheridan would allow people from across the borough to access parks along the Bronx River, a once heavily polluted waterway now thriving with wildlife like herring and turtles. The hope is it would also lead to commercial development and further economic revitalization.

“If the Sheridan expressway were a boulevard rather than an expressway … you could possibly find a boom or boomlet in housing construction in that area,” Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx borough historian, said in an interview. “It would open up access to parks in that area, which would make it more desirable.”

But community members are trying not to get their hopes up. It’s unclear whether Cuomo’s plan will result in the removal of lanes, which members of the South Bronx Watershed Alliance say is crucial to transforming the Sheridan into an accessible boulevard.

“If he does it right,” Conte of the Pratt Center said, “it will be a tremendous benefit, and he will deserve all the credit that comes along with it.”

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