Radical Infrastructure Schemes: The Brooklyn-Battery Bridge

Gizmodo yesterday published an article called 6 Radical Infrastructure Schemes That Almost Changed NYC Forever. The proposals listed ranged from “almost happened” (the Lower-Manhattan Expressway) to “no effing way” (filling in the Hudson).

My first reaction was to question my model. Here I spend all of these hours leafing through crumbling books at the library looking for novel topics for the sake of a few hundred visitors a day, when I could just cobble together research that other people have posted online and get 120,000 hits in twenty-four hours. (For example, Curbed NY had a much better article in January on the Hudson fill.) Then I re-read my post from the other day on this very topic and felt better.

My second reaction was to say: “Where the hell is the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge?”

A rendering of the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, connecting downtown Manhattan to Red Hook. (From The Age of Nepotism)

An overhead rendering of the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge. (From The Age of Nepotism)

This plan might have come to fruition in 1939 had President Roosevelt not grown a pair and stood up to the only man who had more power than he: Robert Moses.

Moses and FDR were fierce rivals, but Moses had always had the upper hand. When FDR succeeded Moses’ patron, Al Smith, as Governor of New York in 1928, he found it impossible to fire Moses, and in fact granted Moses wide-sweeping powers as the Commissioner of Parks for the state. (Probably unknowingly, as Moses was a master of burying seemingly innocuous clauses deep within bills.) Once FDR was in the White House, Moses could cast his attempts to rein in New York’s use of WPA funds as a federal intrusion.

Moses liked to leave his mark on the city with bridges; no one appreciates a beautiful tunnel. His Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, connecting lower Manhattan to Red Hook, would have been his crowning glory. The difference between this and other projects – the Tri-Borough, the Henry Hudson Parkway, the BQE – was that the aristocracy would feel the direct effects.

Brooklyn-Battery Bridge Moses rendering

Moses’ rendering of the bridge …

He would destroy the Battery, the only green space at the tip of the island, along with Castle Clinton and the New York Aquarium. Wall Street’s property value would plummet to basically nothing, as the bridge would erect a “Chinese Wall” separating the concrete jungle from the water. (“Chinese Wall” is also used to describe how the Belt Parkway splits Sheepshead Bay in two.) No one really cared what happened to Red Hook, but whatever.

Moses’ former allies were now against him, and they petitioned for national help. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a plea for “the preservation of the few beautiful spots that still remain to us on an overcrowded island” in her daily column. But FDR had the final say, and he showed that he had learned from his past mistakes.

Brooklyn-Battery Bridge West Side Association rendering

… and a rendering showing the effects on the Financial District. (Both from The Power Broker)

While pulling the strings behind the scenes, FDR deferred the final decision to Secretary of War Harry Hines Woodring in order to distance himself from Moses’ criticism. Secretary Woodring rejected the plan on July 17, 1939, on the grounds that “the proposed bridge is seaward of a vital Navy establishment” – the Navy Yard. Nevermind that the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, too, would make the East River impassable were they reduced to ruins.

Calling Moses a prick is quite the understatement. Out of spite, he closed the Aquarium. (Its replacement, on Coney Island, would not be opened for 14 years.) An injunction from the Supreme Court prevented him from demolishing Castle Clinton, although he did manage to burn down the stately old doors.

Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, Ole Singstad

Tunnel-building pioneer Ole Singstad joined the fray to show the blight the bridge would cause. (From Urban Omnibus)

For more reading, check out The power broker: Robert Moses and the fall of New York by Robert A. Caro (Vintage Books, 1975).

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7 Responses to Radical Infrastructure Schemes: The Brooklyn-Battery Bridge

  1. Jenet Levy says:

    Keith, I love your stuff. You know, something I was actually thinking of recently is “the Battery.” We have Battery Park, Battery Park City, the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel (now renamed for Hugh Carey, I never like when the helpful names go away, but that’s another story) and then there are those lyrics from “New York, New York” (‘the Bronx is up but the Battery’s down). However, as a New York City real estate agent, I can tell you that there is no downtown neighborhood that we call “The Battery” today. The Wall Street area is called the Financial District, Battery Park City is, well, Battery Park City. But “the Battery,” – not on any map showing neighborhoods. I wonder what happened. What’s your take on that?

    • Keith says:

      Thanks, Jenet! My guess: the connotation of “Battery” by itself (dangerous, military) plus living on landfill was never a good selling point.

  2. Harley N says:

    You are quite right about Moses; spiteful,anti public transit man who oddly enough did not drive. He was stopped from the “Cross Brooklyn” that would have run on the Bay Ridge RR right of way, and more importantly, the Lower Manhattan Expressway (there is a stub on the Manhattan Bridge, but that is as far as he got). Interesting thing is instead of destroying Little Italy and So Ho as he planned, the benign neglect actually preserved the Belgian block streets and cast iron clad buildings from “improvement”.
    Wish more people read this blog to enjoy the incredible research you do: rare maps and photos and a new perspective of local history.

    And as you head downtown in Manhattan, you will notice that the lights get brighter. It’s because it is closer to the Battery!

    • Keith says:

      I didn’t even touch the surface of Moses. He pops up every so often here. We need another like him today to undo all of the awful things he “accomplished”!

  3. chickenunderwear says:

    and it would have been nice if the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel would have been fit for trains.

  4. Pingback: History Lessons: Why 5Pointz’s Wolkoffs Won A Battle Robert Moses Lost In ’45 – insiderater.com

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