The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is not your typical expressway. It bends its way through Brooklyn and Queens like a snake, burrowing and then rising and sometimes even hiding below the landscape.
Driving along the BQE, rows of 19th Century housing and large warehouses pass by below on stretches of elevated highway. And as it cuts deep through areas such as Red Hook, brick covers retaining walls of concrete in an effort to blend into the urban landscape. It bends around and hides in a bluff running under the cantilevered Promenade in Brooklyn Heights. And traffic often stops and starts in a manner inconsistent with an expressway.
A Connecting Highway
The story of the BQE starts in 1936, when the Regional Plan Association recommended a link be constructed between the Gowanus Parkway and the Triborough Bridge (now the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge). The “Brooklyn-Queens Connecting Highway,” an express bypass through densely built industrial, commercial and residential areas, was proposed to link from points in Brooklyn and Queens to the East River crossings. It would be financed by Federal, state and city funds. Construction would begin in 1937 and it would not be completed until 1964.
“The future effects of this and other improvements upon the residential and industrial prosperity of Brooklyn and Queens are incalculable, especially those sections already favorably located in relation to the existing parkways, the Triborough Bridge and rapid transit lines,” said New York City developer Edward A. MacDougall.
First Section of BQE
The first section of the Brooklyn-Queens Connecting Highway opened to traffic in 1939, connecting Meeker Avenue in Greenpoint with Queens Boulevard in Woodside. This section included the Kosciuszko Bridge spanning Newtown Creek.
Robert Moses and the BQE:
Robert Moses, New York City planner and “master builder” for much of the city’s public construction, soon became the major force behind the project. Moses saw the present streets of Brooklyn as a national defense concern with its narrow and congested “crazy quilt pattern of the streets inherited from the villages that grew together to form the present borough,” making them difficult to travel. His recommendation was a six-lane road for express traffic.
In late 1945, Moses incorporated the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway into his postwar arterial development program, and, in 1950, a six-lane elevated segment of road between the Williamsburg and Kosciuszko bridges opened, connecting to the existing Brooklyn-Queens Connecting Highway to the north.
In his Robert Moses biography, The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro described how Moses set up an office on the penthouse floor of the Marguerite Hotel, which was next to the expressway so he could observe the construction of the BQE while he worked.
And he spent a lot of time looking down at it, watching the cranes and derricks and earthmoving machines that looked like toys far below him moving about in the giant trench being cut through mile after mile of densely packed houses, a big black figure against the sunset in the late afternoon, like a giant gazing down on the giant road he was molding. “And I’ll tell you,” said one of the men who spent a lot of time at the old hotel with him, “I never saw RM look happier than he did when he was looking down out of that window.”
Although construction often meant leveling neighborhoods block after block in the name of “slum clearance,” such was not the case in Brooklyn Heights, where the more well-to-do and influential residents were able to win design concessions.
According to Bob Liff in his Newsday article “New York: Chess in Concrete,” the original plan was an open-cut highway bisecting Brooklyn Heights. However, residents developed a “Citizen Alternative Plan” proposing a three-level structure along the waterfront. The lower levels would be the expressway and the upper level would feature a park, promenade and private gardens with a sweeping view of the lower Manhattan skyline and New York Harbor.
Moses agreed to the plan under the condition that the park and promenade be open to the public. That section of the expressway opened in 1954.
Unlike Brooklyn Heights which remained undivided by the BQE, Red Hook got the below-ground, open-cut highway. The residents of Red Hook were poorer and mostly Italian-immigrants and were unable to win any design concessions. According to Red Hook resident Camille Sacco, Moses “shoved” the expressway through Hicks Street and bisected the Red Hook neighborhood when he could have run it down Van Brunt Street by the water, keeping Red Hook intact.
Moses did use mitigation measures along the BQE, such as building small neighborhood parks in space where buildings had been demolished along the expressway’s right-of-way.
The BQE is Completed
In 1960, the final section of the BQE in Brooklyn near the Brooklyn Navy Yard was completed, and four years later, the final section of the expressway in Queens, between Queens Boulevard and Northern Boulevard in Woodside, was opened to traffic.