Living Legend

Photo by Abigail Montes

When it comes to the Cross Bronx Expressway, everyone is a historian. In September, as a group assembled at Bridge Playground, where the six-lane road braids into the Major Deegan and over the Alexander Hamilton Bridge, a neighbor strolled over to inquire what was up. Learning that it was a walking tour of the highway’s western section, the woman volunteered that she had moved into the building behind us forty years ago, and began to explain which buildings were there then, and what were the more recent developments. At the tour’s first stop, across Edward L Grant Highway and down a hill at Plimpton Playground, representatives from the State and City Departments of Transportation swapped baseball and street name trivia (Grant was a New York baseball Giant). A father pushing two children on the swings similarly asked what we were up to, then volunteered, “This is the highway that split the Bronx in half.” Later, crossing the expressway from north to south over the bridge at Nelson Avenue, Almas and Adib, two 15-year-olds born in Bangladesh and raised in Parkchester, participating in the tour as part of a youth leadership program, recited, in an impromptu lecture, the full mythology of the Cross Bronx: from the highway’s division of the borough to poverty, drugs, and crime, a cascade of declining social indicators.

The expressway looms large in the Bronx, and in the history of New York City. The road is of national consequence, too: the start of construction in 1948 both predated and inaugurated the interstate highway era and the destruction of urban communities it unleashed. The roadway illustrates the brutal handiwork of Robert Moses’ meat axe, as, in his quest to modernize New York City, he would come close to destroying it. The monumental task of carving, digging, and bridging over almost seven miles — from the Harlem River to Westchester Creek — took 15 years, but that’s only if you don’t account for the construction of the Bruckner and Hutchinson interchange. This was not completed until 1972, at which point the author of a little book called The Power Broker was concluding his 1200-plus-page indictment of the master builder. In its most cited (and actually read) chapter, Robert Caro chronicled in painful detail the struggle to build “one mile” of the expressway directly through the working-class Jewish neighborhood of East Tremont, displacing thousands of families powerless to stop it — though they certainly tried — and setting in motion a domino effect of decay and despair. In the 1970s and 80s, the South Bronx’s ruination lay on display before those driving across the expressway, acquiring legendary status. Less linear conduit than infrastructural ouroboros, the road was a machine for viewing the destruction it sowed.

Map of the Cross Bronx Expressway study area. Image courtesy New York City Department of City Planning
Map of the Cross Bronx Expressway study area. Image courtesy New York City Department of City Planning

All of this is history. But the Cross Bronx remains material fact. A critical node in a national transportation network, it moves 300 diesel trucks per hour, tens of thousands of cars per day. More than 200,000 people live within one-half mile of the expressway today. Through tremendous effort, the borough has rebuilt, and rubble-filled lots persist only in memory; such is the city’s capacity to assimilate damage over time. People, too, eventually come to tune out the noise and smells, even if their effects remain insidious. Neighborhoods surrounding the Cross Bronx suffer the city’s highest childhood asthma hospitalization rates, and a disproportionate share of Covid deaths have also been linked to air pollution. Even the challenges the roadway poses to everyday mobility exacerbate health disparities. With the lack of connections from east to west and north to south, it is hard for people to walk and cycle, or for residents in the South Bronx to access medical care at the institutions concentrated in the north. It’s just hard to get around, our teenage tour guides volunteer: It is easier to take the subway to Manhattan than meet up with a friend nearby. And the environment’s “depressing.”

The walking tour is part of a federally funded study to reimagine the Cross Bronx corridor and begin to repair some of the damage done. The advocacy of Bronx resident and parks advocate Nilka Martell in particular has brought capping the Cross Bronx into the realm of possibility. In a few short years, Martell has connected the dots from activism to improve Virginia Park, which straddles the expressway in Parkchester, to the road’s devastating health effects, to academic evidence for the benefits of capping it, to the attempt to bring once-in-a-generation infrastructure investments to address public health, toxic fumes, and insufferable noise, and improve open space and connectivity in the neighborhoods surrounding the expressway. It is a singular opportunity to provide redress for historic harms, but any future directions for the Cross Bronx must be oriented to the contemporary situation. Visions of deck parks, clean air, green space, a multimodal corridor with room and safety for buses, bikes, and pedestrians, all have to address physical reality, complex technical requirements, and political vagary, and avoid repeating past harms or committing their contemporary equivalents. The very real threats of displacement of people and businesses — so-called green gentrification — loom over any possible improvements.

To imagine anew and avoid the worst, the first step is to contend with what is there: not an abstraction but a concrete, if disconnected, collection of places and uses. There are parks both loved and in need of love, bridges, underpasses, new housing, old housing with blank walls still bearing witness to the primordial cut or the subsequent fires, schools, small businesses and large industrial ones, trucks that need to park overnight, and people who have to live in RVs. In the fall of 2023, as the City’s Departments of Transportation and City Planning walked and talked with residents and stakeholders, we asked photographer Abigail Montes to look closely at the road, not from the perspective of the windshield, but as neighbor. Montes grew up in the Bronx; she lives and works there now. Her documentary work casts a loving eye on the borough and the people who have dedicated their lives to preserving, protecting, and improving their communities. Montes walked the length of the expressway multiple times, a geographically and physically complex feat to create an original, incredible portrait of a place we don’t see as such, one we struggle to take in all together and in the present day. Her images — presented in a slide show from west to east — capture an extreme contrast of scales and speeds, intersections of everyday life and infrastructure in perpetual motion. This survey of existing conditions, on the cusp, or in the hopes, of great change, is an invitation to acknowledge multiple realities, and to design new ones.

All photos copyright Abigail Montes

Abigail Montes is a documentary photographer, educator and youth arts coordinator from the South Bronx. She graduated from LaGuardia Community College in 2002 with an AAS in Commercial Photography. Since 2013, she has worked with various initiatives empowering youth through image making. In 2018 she completed the Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism One-Year Certificate Program at the International Center of Photography (ICP) and was awarded the Documentary Arts Fellowship. In 2019 Montes became the Co-Coordinator and Lab Manager of ICP at THE POINT, a youth photo program based in the neighborhood where she grew up and centers her documentary practice. In 2021 she earned a BFA in Photography from Saint John’s University. Montes is a lead instructor for ICP’s Community Programs, teaching the fundamentals of photography with social justice, self esteem, community and collaboration as thematic anchors.

Mariana Mogilevich is the editor-in-chief of Urban Omnibus.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.