A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old
and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and
disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel
Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add
or would like to make an empty threat, please contact
January 28 , 2007
Tear Down 787
A “crazy notion” has suddenly
respectable and necessary idea
Here’s an interesting fact. If you tear down an elevated interstate
highway and replace it with a boulevard, most of the traffic disappears.
Most “experts” don’t know this simple fact. If
you listen to and believe traffic engineers, planners, politicians
and other like-minded creatures, horrible things will happen. They’ll
tell you that if the interstate is torn down, the traffic will reappear,
as if by magic, on our city streets. They say that if you think traffic
in downtown Albany is bad now, it will be way worse after 787 is
How Exactly Does All This Crap Benefit Our Community?
How do they know this? They’re experts and public officials,
they know. They’ll tell you that those of us who live and pay
taxes in the South End of Albany must put up with the constant engine
noise, the pollution, the invisible rain of poisonous lead and other
toxins spewed out of auto and truck tailpipes upon our neighborhoods.
We must. We have no choice.
They say the South End must accept as inevitable the big ugly
cavalcade of concrete pillars and ramps. They say we must be cut
off from the Hudson River, so cut off that we forget that the mighty
river is there. They say we must tolerate diminished quality of life
because we are a City, not a suburb. The price of living in a community
with a sustainable infrastructure is constant traffic noise and pollution.
The experts are all a bunch of idiots. I’ve come to this learned
conclusion after years of observation and discourse with the lot
of them. They are fond of producing bogus “traffic studies” and “projections” based
upon... well, nothing. They
make this stuff up. Really. They do.
Basically, the experts use the same techniques that Dick Cheney
used to plunge the United States into an endless unwinnable war against
Iraq. First, they define their goal. Then, they create phony data
to justify their goal. Then, they tell us they’re experts,
and we’re all dummies.
With their numbers and graphs and drawings full of green grass and
pretty trees they sell their roadway boondoggles to the suffering
taxpayers, saying, “This is how it could be. A paradise on
Earth. If you don’t let us build this wonder of the ages, you
will suffer in ways unimaginable for the rest of your lives.”
This is how the White House sold the War Against Iraq, this is how
the planners and politicians stuck us with Interstate 787. Why they
did this to us is the same in both cases. Some very wealthy people
wanted to get richer than they already were, and some public officials
wanted to retire rich. At taxpayer expense, of course.
So, once the right kind of people collected our money and retired
to “gated communities” in the exurbs, we were left with
787. What does it do? What
is it good for? Why, it allows suburbanites
to fly their gas sucking fume spewing crap wagons over our heads
without stopping or giving our neighborhoods any thought.
In other words, 787 exists for the convenience of suburbanites.
The average traffic engineer, planner or politician is a suburbanite.
And the few of them that actually live inside the City limits thinks
like a suburbanite. Thus, when this bunch looks at a cityscape like
the South End of Albany, they say to themselves and each other, “How
can we use this City to benefit ourselves and people like us?”
That’s why I call them a bunch of idiots. Nothing personal.
It’s the mindset.
About twenty five people gathered in an upstairs room at the Albany
Public Library on Washington Avenue last January 22nd to see a hastily
arranged presentation by a gentleman from San Francisco named Robin
Levitt. Word about the event had been put out about a week before.
Not a bad crowd for such short notice. We had come to hear about
how he and his neighbors had removed an elevated highway from their
Mr. Levitt is a friendly, engaging man who takes a genuine interest
in the people that he meets. To me, having once lived in San Francisco,
everything about him screams “San Francisco,” the casual
open manner, the way he wears his scarf. Not to mention his subtle
California accent, with schwas substituting for distinct vowels.
Notably lacking in his personality, however, is the materialistic
snobbishness so common on the West Coast, the attitude that sent
me grumbling back East. I guess I might call him un-self-consciously
The Neighbors Of Hayes Valley, San Francisco (Click on picture)
He is also a neighborhood activist. He lives in a part of San Francisco
called Hayes Valley, a mixed income neighborhood with many of the
oldest buildings in the City, some dating back to the 1860s. In many
ways Hayes Valley is a lot like the South End of Albany, with a lot
of the same positive assets, and a lot of similar problems.
Starting in the early 1990s, Mr. Levitt and some of his neighbors
decided to organize and fight for their neighborhood, which, like
the South End, had suffered from a policy of long-term neglect by
their elected officials. This, despite proximity to the downtown
of one of the most vibrant economic centers in the country. Neglect
and mismanagement by government has the same effect on neighborhoods
The freeway hovering over Hayes Valley was, in effect, a five block
long double-decker ramp... five very long blocks, that is. It was
a remnant of a grandiose hair-brained plan from the 1950s by the
California Department of Transportation (DOT) to carve up San Francisco
with a series of freeways. Some of these highways were built, but
fortunately many were stopped by outraged neighborhood activists
from decades past.
I was amazed and horrified by one of Mr. Levitt’s projections
on the library wall, a map showing the stranglehold of freeways that
the generals at the DOT planned to impose upon San Francisco. For
example, a pair of surface freeways were supposed to flank beautiful
Golden Gate Park, effectively isolating it from the surrounding neighborhoods.
The Hayes Valley arterial was supposed to connect to the Golden Gate
Bridge, which would have allowed the suburbanites to completely ignore
San Francisco on their way north to Marin.
Sound familiar? Old time activists around here can
tell you how the New York DOT tried to do the same thing in Albany.
You know that bizarre 360 degree turnaround on the Center Square
side of the Rockefeller Plaza? That was supposed to lead into a super
highway called the “Lark/Dove Arterial.”
The plan was to obliterate Hudson and Jay Streets,
tearing down all those wonderful historic buildings. The Arterial
was supposed to rip into Washington Park and make a sharp right, flatten the Civil
War monument, and tear along present day Henry
Johnson Boulevard. The idea was that the sweet-ass denizens of Loudonville
could drive back and forth to Rocky Plaza without having to encounter
any of those dirty icky people and neighborhoods of Albany.
It didn’t happen. The neighbors rallied around Trinity Church
on Lark Street, which would have been obliterated by this boondoggle.
The church refused to sell, and finally the elected officials and
other enemies of the people were forced to make do with their already
Mr. Levitt asked the audience, “Is the New York DOT as fanatic
about building highways as the California DOT?” Everyone in
the room nodded vigorously. Many present had had first hand experience
I had to laugh. Back in 1985, near the end of my sojourn in San
Fran, I had a job as an electrician retrofitting fluorescent lights
in downtown office skyscrapers to make them more energy efficient.
I worked at night, standing on desks taking apart the ceilings. The
actual work was repetitive... thousands of light fixtures!... but
I got to see and trample underfoot some amazing places.
One of these offices was the San Francisco branch of the DOT. It
looked like a war room, with maps and charts on the wall showing
the current position of the roadway army and the progress against
the enemy. There were timetables lying about that were reminiscent
of the plans for the Battle of the Bulge. A giant map displayed fantasy
freeways that made central California look like an anatomical color
chart of blood vessels.
In both states and everywhere else, the enemy of the DOT is the
same. Here we were at the library, the citizens and the taxpayers.
We are the ones who have to live with these concrete abortions. I
say, if you planners want these things, put ‘em out in your
precious suburbs and leave us alone.
Mr. Levitt and his neighbors had to convince their entire City that
tearing down the freeway in their neighborhood was a good idea. Unsurprisingly,
the San Francisco newspapers, which, just like our local rag, are
owned by the Hearst Corporation and run by suburbanites, predicted
sensational terrible consequences. Most politicians either opposed
the neighbors of Hayes Valley, or pointedly ignored them.
But they worked hard to get the word out, and to get around the
negative propaganda by the corporate media. By himself, Mr. Levitt
collected over 3500 signatures door to door on a petition to place
a ballot initiative.
March, 2003: Hayes Valley Neighbors Celebrate The Impending
Demise Of The Horror Above Their Heads
To make a long story short, they
beat the odds and succeeded. The
freeway was closed in March of 2003, and the bike and pedestrian
friendly surface boulevard that replaced it was opened in September
2005. Some of the same politicians who wouldn’t give the neighbors
the time of day when they were fighting presided
over the opening ceremony.
It became a local joke to wonder what happened to the traffic. Did
it go into a hole in the ground? No one could figure it out. The
only thing that anyone knew for sure is that suburban autos weren’t
clogging up the streets of Hayes Valley, and they were no longer
Almost immediately, the neglected and abandoned buildings that used
to jam up against the freeway were being renovated. So much acreage
was exposed by the deconstruction that the City set to planning for
some 800 units of rental housing. Much of this new housing is being
set aside for the lower income residents of Hayes Valley.
Like in Albany, there is tremendous demand for rental housing in
San Francisco, particularly for older buildings. The big difference
is that the San Francisco officials are very aware of the shortage
of rental units, while the Albany officials, for the most part, haven’t
got a clue.
Mr. Levitt and his neighbors sold the idea to their City by defining
four talking points. It is better to have a boulevard than to prop
up and repair the freeway because:
1) A boulevard is safer than an elevated highway. In California
there is a constant danger of skyways collapsing in earthquakes,
as happened in 1989. Here in Albany 787 has been sinking suddenly
into the mud and separating, a problem that is guaranteed to grow
2) A surface boulevard is much less expensive to build than to repair
the concrete monster.
3) A surface boulevard is quicker to build and easier to maintain.
4) Traffic management and roadway alterations are simple with a
boulevard, but nigh on impossible with the elevated horror.
But the neighbors did not merely demand change, they actually planned
and designed the new boulevard. They made drawings and built models
that they had a grand time taking out to public places. When the
City government finally agreed with the Hayes Valley neighbors, the
transformation was eased because a workable plan was already in place.
Of course it helped that Mr. Levitt is an architect by trade, but
hey, we live in the friggin’ capital of New York State. There’s
planning talent all over the place. Indeed, several retired planners
were in the audience at the library.
Much of highway 787 is built on landfill that was dumped into the
Hudson beyond the historic riverbank. The ramps are separating from
the pillars that are sinking unevenly into the mud. Even if enormous
taxpayer funds are laid out, any repair to 787 would be temporary
because the foundation upon which it is built is inherently unstable.
No one would benefit from such a foolish project except beneficiaries
of public graft.
Mr. Levitt, gentleman that he is, had some advice for Albany activists.
Instead of talking about tearing down and destroying the highway,
we should emphasize the positives, what a boulevard would do to improve
our city and our lives. And by no means, he told me afterward, should
we rant angrily about suburbanites and their stupid automobiles.
But let us not forget that under the dead land beneath 787 in the
South End is Fort Orange, the second oldest European settlement in
the United States after St. Augustine, Florida, dating from 1621.
This amazing historical site sits waiting to be exhumed, a piling
supporting a concrete pillar driven deep into its heart.
The Wife Poses At The Site Of Fort Orange, Near Madison Avenue.
Whoever Put This Crap On Top Of It Ought To Be Shot.
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