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January 28, 2007

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 me.

January 28 , 2007

Tear Down 787

A “crazy notion” has suddenly become a
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 gone.

How Exactly Does All This Crap Benefit Our Community?
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 community.

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 urbane.

The Neighbors Of Hayes Valley, San Francisco (Click on picture)

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 anywhere.

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 accumulated graft.

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 with NYDOT.

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.

April, 2003:  Hayes Valley Neighbors Celebrate The Impending Demise Of The Horror Above Their Heads
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 flying overhead.

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 worse.

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.

Oh well.

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. Whover Built This Crap On Top Of It Ought To Be Shot.
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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