The city’s first round of public engagement sessions to reimagine the Cross Bronx Expressway wrapped up this week, signaling the start of an attempt to heal a wound that slashes through the borough.
The city was awarded $2 million through a U.S. Department of Transportation Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant to conduct a study of the expressway, which was announced in December. To kick off a community engagement process meant to inform the study, the city held three in-person and two virtual open houses, the last of which took place Monday night. A draft of the study will be released next fall, with the final version slated to be done by the end of 2024.
“We’re looking both for improvements that can be made right now, as well as those that will be developed over the coming years and decades,” Elizabeth Hamby, director of civic engagement at the NYC Department of City Planning, said at the event Monday night. “It took decades to build the Cross Bronx and reimagining it won’t happen overnight.”
Built between 1948 and 1963 under the auspices of Robert Moses, the roadway’s construction ripped apart neighborhoods, destroyed homes and displaced thousands. On top of it all, the high-traffic corridor has left South Bronx residents with disproportionately high asthma rates.
The study is a combined effort of the city transportation, planning and health departments, as well as the state transportation department.
On Monday, members of the public filled out polls asking various questions, such as how long they have been part of the community surrounding the expressway. As participants answered the questions, snippets of “Cross Bronx Expressway” by David Gonzalez & The Poetic License Band were played. (Bronx hip-hop duo Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz also have a song with the same title.)
Charles Ukegbu, assistant commissioner for regional and strategic planning for the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT), said the agency wants to address immediate issues, such as potholes or dysfunctional streetlights, and also look into longer term ideas such as capping the Cross Bronx and bringing bike lanes and bus connections.
“We’re very open at this point,” he said. “As we go back again with all the ideas we receive, then we’ll have to put it through the test of what’s possible and we’ll come back to get feedback and consensus from everyone.”
Arif Ullah, executive director of community organization South Bronx Unite, asked how locals’ input will be used to inform the draft plan, saying that frontline communities are often asked to provide input, but “just as often, nothing is done with our input.”
Hamby, from the city’s planning department, said that they’re not just doing engagement “for engagement sake,” but emphasized that the city is currently just building a vision.
“This is the first of many steps that will be required to fully reimagine and redevelop the Cross Bronx Expressway,” she said.
After asking questions about the effort, participants shared their experiences with, and opinions about, the expressway.
Attendees expressed frustrations about car accidents and congestion, as well as trash from drivers and pollution from the highway that goes straight into open windows and contributes to high rates of various health conditions in the borough. People expressed interest in capping and beautifying the expressway, creating space for street vendors who don’t need to worry about the city’s licensing and enforcement processes, justice for people who were displaced, a community vegetable garden, gathering space, noise control, walkable areas and public transit.
A teacher who identified herself as Bess, who works at a school neighboring the expressway, described it as “a big hole” in the community.
Ira Gershenhorn, another attendee, said that the roadway should be covered so people in Crotona Park, which is adjacent to the Cross Bronx, shouldn’t have to smell or hear the vehicles.
“The Cross Bronx is really long,” said Gershenhorn. “The whole thing sucks. You could not build that anywhere else. What’s-his-name (Robert Moses) just rammed it down the throats of the people who lived there. … The people in the Bronx have to take whatever crumbs they get from DOT or DSNY (NYC Department of Sanitation). The whole thing is a horror show.”
Although some participants expressed that they’d like the whole expressway to be torn down, that’s not on the table.
Ukegbu, the assistant commissioner with the city DOT, said that the road is a main artery for the region’s truck flow and cited jobs, transportation of goods and interstate commerce requirements. He said the city’s “core vision” is ensuring truck flow still occurs efficiently while mitigating negative effects on neighboring communities.
“We recognize that’s a challenge, but that’s why we are here presenting it to the people who matter, the people who live in the area,” he added.
Reach Aliya Schneider at [email protected] or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes