How Cars Ruined Brooklyn

shore road bay ridge brooklyn postcard
The good old days? Via Brooklyn Visual Heritage

“How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?” Che Guevara, or at least the Gael Garcia Bernal incarnation, wonders when he visits Machu Picchu in The Motorcycle Diaries. “How can a civilization that built this”—the camera shows the ruins of the great mountain city—”be destroyed to build this?”—and it cuts to the urban sprawl of Lima. I’ve shared his dismay, or at least something similar, as I’ve pored over collections of old photographs of Brooklyn—except my invaders weren’t Spaniard colonizers but oil-dropping, gas-burning machines. 

Fin-de-siecle Bay Ridge bears little resemblance to the neighborhood as it stands today: it was downright bucolic, with tree-shrouded trails winding toward the shore, crude wooden fences sagging under the weight of the air. Grand homes and other architectural wonders dot the farmlandscape, surveying the harbor from the top of the ridge or right along the coastline. Many such structures—the fireproof mansions made all of copper, the Athaneum—were lost to tragedies or the tragedy of plain neglect, of indifference, and you could consider their losses themselves a tragedy against architecture and street-level character. But a great, more insidious such blight would soon take over Brooklyn, the entire city, and the entire country: the rise to prominence of the automobile. 

A photograph of Shore Road in 1914 shows several cars along the tortuous thoroughfare, but it’s nothing compared to today: the curbs aren’t lined with parked vehicles, the lanes aren’t clogged with speeding ones, and the shore line on the side hasn’t been expanded with landfill to accommodate a “picturesque” parkway. I don’t object to this scene; the problem isn’t cars but their abject ubiquity, the way we re-created our towns and our very lives to oblige them. American parking lots in total take up “an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined,” the Times reported. That’s a conservative estimate from one study; it could be four times as more, more than six spots for every American, or eight for every car. Western cities like Houston and Los Angeles rely as much upon cars as air conditioning for their very existence.

The same isn’t true of older, Eastern cities like New York, which began to develop before the automobile established its hegemony—which, we’re not talking about ancient times here, but, say, a century ago? And over that century, urban development became more focused around making sure people could use those cars, symbols of modern prosperity. Robert Moses spent the middle of the 20th century expanding automobile infrastructure at the expense of all other kinds, tearing apart Brooklyn with an expressway network. Just yesterday, as I walked around and around the interminable wheelchair- and bicycle-accessible ramps of the Greenwood Avenue overpass in Windsor Terrace, I wondered, what’s even the point of the Prospect Expressway? To save crossborough motorists a precious few minutes? At the expense of the geographical unity of entire neighborhoods? (Here’s a partial list of neighborhoods literally cut in half, forever disjoined, torn asunder, by Moses’s highways: Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Red Hook, Sunset Park, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope.)

But what use are communities when you have a car? We can measure the strength of neighbors on a microcosmic level. When I grew up in Brooklyn in the late 80s and early 90s, there were a lot of kids everywhere: when I walk down my childhood street now, I see the alleyways where we played manhunt and the stone slabs where we sat for hours on summer days drinking Snapples. But I haven’t seen a kid outside on this block in forever. There are a lot of reasons why kids don’t play outside anymore: the rise of video games and the Internet, the increased paranoia of urban parents. But all such social solitude in the city finds its root in the car, the ultimate ur-expression of anti-urbanness. If city life is about interaction, the car is about isolation.

And that’s why it wreaks such havoc on our landscapes. The more people leave their homes to enter their cars to go into parking lots to walk into stores to come back to parking lots and drive home on highways and park in their driveways to go back into their homes, the less anyone cares about what the world actually looks like for those experiencing it directly. Cars have greatly contributed to our presently pending environmental catastrophe, and they’re responsible for daily for pedestrian deaths and injuries. But perhaps their greatest crime, or at least most underrecorgnized, is the aesthetic tragedy they wrought over the face of the entire globe. Individual cars may possess charm; one by itself can be a striking example of human ingenuity, assembly-line efficiency—technological marvel. But dozens, hundreds, thousands of cars lined up, chugging along in filthy disharmony, are a sore. There’s nothing beautiful about trying to cross Fourth Avenue in the morning without getting hit by a morning motorist. And, there’s no escaping them: drivers fight indignantly for the right to tear across our national parks, because what good’s a forest without the gas-powered wheel?

But cars are even having trouble living up to their most romantic aspects: the ineffable glories of the road trip. I had to learn as a kid (even with a Gameboy) to pass long rides to grandma’s house by staring out the window and watching the landscape, even just the rain-smeared lights of passing cars in the dark. But as gizmos improved, so did the hold they had on young minds, so much so that the pony-loving among us won’t even lift their heads to see real ponies passing by. (No, really! That’s a real story I heard!) People text while they drive. A lifelong passenger, I can’t to this day even read on the LIRR because I’m too fascinated by the world rolling by on the other side of the window.

That’s the thing: who even needs cars? A few years ago I went to a wedding on Long Island, and when it was over I walked half a mile to the nearest train station and came back to Brooklyn. Recently I met a twentysomething still living in Lynbrook, where he was born and raised, who didn’t have a driver’s license. “How do you get around?” I asked, flabbergasted, and he answered like he’d answered it a hundred times before, isn’t it obvious? His friends live nearby, there are shops nearby, he has a bike, and he can get a ride if he really needs it. “I hate cars,” he said. And that’s the thing: it’s not like cars are good for nothing. They transport the elderly and infirm to doctor’s appointments; trucks deliver food and other necessary goods; emergency vehicles save our lives when we’re hit by cars. But very few people on the road are there because they have to be. More are there because it’s easier, because that’s how they were raised, because they want to be sealed in their metal boxes away from the rest of us—even if it means they’re destroying everything we hold dear just to do so.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart


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