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The Hole in the Highway at Gansevoort Street

The West Side Elevated Highway had been a dark presence looming over the edge of the Meatpacking District and other Hudson River Manhattan neighborhoods for several decades in the mid-20th century. Construction on the full route lasted from 1929 to 1951 as it snaked its way from West 72nd Street to Battery Place along 12th Avenue, 11th Avenue, and West Street, becoming a seemingly permanent if not always welcomed fixture along the Hudson River. That all began to change one chilly day in 1973, thanks in no small part to one large dump truck.

The West Side Highway after the December 1973 collapse

On December 15, 1973, a 60-ft section of the highway between Little West 12th Street and Gansevoort collapsed under the weight of a heavy trailer-truck loaded with more than 30 tons of asphalt. A passenger car following the truck also plunged to the ground; both drivers were only slightly injured. The collapse was caused by the severe deterioration of the highway’s steel supporting beams, Transportation Administrator Manuel Carballo told the Times.

Upkeep had long been a problem for the highway, one that had been heralded as “the most beautiful drive in the world” by a Daily News reporter early in its history. The high price of maintenance was the cause. As Robert Caro noted in The Power Broker, “the West Side Highway … could have been kept in perfect repair during the 1950s for about $75,000 per year; because virtually no repairing was done, by the 1960s, the cost of annual maintenance would be more than $1,000,000 per year”; by the 1970s, the estimate grew to the tens of millions of dollars.

A complete West Side Highway at Gansevoort Street in 1968, courtesy the Library of Congress

Soon after the highway gave way in December, the City shut the route down first south of 42nd Street, then for its entire length. Without repairs, the rot in the road continued, as chunks of concrete dropped regularly onto the street below; in 1974, a boy fell through the hole still remaining from the previous year’s collapse and died. The closed road became the largest bicycle path in the city, as cyclists stayed on the southbound lane where there were no holes. With no funds to repair the infrastructure, the decision was made to tear down the entire highway, a process that lasted from 1977 to 1989.

As a replacement, city, state, and federal officials proposed building Westway, a six-lane interstate highway that would have been built on Hudson River landfill from the 42nd Street to the Battery, in a project with a then-hefty price tag of more than $2 billion. Many members of the community and beyond opposed the plan not just on price but also on fears of increased traffic, the poor air quality that would result, and a desire to open up the waterfront for pedestrians. A key figure in that fight was Marcy Benstock, who established the Clean Air Campaign first to combat local air pollution; eventually, the grass-roots campaign joined with other organizations to combat the larger project. Several lawsuits later — including one involving the destruction of the spawning area for striped bass should Westway proceed — the project was officially abandoned in 1985. The Village Voice called it “one of the great citizen victories of our time.”

The section of Hudson River Park between Leroy and Horatio Streets — one block below the 1973 collapse site at Gansevoort Street — was the first to open to the pubic.

Instead of an elevated roadway or a buried one, officials chose to build a six-to-eight lane urban boulevard on West Street and 12th Avenue. On the route’s western edge lies Hudson River Park, which began construction in 1996. While not free from controversy, the park does provide the Meatpacking District, the West Village and other Manhattan neighborhoods easy access to open space and the Hudson River, and has become a key destination for residents, workers, and tourists alike. It’s also one of the nation’s busiest bikeways — one of the few things this park shares with the decrepit West Side Elevated Highway of the 1970s.

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