Cross Bronx Highway, USA

An historical urban justice issue in New York city, when between 1948 and 1972 a highway was built by one of the biggest infrastructure promoters of the times, known as the "master builder"

The Cross Bronx Expressway is a major freeway in the New York City borough of the Bronx built between 1948 and 1963.  Envisioned and managed by Robert Moses, this freeway was an engineering marvel that brought opportunity and connectivity at the expense of local neighborhoods it destroyed in its path. In 1936, the Regional Plan Association (RPA) proposed an extensive network of expressways and parkways covering the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan area with the goal of the expressway providing all traffic safe and uninterrupted roadways and solving New York’s traffic problems. The Cross Bronx expressway was one recommended route and would connect multiple bridges in the metropolitan area, serving as the only means of east-west travel through the middle Bronx [1]. This freeway was the brainchild of Robert Moses who was very active in many facets of the city’s planning and management.  He often controlled the City Planning Commission, came to dominate the city’s Housing Authority, and created a title for himself as the City Construction Coordinator which gave him authority over nearly every public construction project in the city of New York [2].  Moses proposed more than 100 miles of new expressways in the five boroughs of New York City in the 1945 highway plan.  Within this plan was the proposed Cross Bronx Expressway which was an 8.3 mile long, six-lane freeway which had to cross 113 streets, seven expressways and parkways, one subway line, five elevated lines, three commuter rail lines, and hundreds of utility, water and sewer lines without disrupting any of them during construction [1]. While the expressway was successfully able to avoid disrupting any of these other transportation systems and lines, it was not successful at avoiding local neighborhoods.  The planned expressway ran directly through Crotona Park, an important gathering place for the Bronx community, and it was going to displace 1400 families.  The Jewish community living in the Bronx was central to the movement to block the construction of the highway. Women were a major part of the opposition and were joined by socialists and Zionists because the struggle fit with their philosophical beliefs [3]. Those in the path of the expressway supported an alternative route and formed the East Tremont Neighborhood Association which ended up being one of the strongest social forces standing in the way.  This Association formed after eviction letters were distributed to tenants in the path of the route in 1946 telling them they had two months to move.  A public rally was held in October of 1953 but neither the officials nor the public had the strength to influence Moses [4]. Moses trivialized protests that were organized by local people and vehemently opposed any other route.  Residents who were waging this battle were working-class people without the capital to run a successful campaign.  They were unable to pay legal fees needed to challenge the decision (eminent domain) of the city in court.  Additionally, the opposition was very localized and was not able to generate outside support.  To add to the struggle, Moses was unavailable to the residents for meetings with the community and the city would not allow reporters or media to attend events, making publicity of the fight extremely limited [3].   The highway was constructed in three sections. In 1952, more than six years after Moses announced his plans for the freeway, construction was yet to begin on Section 3, the route that would displace numerous residents in the East Tremont and Morris Heights neighborhoods. The delay was the result of strong opposition which suggested and alternative route that would significantly reduce the number of families that would have to be displaced by running two blocks south of the proposed plan and only moving 19 families along with the Third Avenue Transit station.  Moses, who had no prior interest in helping mass transit, was in favor of preserving a bus station because of some friends who influenced him to spare their investments and continue with the original route [1]. The Cross Bronx Expressway caused a migration of middle and upper class residents to the north and left the south portion to become an underserved slum of low-income residents.  It ultimately favored car culture and ignored the needs of the large population in New York City that could not afford a car [5]. The construction of the highway itself produced numerous environmental issues for the surrounding neighborhoods.  Debris from demolished houses was not removed from the area and was left wherever it landed.  The demolition process caused air pollution in the form of dust and resulted in community services vacating the area.  As a result, garbage collection ceased even for those who could not leave.  Additionally, noise pollution from the demolition process and the highway negatively impacted the neighborhoods the highway destroyed [3]. Even though relocation of 1400 families began in 1946, the highway wasn’t completed until 1963, some 15 years after construction began at a cost of $140 million [1]. Today, the expressway remains a headache for commuters with terrible congestion.  Besides being known for ruining neighborhoods, it is known for being the site of the worst traffic jams outside of California.  It carries over 175,000 vehicles daily between two major interchanges that this expressway connects [4].
Basic Data
NameCross Bronx Highway, USA
CountryUnited States of America
ProvinceNew York
SiteNew York
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Infrastructure and Built Environment
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Urban development conflicts
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Specific CommoditiesLand
Project Details and Actors
Level of Investment (in USD)140,000,000
Type of PopulationUrban
Potential Affected Population1400-5000
Start Date01/01/1948
End Date01/01/1972
Company Names or State EnterprisesRobert Moses from United States of America
Relevant government actorsNew York City government, Tenant Relocation Bureau, Regional Plan Association
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersEast Tremont Neighborhood Association
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)LOW (some local organising)
When did the mobilization beginPREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups MobilizingNeighbours/citizens/communities
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Religious groups
Forms of MobilizationDevelopment of alternative proposals
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Waste overflow, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Occupational disease and accidents
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCorruption
Development of AlternativesThe East Tremont Neighborhood Association developed a plan for an alternative route for the highway, one that would run a couple of blocks south of the plan put forth by Robert Moses and one that would avoid displacing 1400 families and only require a few families be moved along with a bus stop.
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.Robert Moses did not consider the proposed alternative plan, would not listen to the opposition, and went forward with his plan knowing the consequences and not caring. Progress was his goal.
Sources and Materials

[1]Cross Bronx Expressway- Historic Overview
[click to view]

[2]New York Times Learning Network: Robert Moses, Master Builder, is Dead at 92
[click to view]

[3]Recognizing Environmental Justice in History: Resistance and Agency in the Cross Bronx Expressway and the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike by Sarah Berkley, Connecticut College (2011)
[click to view]

[4]"Heartbreak Highway" - Steve Alpert, 2003
[click to view]

[5] 5 Things in NYC We Can Blame on Robert Moses - December 2013
[click to view]


The Legacy of Robert Moses - PBS January 17, 2013
[click to view]

Did Robert Moses Ruin New York City? - Barron's March 7, 2012
[click to view]

Other Documents

Cross Bronx Expressway Map
[click to view]

Construction crews on highway in 1959 Source: Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority
[click to view]

1998 Photo of Southbound Cross Bronx Expressway at Westchester Ave Subway line elevated over road in distance
Credit: Steve Anderson,
[click to view]

Initial construction of the expressway in 1950 Source: Bronx County Historical Society
[click to view]

Meta Information
ContributorBernadette Grafton and Paul Mohai, [email protected] and [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environmen
Last update02/03/2016