13_Broadwayand FlushingAveunderJMZ_Krisanne Johnson.jpg Broadwayand FlushingAvenueundertheelevatedJMZsubwaylineinBrooklyn.	 © Krisanne	Johnson	for	the	Design	Trust	for	Public	Space

Broadway and Flushing Avenue under the elevated JMZ subway line in Brooklyn (© Krisanne Johnson, all images courtesy Design Trust for Public Space)

Over 700 miles of underdeveloped space are in the shadows of New York City’s elevated highways and rails. Last week, the Design Trust for Public Space in partnership with the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) published Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities, the results of a two-year study on utilizing these overlooked places.

The report states:

The millions of square feet of these sites, nearly four times the size of Central Park, arguably encompass one of the most blighting influences on the city’s neighborhoods, yet also constitute one of the last development frontiers. This substantial inventory — cataloged for the first time by the Under the Elevated study — represents an untapped public asset that has the potential to radically transform New York’s urban fabric.

Map of the 700 miles of elevated highway & rail (courtesy Design Trust for Public Space)

Not all 700 miles of this urban netherworld are ready for a community garden, greenway, retail, or art installation, as some spaces are intersected by roads. Other areas are used as parking, such as below the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE), which in south Brooklyn is bordered by muddy curbs strewn through trash. Almost all the space is noisy and dark, and is avoided, according to the Design Trust for Public Space report, by residents across the five boroughs.

Last year, the Under the Elevated campaign tried out a couple of pop-up experiments to get community feedback. The “Boogie Down Booth” on the Bronx’s Southern Boulevard alongside the elevated tracks offered seating and played tracks from local artists like Thelonius Monk and Grandmaster Flash to counteract train noise. Another temporary installation on Division Street in Chinatown beneath the Manhattan Bridge involved red lights that illuminated the architecture while making the thoroughfare better lit at night, along with participatory community calendars.

The Under the Elevated pop-up on Division Street in 2014 (NYC DOT, via Flickr)

The “Boogie Down Booth” pop-up installation under the stairway to the 2/5 elevated subway line at Freeman Street in the Bronx (photo by William Michael Fredericks, courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space)

There are already successful examples of transforming these “el-spaces,” as Under the Elevated calls them. The Dutch Kills Green in Long Island City covers 1.5 acres with pedestrian and bike paths that weave through lush plantings, in an area that was once parking lots beneath the rumbling elevated tracks. And New York has one of the best examples of disused infrastructure being remade into public space: the High Line. It was Design Trust for Public Space’s 2001 report that helped encourage a serious interest in reimagining the abandoned elevated track as a public park.

The High Line was a major success in terms of its popularity and reinvigorating the areas around it, but that came at a price of gentrification. Any revitalization of these underpasses requires a consideration of how these spaces that connect the city can be more vibrant, while respecting the existing community around them.

Dutch Kills Green, by Wallace Roberts & Todd, Margie Ruddick Landscape, Michael Singer Studio, Marpillero Pollak Architects

Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities is available from the Design Trust for Public Space. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...