An Expressway and a Promenade
Two 20th-century thoroughfares – the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (1946-1954) and the Brooklyn Heights Promenade (1950-1951) – transformed the eastern boundary of what is now Brooklyn Bridge Park. Many parties played a role in their design and construction, including urban planner, visionary, master builder, and “power broker” Robert Moses.
Since its opening, the public park that sits atop the roadway, called the Promenade or the Esplanade, has allowed pedestrians to enjoy one of the world’s most spectacular harbor views.
Planning the BQE
In the early 1940s, city planners like Moses proposed and built a network of highways meant to bind the city together and connect it to the Long Island suburbs. In one plan that they considered, the future Brooklyn-Queens Expressway would cut across the middle of Brooklyn Heights, replacing brownstone homes, churches, and other local institutions.
But in 1943, opposition from community organizations like the Brooklyn Heights Association#, along with growing budget concerns, persuaded Moses and other planners to opt instead for a waterfront route that skirted the Heights along Furman Street.
Tearing Down, Making Way
In 1946, work crews began demolishing the 19th-century brick warehouses and other old buildings lining the east side of Furman Street to make way for the cantilevered two-deck highway that would arise over the next eight years. Although the project spared the row houses on the crest of the Heights, it required destruction of a number of historic residential buildings in the northwest corner of Brooklyn Heights.
From Private Backyard to Public Promenade
Above Furman Street, on the bluffs of Brooklyn Heights, many 19th-century homes lay close to the BQE construction. The row houses along Columbia Heights had large backyards facing the East River, which sloped down to the roofs of old Furman Street warehouses, providing families with both “upper” and “lower” gardens. The new expressway took the place of the lower gardens.
In 1943, members of the Brooklyn Heights Association who lived on Columbia Heights requested that sections of their private backyards be restored on top of the expressway after it was built. Instead of restoring the yards, Moses and other planners decided that a level public promenade# would be built on top of the new expressway, along the backs of the houses. Against the protests of many property owners, the Promenade was completed eight years later.
To this day, the Columbia Heights houses largely retain their original “upper” gardens along the edge of the Promenade, while the Promenade and BQE fill the space once occupied by the sloping “lower” gardens.