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THE WAY WE LIVE NOW

The Beast of Queens

By HUGO LINDGREN

Published: November 30, 2003

The Van Wyck Expressway is a legendary traffic hazard, but it has probably never inspired the sense of imperial doom that it does now. Right down the middle of the highway stands a line of gigantic concrete columns, one after the other, holding up some sort of track. When I first saw it, I suspected a boondoggle, a private highway for those who pay extra on their E-Z Pass. But actually, it's AirTrain, a highly touted monorail system that is soon supposed to whisk riders from Manhattan to Kennedy Airport and thrust the whole prehistoric city toward a gleamingly efficient future.

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Not since the days of Robert Moses has such a monumental piece of infrastructure been built in the city, and gazing up at those columns, I couldn't help seeing them as an insult to good urban design. More than that, they frightened me, evoking a disaster movie in which this concrete serpent is the last thing standing amid the ruins of Queens.

Which is probably not far from what the builders had in mind. From their perspective, the design imperative of the AirTrain track is that it stand up, now and forever, come what may. The aesthetics of the Van Wyck shrink in comparison to that concern.

But still -- isn't this supposed to be an enlightened age of design consciousness, when even the shape of a toothbrush somehow matters? Practically every new show on television preaches the transformative power of design, of what can happen when style and good taste shine into drab lives. How could a billion dollars' or so worth of concrete, out there for everyone to see, escape the kind of scrutiny that pitilessly judges everything else? Where's the queer eye on this one?

I resolved to mount my own personal campaign against AirTrain, on purely aesthetic grounds. The fact that the monorail will not directly connect Manhattan to Kennedy (a dreaded ''change in Jamaica'' will be required) is another matter entirely. When was the last time you were on the Van Wyck? I asked around. Have you seen what they've done? Some people said they had driven to J.F.K. recently but had not noticed anything remarkable on the way. They must have conditioned themselves to limit their sensory intake when on the Van Wyck, a wise defensive tactic.

But shockingly, several people insisted that they liked the columns. One even said they are ''like a Roman aqueduct,'' and that they ''lend an elegance to the otherwise seedy thoroughfare.'' Dumbfounded, I called Kent Barwick of the Municipal Art Society. He had recently clashed with the Port Authority, which oversees the AirTrain, because his group insisted that Eero Saarinen's gorgeous but outdated T.W.A. terminal at Kennedy be preserved as a functioning terminal and not simply as a trophy. The Municipal Art Society won that battle, and P.A. supporters had nasty things to say about its meddling. Barwick, I figured, might return the favor by denouncing AirTrain's assault on the Van Wyck.

But he would not. ''I'm so pleased we have a transit system to the airport, even an imperfect one, that I'm willing to overlook the aesthetics,'' Barwick said. ''In fact, I have to admit, it doesn't seem that bad to me. My wife doesn't like it, but I think it's kind of impressive.''

Finally one friend had outrage to share, though not the same as mine -- in fact, the opposite. Hers was about a problem of perhaps more lethal consequences: not overlooking design, but fetishizing it. She has lived in SoHo for years -- one of those lucky people who sensed its charms a good long time before Sunglass Hut did -- and lately her loft building has been under siege by the city's landmarks commission. The fire escape that was installed on the front of the building 12 years ago is, according to landmark experts, inconsistent with SoHo's historic fabric: the counterweight tubes are too thick. Never mind that when the building was built in the 1880's, there was no fire escape at all.

Now this might sound like a petty dispute that reasonable people could settle, but not so. The cost of replacing the fire escape is not that expensive, but the building sees no reason why it should be replaced. For this, the owners have received a letter from the city demanding immediate compliance and mentioning, not so casually, words like ''imprisonment.''

The impulse behind protecting SoHo's historic qualities is sound. It was, after all, disregard for the neighborhood's distinctive architecture that nearly got the neighborhood torn down in favor of a Robert Moses highway that might have looked something like the Van Wyck. But problems arise when aesthetic concerns get turned into a hard rule, a cudgel to beat people into exhibiting what is allegedly good taste. Many have decried those suburban homeowner associations that dictate, say, periwinkle blue for everybody's bird feeders, but as people become more versed in design, you can see more of this happening. Only now the bird feeders will have to be titanium. Watch as the world splits into two zones -- tiny pockets like SoHo, where design enforcement has a militant edge, and then vast unpoliced areas where, among other things, monorails get built.

In light of all this, though, AirTrain seems a lot more palatable. I still think those columns are ugly, but they might not stay that way forever. Consider the High Line, the defunct elevated train line on the West Side of Manhattan. Once regarded as a wretched bit of urban blight and slated for demolition, it has been defended by some of the area's fancier residents. They adore the High Line as a symbol of their neighborhood's rugged industrial past, especially since no trains run on it anymore and the tracks are covered over in thick grass and wildflowers. Couldn't you see something like that happening to AirTrain, its mighty concrete columns blanketed gracefully in ivy? That would be the nicest thing that ever happened to the Van Wyck.

Hugo Lindgren is an editor of the magazine.

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