THE WAY WE LIVE NOW
The Beast of Queens
By HUGO LINDGREN
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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