Three Views of the Gowanus Expressway

“The construction of the Gowanus Parkway [in 1941], laying a concrete slab on top of lively, bustling Third Avenue, buried the avenue in shadow, and when the parkway was completed, the avenue was cast forever into darkness and gloom, and its bustle and life were gone forever. And through that shadow, down on the ten-lane surface road beneath the parkway, rumbled regiments, brigades, divisions of huge tractor-trailer trucks, engines gunning and backfiring, horns blasting, brakes screeching . . . And from above, from the parkway itself, came the continual surging, dull, surf-like roar, punctuated, of course, by more backfires and blasts and screeches, of the cars passing overhead. Once Third Avenue had been friendly. Now it was frightening.”

The Powerbroker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974), by Robert Caro

“The Gowanus Expressway gets a bad rap, deservedly so. I mean, during rush hour it's probably the largest elevated parking lot in the world. But there’s an upside to it as well. In some ways the Gowanus serves as a natural boundary, separating the industrial part of Sunset Park from the residential part. And that has helped to preserve some of the industry. Sunset Park is very much an immigrant community, and it’s unique in that a large percentage of the people who live here work here, and I think that is special, and I think that needs to be preserved.”

From an interview with a Sunset Park Community leader (2006)

By any conventional standard, whether aesthetic, environmental, or cultural, the Gowanus Expressway is a monstrosity. Still, I find leisurely walks along Third Avenue enjoyable and inspiring. There’s something arresting about the whole brutalist structure—especially those green pillars—and the peculiar commercial life that flourishes beneath it. The Gowanus evinces a powerful idea: however unlovely a thing is, it might still be capable of evoking powerful feelings within a person and providing a glimpse of the sublime. If something can stimulate a person in this way, and do it consistently, it could be said to possess intrinsic beauty. Intrinsic beauty elevates a thing or a collection of things (like a neighborhood); intrinsic beauty is a mark of power. This idea goes to the heart of explaining Brooklyn’s singular vitality. It isn’t just a diverse area with some typically charming elements (Brooklyn Heights, Prospect Park, etc.) and some other elements that are opposite (like the Gowanus). It is a place where everything meshes into a totality, where all is subordinate to the overarching mystique and profound beauty that is Brooklyn.


  1. The large rivets and heavy steel construction have a greater aesthetic appeal, especially in this age of impermanent, cheap and prefabricated materials. These are the kinds of marvels that future, regressed civilizations would look upon with awe.

  2. This was worthy of Mike Davis of City of Quartz fame...young, hot, sexy, synergystic descriptions of architectural fascism and brutality at its best.