Economy Hitting the Skids? Time to Get Ambitious About Transportation

triboro_workers.jpgT.A. director Paul White sends along this little nugget he came across in the New York Times archive. Read it for a timely review (penned by a pre-Bilbao Herbert Muschamp) of a Municipal Art Society show staged the last time an economic downturn coincided with a presidential election, in 1992:

"Steel, Stone and Backbone," which runs through Sept. 19, is a protest against recessionary thinking. It's a strike against the idea that in hard economic times people should lower their expectations about what kind of city they want to live in. In fact, the point of the show is to offer historical proof to the contrary. When the going gets tough, the tough get ambitious about architecture. Much of the New York that is most admired -- its water and transportation systems, housing, cultural institutions -- emerged from periods of economic crisis.

The show, put together by Laura Rosen, an archivist with the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, offers a look at six of these periods and the public works they produced. Many viewers will already be familiar with one of them: the Great Depression and its astounding record in projects for housing, recreation and transportation. With segments devoted to such projects as La Guardia Airport, Orchard Beach in the Bronx and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel (with a video presentation on the "sand hogs" who built it), the 1930's takes up most of the exhibition space.

But the real news of the show is that the building boom of the 30's wasn't the exception. It was the rule. Such booms have frequently coincided with financial busts, or as they were termed in the 19th century, "panics." The Panic of 1837 saw the building of the Croton Water System, including the monumental Egyptian Revival reservoir that used to stand on the current site of the New York Public Library. After the Panics of 1873 and 1893, work began on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Zoological Society, later known as the Bronx Zoo. What a panic.

If the 1930s saw the completion of ambitious projects ushering in an age of cheap air travel and mass car commuting, might the near future see a transit renaissance and the mainstream emergence of non-motorized transport?

With municipal budgets reeling, a big question mark is where the money would come from. A national infrastructure bank? Carbon taxes and congestion pricing? Bill Gates and Warren Buffett? "History doesn't hand us a key," says Muschamp in his MAS review. "However, the implicit message of this show is that we will have to invent one for ourselves."

Photo of workers anchoring wire cables on the Triborough Bridge: New Deal Network