Ghost of the Miller Highway (on the FDR Drive)

Ever since Forgotten NY‘s Forgotten Tour 50 (blog entry coming soon), I’d been a bit obsessed with the now-demolished Miller Highway. Before the tour I’d driven up and down the Henry Hudson Parkway/West Side Highway/West Street/whatever other names this road goes by so many times over the years. Despite this, I had no awareness of its predecessor, the elevated Miller Express Highway, until the tour guides pointed out some of its former stone decorations sequestered behind fences alongside the new greenway. I was immediately taken.

Right after the tour I did a ton of web research on the highway (see below). I became wrapped up in the strange construction of the highway (entrance and exit ramps on the left, dangerous curves), the story of its disrepair and partial collapse in 1973, and its subsequent abandonment. The old photos I looked at told the story of a totally different world there on the west side of Manhattan. Frozen in time, this monstrous but vulnerable, eventually abandoned, structure stared at me out of the photographs.

I strained to compare these sights with the present-day road I know so well. Completed more recently than I knew (2001), the clearly meticulously planned and manicured road of today doesn’t just look different from its predecessor, it feels different. Its flat, open, fairly straight layout; the greenway and pedestrian walkway to its west; and its periodic stoplights are all drastic changes from the old elevated highway. I cannot even imagine a giant, hulking, crumbling concrete structure with carved stone decorations shadowing this geographic area.

But I didn’t just study the history of the highway. The pictures of it jumped out and haunted me, creating something like remembrances of a dream world. It was as if I’d been there, seen it, felt what the space was like, but I hadn’t. I mused on this often.

One day I was driving down the FDR Drive on Manhattan’s east side and out of nowhere a stretch of the southbound FDR between the 34th Street and 23rd Street exits, mostly the left edge of the roadway, caught my eye. Its curves, low barrier wall, heavy lampposts, and elevation nearly matched some of the old Miller photos I’d studied. Between the north and southbound lanes at one point a sort of low gap forms, then disappears as the lanes split further apart from one another. This, I thought, was almost like an echo of a left exit ramp. I wanted to walk up it one day.

Indeed, history somewhat supports my comparison of the two highways: they were built at similar times under similar city regimes, so it makes sense that their physicalities would have common features.

But this short stretch of FDR not only matched the photos and history, it the evoked the feeling of these waking dreams of the old highway space for me; a magical moment. I began that day to call this stretch “the ghost of the old Miller Highway.” Now, each time I pass it I try to get in the left lane, enjoy the trip back in time to my dreams of the destroyed structure, and explain to anyone who happens to be riding with me the story and my theory.

(Apologies for the quality of this hastily-taken video.)

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