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I didn’t know the history of the West Side Highway when my mom and I started walking it in the mid-1970s. All I knew was that it was closed to cars and I adored walking on a broken highway. Later I learned that workers built the elevated highway along Manhattan’s western edge in fits and starts from 1929-1951. It replaced “Death Avenue,” the street-level thoroughfare known for collisions between trains and trucks. But the lofty plans drawn up in the 1920s were already outdated by the time the full length of the highway opened in the 1950s. Structural engineers, politicians, drivers, and residents agreed that the roadway needed work. But they disagreed on the type of work and who should pay. Then, on December 15, 1973, a dump truck filled with 60,000 pounds of asphalt headed north. Between Little West Twelfth Street and Gansevoort Street, the highway broke. A sixty-foot length of elevated road holding the dump truck and a sedan gave in to gravity. Miraculously, neither driver sustained serious injuries. After the collapse, the highway closed to cars, but opened to people: walkers, roller skaters, joggers, cyclists.
My mother and I started walking the West Side Highway three years after its collapse, when I was six. We had just moved to the 31st floor of a new skyscraper, called Independence Plaza. We had a view of the Statue of Liberty and our building was so tall, it swayed in storms. “Like a tree,” my mother would tell me, “it bends so it doesn’t break.” At night I would look out my window and see the red blinking lights atop the World Trade Center and count the blinks until I fell asleep. I loved counting those electronic sheep. The World Trade Center opened the same year that the West Side Highway fell, but to me, both seemed as if they had been there forever.
One hot summer morning we walked up a ramp to the West Side Highway just a couple of blocks from Independence Plaza. My mother didn’t like plans, she liked possibilities, and the West Side Highway was full of them. Once we had gotten into our walking groove, we could imagine anything: jetting to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower, visiting California and picking oranges off trees, or just walking and walking this strange broken roadway. We’d talk and walk and sing. Gulls wheeled overhead, the Hudson let off its fishy-strange smells and the air held us close. From our pacing perch, the buildings felt more like equals. And the people! Roller-skaters dressed in tiny shorts and huge hair doing successive figure eights, joggers in terry headbands and tube socks pulled taut, cyclists pedalling slowly.
“The mayor wants to ruin all of this,” my mother said.
“What do you mean?” We held hands and swung arms.
“He wants to dump more landfill into the river and tunnel into it.”
“What would happen to the highway?”
“They’d tear it down, probably. They only think about the businesses, not the people, and not the fish and not the birds.”
We agreed that this was terrible. My mother hated Mayor Ed Koch so I did too. He cared about the rich people. He cared about business. He didn’t care about us. I wanted to save the crumbling West Side Highway for my mother and for all of the other people enjoying it on that day.
“When I was a girl, we never just walked,” my mother said. “We never wandered. My mother was sick and my father didn’t have time for me.”
Though we didn’t see my mother’s parents often, we talked about them a lot. My mother talked about her father with the same wounded anger as she talked about Koch. But it was harder for me to share her anger: my grandfather brought me presents and took us out to restaurants.
The story between my mother and her father is complicated and it doesn’t end well. But all I knew back then was that he would send her letters in his looping script and she would walk them down our hallway in Independence Plaza, open the incinerator chute, and send them down.
The summer sunshine seemed stronger up on the highway. “Do you want to get some ice cream later?” my mom asked.
The wind began to blow, one of those strange summer winds that come from nowhere and leave the air even hotter. I felt a fine grit of soot and sand on my legs and saw the garbage swirl up. I glimpsed a piece of paper and ran ahead.
“Where are you going?”
“I – I see something!” I yelled back. I caught it as it fluttered to the ground. I was new to reading then, but I recognized the handwriting. I delivered it to my mother. She stood still and looked at me with thin eyes.
“Where did you get that?”
“Here – I just picked it up here.”
She looked at me the way I looked at the magician who pulled a quarter from behind my ear.
“Where did that come from?”
“I saw it spinning up with the other garbage.” I felt bad now and hoped my mother wasn’t going to cry.
She took the letter and burst out laughing. “Grandpa’s letters are haunted. They’re following us!”
I laughed too, unsure if the magic here was good or bad, but wanting to keep my mother cheerful.
Finally, she took the envelope and put it in her pocket book. “I guess I should read it later.”
Just then a couple on roller skates passed us singing Elton John and Kiki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” I took my mother’s hand and we continued walking.
Karen Rosenberg is a writing coach and teacher currently based in Ontario, Canada. Her writing has appeared across a wide range of venues including Alternet, The Raven Chronicles, HerStry, and in the Seal Press anthologies Expat: True Tales of Women Traveling Abroad and Sex and Single Girls. She loves working with other writers and has a major crush on The Moth podcast.