New York and Paris will soon be joined by Morristown, Tennessee as cities that have turned abandoned, elevated bits of their aging infrastructure into pleasant walkways. New Yorkâ€™s High Line and Parisâ€™ Promenade Plantee have justifiably received many pages of press, but Morristownâ€™s 1968 Skywalk is known to few people outside of eastern Tennessee. The sheer audacity of the concrete promenadeâ€”â€œbuilt to Interstate quality,â€ with planter boxes and piped-in Musakâ€”should rank it with the better-known works of 1960s utopian planning. Itâ€™s not exactly Cedric Priceâ€™s Potteries Thinkbelt in aspiration, but more like Peter and Alison Smithsonâ€™s concrete service ramps in Robin Hood Gardens if they were designed by Victor Gruen. Yet unlike most of the eraâ€™s utopian visions, over 1,000 feet of Skywalk was actually built.
Morristownâ€™s Main Street grew up directly above a main line railroad and a waterway known as Turkey Creek. In 1962 the creek flooded, nearly wiping out the commercial district. At the same time, a suburban shopping mall was ruining the historic downtown district, and the city developed a plan to modernize Main Street by creating an â€œoverhead sidewalkâ€ that would turn the second floor of the existing buildings into a new street while serving as a canopy for the sidewalks below. Building owners spent nearly $2 million upgrading their properties and linking them to the ramp, while the government contributed over $5 million to build the ramp and place Turkey Creek underground.
The project, the city fathers hoped, would turn the dilapidated central business district into a bright and enticing commercial haven and â€œaesthetically place the downtown on par with any shopping center.â€ In the end, however, the Skywalk was no match for air-conditioned and enclosed suburban shopping malls, and it has served as little more than a roof over the sidewalk and a remnant of the idealism of 1960s urban renewal.
That may soon change, though, as Morristown is embarking on a resurrection of the Skywalk as a social and commercial hub. A newly accessible ramp has been built up to the walkway, and it has been made a key element in a greenway master plan for the region. (Plus, itâ€™s about to receive a fresh coat of paint.) Town librarian Bill Denton claims the Skywalk remains a source of pride for many local residents. It may not have saved Morristownâ€™s Main Street in the 1960s, but to its credit, it was essentially an urban approach that may outlive all the ill-conceived suburban malls built in the 1970s and beyond.
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