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 York’s High Line and Paris’ Promenade Plantee have justifiably received many pages of press, but Morristown’s 1968 Skywalk is known to few people outside of eastern Tennessee. The sheer audacity of the concrete promenade—“built to Interstate quality,” with planter boxes and piped-in Musak—should rank it with the better-known works of 1960s utopian planning. It’s not exactly Cedric Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt in aspiration, but more like Peter and Alison Smithson’s concrete service ramps in Robin Hood Gardens if they were designed by Victor Gruen. Yet unlike most of the era’s utopian visions, over 1,000 feet of Skywalk was actually built.
Morristown’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 “overhead sidewalk” 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 “aesthetically place the downtown on par with any shopping center.” 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, it’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 Morristown’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.