Cast-iron buildings in SoHo? Demolished. The heart of Little Italy? Shattered. Thousands of families, businesses and neighborhoods? Evicted.

If master builder Robert Moses had gotten his way, steel highway beams would have sliced through lower Manhattan at Broome Street, carrying cars and trucks along a 10-lane expressway linking crossings on the Hudson and East rivers.

A new exhibit near City Hall walks visitors through one of Moses' few unrealized dreams: a decades-long attempt to build a Lower Manhattan Expressway as a faster route connecting New Jersey to Brooklyn and highways to Long Island.

"It was going to tear this vital part of the city down," said city archivist Rachel Greer, one of the researchers for the exhibit by the Department of Records and Information Services.

Its demise -- officially declared dead in 1969 -- was a triumph of civic activism.

"The highway didn't stop because it was stopped by magic. Actually, people came together," said Noah Fuller, one of the curators.

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"In the Shadow of the Highway: Robert Moses' Expressway and the Battle for Downtown" is free to the public, Mondays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Fridays from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. through February. Much of the exhibit -- occupying two rooms at 31 Chambers St. -- draws from archives maintained by the records agency.

Visitors pass beneath the unbuilt "steel beams" -- actually painted plywood, cardboard and other material -- that imagine a gloomy dystopia in place of a now-vibrant streetscape.

Nearby, the recorded voices of actors read from transcripts of a fiery 1962 hearing. Glass displays showcase letters from pro-expressway advocates including industry and unions who welcomed the construction work.

Moses, who held nearly a dozen government posts, was the driving force behind nearly every highway, tunnel, bridge, public park and beach built in New York City, Westchester and Long Island for much of the 20th century. He regarded the downtown communities in the expressway's path as not worth saving.

"These people are living in the most wretched slum housing in the entire city," said the project's marketing materials.

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The communities that would have been leveled were home to an estimated 2,000 families and 800 businesses. Moses' wrecking ball was aimed at "huge amounts of the beautiful SoHo cast-iron district" -- structures expressway advocates called "disgusting," Fuller said. "Now it's considered the heart of SoHo, and some of the most beautiful and expensive and prized buildings in the city," he said.

The expressway plan came during an era in which cars and highways were seen as vital for regional development.

"They just wanted to get out to Long Island through New Jersey and have this arterial highway," said records commissioner Pauline Toole. "It was a time when people weren't thinking about how cities develop and who lives in cities."