former residence of Jane Jacobs, 555 Hudson Street, New York, NY; photo by Roger W. Smith
The following is an email of mime from today to Lizabeth Cohen, a professor of American Studies at Harvard University.
Dear Professor Cohen,
I read the review in The New York Times Book Review of your Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age. As I said to my wife, it looks like an excellent and very informative book.
I appreciate what was said about it by the reviewer: that it is an even-handed treatment of Logue.
If I may, I would like to share a few thoughts, memories, etc. with you.
I grew up in Cambridge. We lived on Mellen Street near Harvard Square. My parents moved us to the suburb of Canton on the South Shore in my adolescent years, which was in the late 1950s.
In the 1960s, I recall seeing articles in the papers about Logue all the time. As the reviewer notes that your book notes, Logue was revered and received almost unvarying praise. At that age, being the son of liberal, educated parents, I thought that slum clearance was, unquestionably, desirable.
I was an avid Red Sox fan, I regularly read the sports pages in the Boston Herald. I read many articles stating that it was high time Boston had a new park. It was regarded as not even worth or needing proof that Fenway Park was too small (mainly in terms of seating capacity), old, and shabby. The endless refrain was, when are we going to get our new stadium?
No one remembers this, and Friendly Fenway is regarded by one and all as a jewel of a ballpark. A landmark that will never be torn down.
I moved to New York City for good in my young adulthood. After some adjustment, I grew to love it. I made a good friend who was a nonconformist and lived an alternative lifestyle. He was cultured and articulate but lived very modestly in a walkup apartment with a bathroom in the hall on East Fifth Street between Avenues A and B. He helped me to appreciate Manhattan and to begin to think differently. He was prescient. He said to me, at a time when urban renewal and slum clearance were in the air: “I live in a slum and I like it.” He pointed out that PEOPLE were living in these buildings. (And could afford them.)
I am attaching a photo I took on one of my walks recently of Jane Jacobs’s former residence on Hudson Street in Manhattan. I became familiar with her writings in my adult years after moving to Manhattan. I think she is an example of someone whose plain writing and lifestyle, and lack of academic credentials, may make it likely that she gets less recognition than she deserves (which is not to say that her importance and genius are not acknowledged; and I think she was actually a genius). In my opinion, she is up there with some of the great thinkers and writers who very simply take a fresh look at prevailing opinions and wisdom, go back to square one — or “first principles” — and, in plain language, without overtheorizing — looking with their own eyes — get us to see the world anew. It’s sort of like an Emperor’s New Clothes phenomenon.
How did she manage to defeat Robert Moses? At the outset, I am sure it would have been regarded as quixotic to try. If Moses had rammed an expressway through the Village and Soho, it would have ruined Manhattan — is the word rape too strong?
Jane Jacobs did not like Lincoln Center. I don’t like it either. I recall when I was in high school and Jacqueline Kennedy and others on television were providing a virtual tour of our “wonderful” new arts center, Lincoln Center. I assumed it must have been so, and who cared about the gritty (then) West Side neighborhood where Jets and Sharks did battle? I hate to go to Lincoln Center now. Aside from the concert halls, which I find dark and unwelcoming, the whole center is a horrible place to hang out in, should anyone care to. The buildings are ugly.
Usually, the plaza with its fountain is pretty much deserted, and it’s unwelcoming, as is the Center. The surrounding neighbored now has no life; there are a few rip off restaurants across the street. The few blocks behind the Center (between it and the river) are deadly, or better said, dead.
I go back to Boston occasionally. I was too young to remember Scollay Square before Government Center was built (though people often mentioned it). The Government Center complex has a Lincoln Center-like feel, and I found it very unpleasant and unenjoyable to walk or spend time in or around it.
Ugliness and inaccessibility go hand and hand. The Broadway steps leading to the plaza, which is usually nearly empty of live people.
A desolate block right behind Lincoln Center: the east side of Amsterdam Avenue between 66th and 67th Streets. There are two large retail stores on this block that are empty with for rent signs — an indicator that rents are too expensive and the neighborhood cannot support commercial establishments (hence, they are going out of business).
An “inviting” “arts center”? Entrance to Lincoln Center at 65th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway.
Welcome! The steps from Amsterdam Avenue.
Warm and fuzzy. Entrance passageway, with 67th Street on left.
Ramesses II would have been proud.
A public friendly space? (“All are welcome.”)
62nd St between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. (Lincoln Center on left.) Note the vibrant street life.
Happy clusters of people congregate like flocks in front of Lincoln Center.
Addendum: The construction of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which was opened in 1959, destroyed a neighborhood on New York City’s West Side. The project encompassed 53 acres and involved demolishing 2,100 households as well of hundreds of businesses. Something very similar happened with the United Nations headquarters, which created another urban dead zone with no vitality or street life. Jane Jacobs put it best when she described Lincoln Center as “a piece of built-in rigor mortis.”
I just completed a trip to Massachusetts, including the city of Boston and the Greater Boston area.
While stuck in traffic several times (too many), both in Boston proper and on the surrounding highways, I started to muse, first, about why the traffic is so bad, and, secondly, about my old stomping grounds — namely, Massachusetts, where I grew up — vis-à-vis New York City.
My trip got me thinking about Boston and Greater Boston traffic. Believe it or not, it’s WORSE than New York City.
And, about the reasons this is so.
I think a major reason is that Boston is mostly a car city and the surrounding towns are totally based on automobile transportation. It’s a car culture; people don’t walk. Unlike New York City. But Boston has a good public transportation system, one might say. The T branches out to and reaches the exurbs. It’s well run and commodious.
True, it would seem, but the New York City public transit system handles much more people every day, a much larger segment of the population. A significant percentage of persons in the Tri State area (New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut) rely on public transportation instead of cars.
And, in Boston, one sees a lot less cabs and far fewer buses than in New York City.
Bottom line, public transportation is much less of a factor, plays an almost insignificant role, comparatively speaking, in the overall Boston and Greater Boston areas. New York lives, breathes, and dies by its public transit system. There is no alternative for many city dwellers.
Boston shuts down at the end of the business day. There is no one on the sidewalks at night, except for a few popular night spots, and hardly anyone after they close. New York never shuts down.
Boston proper and the surrounding towns have a lot less small stores. You will see a sub shop and perhaps one deli (except they don’t seem to call them delis) in the center of town. But, there are zillions of delis in New York city — they’re everywhere. In Boston proper, it’s hard to find one.
In Boston, it’s very noticeable, and highly significant, how little pedestrian traffic there is compared to New York. Perhaps that’s why there are less small stores to accommodate a passerby who might want to buy a Coke or bottled water. True, the central city sections such as Copley Square are crowded with pedestrians during the business day. But it’s much different later.
After normal business hours, beginning with the early evening, there is very little pedestrian traffic in Boston. Many downtown blocks seem virtually deserted. The city shuts down after the business day ends.
So different from New York. Stroll through Manhattan or the outer boroughs at almost any hour of the day, including the wee small hours, and you will find that very few streets are deserted. There is, naturally, less pedestrian traffic at 2 a.m. But, it is an appealing and actually comforting fact that there is almost always someone on the street. In the case of Manhattan, most neighborhoods never shut down.
One thing I have always liked about New York City, particularly Manhattan, is: walk through any part of the city, including central commercial and business areas, and you will see residential buildings. Some neighborhoods are primarily commercial, others are primarily residential. But, residential buildings are everywhere. All sections and zones are inhabited, which means there are always PEOPLE around regardless of time of day.
Boston’s “culture” can’t hold a candle to New York’s. There is a plethora of cultural activities in New York year round, as everyone knows. I have never been a theatergoer, but, while Boston and Cambridge might have a theater or two, New York has scores of them showing plays and musicals all the time.
The amount of music one can find being performed in New York City on practically every day of the week year round is astonishing. Besides Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, there is a mind boggling assortment of musical performances and venues to choose from. Plus, there are innumerable amateur musical performances (including a wealth of music performed in churches) and recitals by student ensembles and so forth. The same is true of other cultural events, and also lectures.
If one goes to a museum or the public library, one can pick up a brochure listing events for a given period. One finds that museums offer many concerts and so do the libraries, believe it or not. Plus, lectures on everything from art to classical music, and, in the case of the library, literary and other cultural topics. (See example below.)
And, of course, New York is the film capital of — if not the world — indisputably the USA.
Massachusetts has Cape Cod. I don’t think the Hamptons on Long Island can come close.
But, while visiting, I got lost on back roads on the Cape and drove around for a half an hour or so trying to find my way back to a major route. During this time, I had the opportunity to observe the Cape as a year round resident might experience it. It’s still a nice place with good restaurants, a great, breezy climate, beautiful beaches and spots, and so forth. But, it has in many places become indistinguishable from your standard suburbs. Nothing special. Streets which are often cul-de-sacs. Nice but typical houses. Boring in a way that only the suburbs can be. The typical suburban pattern of streets that lead nowhere.
New England does have nature; it is preserved remarkably well. Beautiful old trees seemingly everywhere, arching alongside and over thoroughfares. They and their abundance are splendorous. Stately old trees notable for their grandeur, the proper names of which I do not know (elms?) but wish I did. There’s nothing like it in New York City or surrounding areas. New York City trees tend to look like they’re sick a good part of the time. In the fall, the leaves shrivel up and fall off; there is no glorious foliage.
I have a sneaking suspicion, but cannot prove it and do not know it to be fact, that Boston might be more segregated than New York City. Patterns of de facto segregation in terms of housing still persist in New York City’s outer boroughs and can still be seen, to a lesser extent, in Manhattan as well. But, I believe that New York has always been more liberal with regard to race than Boston.
This op ed should be retitled: “A PLAN to DESTROY Fifth Avenue.”
It is a horrible piece, founded on plain bad thinking. It doesn’t take a traffic engineer, city planner, or urban studies professor to see this.
If Jane Jacobs could read this piece, she would be rolling over in her grave.
Below are the points made by Ms. Sadik-Khan (in boldface), followed seriatim by my commentary.
— Roger W. Smith
January 2017; updated April 2017
To quote from Ms. Sadik-Khan’s New York Times op ed piece. (Her words are in boldface, followed by my comments.)
“President-elect Donald J. Trump, lives in New York City, on Fifth Avenue.”
So what? Fifth Avenue has been a Manhattan thoroughfare over 150 years; Donald Trump’s presidency will last at most for eight years. Fifth Avenue is approximately 135 city blocks — or just under seven miles — long from south to north. Donald Trump’s residence, Trump Tower, is situated on a single block between 56th and 57th Streets.
Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan is “home to one of the world’s densest concentrations of humanity and traffic bedlam.”*
Except for the fact that a few sections such as streets in the vicinity of Trump Tower have been closed to traffic, causing traffic problems (and a block long stretch of the avenue having been closed to pedestrians on the block where Trump Tower is located),* traffic on the avenue usually flows smoothly, as I have observed for years — there is hardly ever “traffic bedlam.” Yes, there is often a dense concentration of humanity on some parts of the avenue, such as near Rockefeller Center and Grand Army Plaza, but wide sidewalks make the avenue very walkable, and there is nothing like the congestion, pedestrian wise, that one often experiences in Times Square.
Fifth Avenue is not “home to one of the world’s densest concentrations of humanity.” Factually inaccurate. Maybe Calcutta.
* This was a problem in January 2017 when this post was written. With Trump having moved to Washington, pedestrian and vehicular traffic on Fifth Avenue near Trump Tower now flows well. Some side streets are still closed off.
“Fifth Avenue’s five lanes run past landmarks like the New York Public Library, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, as well as numerous cathedrals of commerce, tourism and high-end retail. Because the avenue is such a popular destination, retail floor space there rents for $3,000 per square foot a year, the highest price in the world, more than double the cost of similar space along the Champs Élysées. It seems appropriate that gold is a popular color for building facades on Fifth.”
So what? Landmarks make the avenue special. Expensive retail shops give it a feeling of luxuriousness. Yes, Fifth Avenue is a premium locale, Manhattan’s priciest and most exclusive avenue, with expensive properties. Is that a bad thing? People of modest means or less than high class status are by no means barred from it.
“Fifth Avenue at 56th Street is the site of Mr. Trump’s apartment in Trump Tower, which has rapidly turned into a fortress of Secret Service agents and heavily armed police officers surrounded by curious tourists, camera crews and protesters. They join the usual shoppers, workers and other pedestrians on what were already crowded sidewalks, and often spill into the street. This has significantly slowed traffic, and security concerns have forced the closing of side streets.”
This is too bad. But is the solution for this inconvenience to restrict access to the avenue even more? When and to what end, I ask. What will this accomplish? The solution proposed is right out of Part III of Gulliver’s Travels (“A Voyage to Laputa”; the opening chapters of same).
“While Mr. Trump has said he will move into the White House, his wife and youngest child plan to wait until at least the end of the school year. During the campaign, Mr. Trump was known for flying home late at night so that he could wake up in his own bed, and he has said that he plans to return to the city frequently. If he chooses to stay even part of the week in New York, Trump Tower will become a de facto presidential residence and seat of global power.”
More power to him (and Madame Trump). For this, the traffic czars want to restrict traffic access to Fifth Ave?
“The motorcades and security restrictions that will result will permanently paralyze the city’s streets. The swearing-in hasn’t even happened, but the swearing has already started: New Yorkers want their Fifth Avenue back.”
Ditto. I don’t like the disruption of traffic and pedestrian flow caused by Trump Tower’s being the home of the newly elected president. Let’s hope they don’t “permanently paralyze the city’s streets.” Is she thinking of shutting the City down?
“As much as Mr. Trump’s election is a historic moment, it also provides an extraordinary opportunity to reclaim Fifth Avenue as a pedestrian street, free of private vehicular traffic but shared with mass transit. The change, which should span the stretch of the avenue from Central Park to the Empire State Building at 34th Street, would create a truly American public space: an entirely new civic platform at the nation’s new center of political gravity.”
Aha, here’s what she wants! To get rid of traffic on Fifth Avenue and recreate on one of the world’s great avenues a so called “public space”! Her zany proposal, if implemented, will ruin the avenue and destroy its character, for sure. Look what the traffic engineers have already done to Times Square and other parts of the city, such as Herald Square. (See photo below of miserable people in the horrible, ugly “public space” that now graces — meant sarcastically — the epicenter of Times Square.)
Who says (why in God’s name does she?) that Fifth Avenue has to be “reclaimed?” As if we were in the South Bronx of the 1970’s.
“[R]eclaim Fifth Avenue as a pedestrian street.” What? It’s already a great pedestrian street. (See photos below.) It’s not in need of “reclamation”!
“A natural comparison would be with car-free Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. Creating public plazas out of streets physically embodies democracy in cities. It gives people room to reflect on their civic institutions instead of being herded along — as they currently are around Trump Tower.”
“Creating public plazas out of streets physically embodies democracy in cities.”
Highfalutin psychobabble. NONSENSE masquerading as wisdom.
“It gives people room to reflect on their civic institutions instead of being herded along — as they currently are around Trump Tower.”
“Herded along”? I can walk just fine on Fifth Avenue, thank you very much, without any one redesigning it for me. It’s a great street to walk on. So much fun. Wide sidewalks. No impediments, save for the barriers and police presence between 56th And 57th Streets, which I myself don’t like, and which are quite recent. Because of this, this nutty “savant “wants to shut down fifteen more blocks of the avenue (to traffic).
“Room to reflect on their civic institutions”? That’s a good one. Is this what the people in the photo below of Times Square’s truly horrible public space are doing?
Think about it. Traffic runs one way on Fifth Avenue (downtown, from north to south). This was the result of making Manhattan’s avenues one way in the 1950’s to improve traffic flow. There are ample sidewalks on either side of the avenue, which give pedestrians the opportunity to not only stroll the avenue and people watch, but also to look at and perhaps visit the shops and institutions which they pass. For example, I like to walk past the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets and admire its beauty and grandeur (people are always congregated on the library steps and in front of the building, enjoying the sun in the summer time, taking photos, enjoying a coffee), past department stores such as Lord and Taylor’s at 38th and Fifth Avenue, and so on.
Fifth Avenue is a great street to walk on, plain and simple. But what does Janette Sadik-Khan, who is anti-automobile, propose doing? Shutting down three lanes of the avenue, which would be exclusively for pedestrians. Why? Who wants to walk in the MIDDLE of the street, and who said there wasn’t already a place to walk?
“Unlike Pennsylvania Avenue [in Washington, DC], however, Fifth Avenue is a vital transit conduit for 38 bus lines carrying tens of thousands of people every day across Manhattan and to and from the other boroughs. Reserving two lanes for their use (and for the motorcades) would allow the other three to be dedicated to pedestrians.”
As I have said above, traffic flows fine right now on Fifth Avenue, at most times; obviously, it flows better at some times than others. There was severe traffic congestion for a day or two right after Trump was elected when demonstrations were taking place in front of Trump Tower, and there may be congestion — near, say, Rockefeller Center — around Christmastime, but even that is occasional. There are nice wide sidewalks already for pedestrians to walk on!
I have always liked the fact that, in cities, there is a mixture of pedestrians, automobiles, buses, and subways. It means one has a choice of how to get around. (I actually take a perverse pleasure in jaywalking and dodging cars.)
I like the traffic on Fifth Avenue. While strolling on the broad sidewalks north of 59th Street (cobblestone on the west side of the avenue) — with Central Park to one’s left; or, conversely, on the other side of the street, luxurious apartment buildings — I like to mix with the pedestrian throng while at the same time viewing the cars and buses as they rumble down the avenue. There’s something pleasant about realizing that not only is it a beautiful avenue, but that it also serves a purpose as an efficient conduit for north-south traffic.
I rarely drive or ride in a car when in the City. I love being a pedestrian because of the peaceful feeling, the exercise, the opportunity one has to view, at a leisurely pace, any and all sorts of interesting places and commercial establishments. Fifth Avenue is already great to walk along. So now we have to create three dedicated pedestrian lanes. For what? So that people can walk in the avenue. Who wants to walk there? What’s wrong with the good old sidewalks? They do attract a lot of pedestrians, which make them even more fun to stroll on. But, pedestrian traffic is almost never impeded, for any reason whatsoever – except for the situation in front of Trump Tower, which is not the result of Fifth Avenue being Fifth Avenue.
“Commercial traffic has already long been banned from Fifth Avenue, and deliveries by truck could continue at enhanced delivery zones on side streets during set times of the day. As for taxis, the city can make accommodations for passenger drop-offs, but prevent cabs from cruising along empty for blocks on end.”
What, in the name of God, is an “enhanced delivery zone”?
Why harass cab drivers? It’s tough enough for them to make a living, and it’s very hard to hail an unoccupied cab in the City.
Ban cars and taxis from a stretch of Fifth Avenue. Why? Every time this sort of thing is done, it creates more congestion on the other avenues which flow from south to north or in the other direction.
“This isn’t just a feel-good experiment in civics, nor is it a public transit boondoggle.”
Says who? The clueless author of this article, that’s who.
“Streets that accommodate more people are also better for business.”
Really? My wife likes to drive to shop at a fancy store on Fifth Avenue on off hours when traffic is light and parking is available. How will deliveries be made to these retail establishments?
“In a similar project I helped introduce in 2009, in the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, seven blocks of Broadway in Times Square were closed to traffic, and two traffic lanes were removed between Columbus Circle at 59th Street and 17th Street, a distance of more than two miles.”
I have already noted that Times Square is unpleasant to hang out in because of the changes made by Mayor Bloomberg and his traffic commissioner, Ms. Sadik-Kahn. The public spaces, to put it kindly, are horrible. Don’t take my word for it. Go there sometime, if you can.
“New Yorkers in cars and cabs are quick to adapt to change, and drivers easily found alternate routes.”
Wishful thinking, Ms. Sadik-Khan is totally anti-car and is in la la land, so to speak, as regards transportation realities. It’s the polar opposite of (insofar as Ms. Sadik-Khan is anti-car), but the same high handed, autocratic “we know what’s best for the public” attitude that the urban designers who were totally anti-pedestrian, of the 1950’s had.
Drivers in NYC are always looking for alternate routes. Why foist on them the burden and aggravation of having to look for more?
Shutting down a stretch of Fifth Avenue to vehicular traffic will force a spillover of traffic to avenues further east, such as Park, Lexington, and Second Avenues, which are already clogged.
“The expansion of rapid bus networks in the city and the opening of the Second Avenue subway mean that there are more alternatives than ever to driving in Midtown Manhattan. Turning Fifth Avenue into a bus- and pedestrian-friendly corridor can be the next step: It would not only solve the problem of the Trump Tower jam but also encourage more people to walk, use the growing bike share system and enjoy the better bus service.”
In other words, let’s get rid of cars, which will supposedly force people to walk, ride bicycles, or take the subway. A utopian, impractical scheme. I myself prefer to walk or take public transportation. But, as Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “automobiles are hardly inherent destroyers of cities”; they are not bad. Many people prefer them. Others need to use them. And, cars and vans are an efficient way to make deliveries.
“… [T]his transformation of Fifth Avenue may be that sweet spot where urbanism, transportation engineering, democracy and politics can align.”
This is purple prose and pure nonsense. Pray that her loony idea never comes to fruition.
P.S. An op ed page should be a place for divergent opinions. But, really, what were the New York Times editors thinking when they published this piece? Does it echo their thinking? I have a sneaking suspicion that it does. Social engineers are always trying to retool institutions, overhaul codes of behavior, alter public spaces, and so forth, supposedly for our “betterment,” ignoring accumulated wisdom, common sense, and the experience of life as the benighted masses actually live and experience it.
Below (also depicted above) are photographs of the Times Square public space taken by Roger W. Smith. It was virtually empty on midday on a recent February 2017 afternoon. The temperature was in the mid 40’s. It’s truly ugly and I wonder if the few people there are “reflect[ing] on their civic institutions.”
Times Square Public space, February 2, 2017 (photo by Roger W. Smith)
Times Square Public space, February 2, 2017 (photo by Roger W. Smith)
Times Square Public space, February 2, 2017 (photo by Roger W. Smith)
Times Square Public space, February 2, 2017 (photo by Roger W. Smith)
Times Square Public space, February 2, 2017 (photo by Roger W. Smith)
Also below is a photo by Roger W. Smith of another one of the urban “oases” (read, eyesores) created by Ms. Sadik-Khan: the Garment District seating area at 40th Street and Broadway. Hardly anyone is there, and the seats are empty. It serves mainly to create another traffic obstruction.
Garment District seating area, February 2, 2017 (photo by Roger W. Smith)
Below are photographs of Fifth Avenue taken by Roger W. Smith in the early afternoon on Saturday, February 4, 2017. Take a look. Where are the “traffic bedlam” and the crowds? “[H]ome to one of the world’s densest concentrations of humanity and traffic bedlam”?
Fifth Avenue 2:44 p.m., February 4, 2017 (photo by Roger W. Smith)
Fifth Avenue 2:45 p.m., February 4, 2017 (photo by Roger W. Smith)
Fifth Avenue 2:54 p.m., February 4, 2017 (photo by Roger W. Smith)
I took the attached photo of Fifth Ave near 79th St. yesterday afternoon at around rush hour:
Where is the heavy vehicular and pedestrian traffic that the traffic engineers have been writing jeremiads about? They want to solve the “problem” by shutting part of the avenue down.
Fifth Avenue, January 2017 (photograph by Roger W. Smith)
–– Roger W. Smith, email to a friend, February 1, 2017
Fifth Avenue, 12:25 p.m.; August 20, 2018
I took the above photo on Fifth Avenue in the 40’s at midday on a Monday afternoon in August 2018. Where is the traffic jam? The truth is that traffic usually flows very well on Fifth Avenue, which runs in one direction, downtown, from north to south. No traffic crisis requiring the intervention of city planners.