New York tries to create Gardens of Eden on city streets
The Bloomberg administration sets up oases of plants and blooms of umbrellas along Broadway in a quest to devise a new urban aesthetic. Is it the Left Bank of Paris or just a bank of shrubs?
New York — Public spaces along Broadway, the original Manhattan thoroughfare that slashes through a rectangular grid of streets, creating triangular intersections with paradoxical names like Times Square, have hardly been havens for people out for a leisurely walk or an outdoor cappuccino.
In fact, the quintessential Broadway tableaux bring images of the Canyon of Heroes and ticker-tape parades, the flashing din of 20-story advertisements and New Year’s dropping crystal, or the glitz of the theater district and its blaring marquees. For the most part, there are no New York pedestrians on its narrow sidewalks – only New York crowds.
But for the past few months, the city has been unveiling a remarkable new approach to its streetscape, including a subtle transformation of the famous Manhattan way, meant to make its streets more green than mean. In addition to closing off selected “summer” streets from vehicles, the Bloomberg administration has begun to line its thoroughfares with bike paths, patchworks of greenery, and the colorful bloom of umbrella’d tables and chairs.
While dozens of relatively quiet spaces exist throughout the city – not to mention the vast 843-acre swath of ponds and trees in Central Park – New York foresees a million more residents by 2030 and a need for an enhanced street life at once more walkable, livable, and public.
“To accommodate that kind of growth, we have to use our streets much more effectively and efficiently,” says Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of New York City Department of Transportation. “So we’re taking a fresh look at our streetscape, our 6,000 miles of streets, with an eye toward the best and highest use of some the most in-demand public space in the country, if not the world. Surely we can do more than just move cars as quickly as possible from point A to point B.”
Indeed, the rhythms of modern Manhattan had been shaped by the relentless highway, tunnel, and bridge-building of Robert Moses, who oversaw most of New York’s public works from the 1930s to the 1950s. Public and pedestrian life was barely an afterthought. Circling the island’s sliver of land with the FDR and West Side Highways, Moses made Manhattan’s miles of waterfront a jam of exhaust-belching cars, while his Interstates carved through old New York neighborhoods – especially in the Bronx – creating ever-branching arteries for vehicular flow.
I’m sitting in the midst of it now, on Broadway, within a new triangular oasis of sky-blue umbrellas that are mirroring the triangular gray grandeur of the Flatiron Building. At least eight different bus lines rumble past, emitting a steady series of rising-then-falling waves of sound: on either side, the M2 ... now the M5 ... and now the M6 – Manhattan buses, each. The Bm2 ... the Bmx7 ... the Bmx10 – Bronx-bound buses with their diesel-driven moans. Delivery trucks and swarms of yellow cabs zip between them, each with its own cacophonous swish.
The oasis sits right in the middle of the thoroughfare. Shiny new stainless-steel tables and chairs are spread over the street-formed wedge, sitting upon a coarse gray gravel and epoxy mix – sort of what sand would look like if you were an ant. Most of the two-dozen umbrellas have more than one person sitting under them.
“I like it,” says Mike Keller, an insurance agent for Afleck sitting near me, as he takes a quick break from work. “How did they come up with this? This kind of reminds me of La Rambla a little bit, where they have dining in the middle, except they have restaurants bringing them food and stuff,” he says of the iconic street in Barcelona, Spain. “Are they doing that? It’d be a pretty good idea, though. Except when it gets cold.” Mr. Keller had studied abroad in Spain while attending the University of Michigan, so he has an idea of European-style esplanades.
“World-class cities are making world-class investments in their public places because they know that really is one of the defining elements of a high quality of life for a city and for the people who live there,” says Ms. Sadik-Khan. “Streets in New York are about 80 percent of our public space, so we’re trying to make it more enjoyable and safer.”
“New York is one of the most famous cities in the world, and yet we don’t have a grand boulevard,” she continues. “Paris has the Champs-Elysees, Barcelona has La Rambla – we don’t have a place where you can just stop and take it in, have a cup of coffee, check your e-mail, read the paper, or watch the amazing passing parade that is New York City.”
The passing parade, however, is noisy. Besides the swish of taxis and buses, there’s the occasional but inevitable scream of sirens, booming construction flatbeds, and impatient horns. “Yo, Saul! Yo, SAUL!” yells a man in a construction hard hat as he jay-dodges through the traffic to the wedge of umbrellas within it. He cups his hand, shouts again, and jumps into the other side of traffic.
A couple passes by, hand-in-hand. The man is standing on the left, wearing shorts and sandals, while the woman, seated in a wheelchair and wearing a floral-patterned black blouse, is pushing the right wheel with her un-held hand. I wonder how she can go straight without veering to the left. They are speaking what I vaguely make out to be a Nordic tongue, and pointing to the Flatiron Building. Swedish, perhaps. Tourists.
Two strangers, each reading The New York Post, strike up a conversation – the normal where-are-you-from-don’t-you-enjoy-being-outside type. I ask a woman next to me, who’s seemingly engrossed in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and her Cobb salad, what she thinks of lunch in the middle of Broadway.
We chat about how odd it is, and she explains how, since she’s been coming here for lunch, strangers will join her.
“The thing I do find about New Yorkers is that people wouldn’t just pull up a chair and sit, if there are three empty seats – they’ll chat.” I learn her name is Caitlin Carroll, an architectural assistant from a nearby firm. She’s recently arrived from Scotland, but her burr is only slight. “Even though people are very anonymous here, everyone keeps their bubble around them, and yet they’ll easily talk, and want to talk, and I find that quiet strange.”
We chat about the city’s effort to make New York more “livable” and to create public spaces along the lines of those in European cities. Now that it’s October, the city is about to add mixed evergreens, junipers, and boxwoods to the planters, as well as kale cabbage heads and holly. On many of the buildings above us, we’re able to see the green fronds and branches of roof-top gardens atop Manhattan high-rises.
New Yorkers have long made their peace with the endless noise and concrete canyons of the city and planted green wherever they could. She laughs.
“It’s never going to be one of the civic squares they have in Europe,” she says. “New York can never have that unless they close the streets off to traffic. The city has too much of a fast pace for that to really happen.”