Last February Manhattan was apprised of an incipient revolution. Cars and trucks would no longer be welcome in Times Square and on a small stretch of Broadway near 34th Street (in front of Macy's). These rights of ways would be given back to the pedestrians which in summer means the tourists and a few stalwart Manhattanites. I write from the POV of the latter group.
Our little apartment looks out on Broadway just above Herald Square on 34th Street. You need to know that in Manhattan most outdoor seating is not public, It is private, the responsibility (or option) of the buildings in the area. Seating generally expands and recedes in relation to the fear that it will be overrun by the indigent. (I assume there are indigent in Europe where parsimonious public seating would be deemed a crime.)
My candidate for the most delightful outdoor seating in my Manhattan neighborhood is three blocks away -- the Au Bon Pain outdoor tables in the stone terrace entrance area to the Girl Scout's Building on 37th Street just West of 5th Avenue. I can go to this spot late on a Sunday afternoon and feel intense wellbeing -- exactly what a nice public space should evoke.
A block away -- 32nd and Broadway -- there is a bank building that used to have a somewhat similar aspect, chairs and round tables. Recently the tables and chairs were removed. .
Meanwhile Greeley and Herald Square -- both narrow triangular parks fitted to the angle of Broadway where it crosses Sixth Avenue -- remain genuinely diverse seating areas, pleasant and giving the lie to the notion that if you make public space nice it will turn into a slime pit.
There are a few other outdoor sitting areas around, but you get the flavor. No wonder at first the Bloomberg announcement seemed at the time like a great leap forward. To review:
According to the NYC DOT, Broadway will be closed to through traffic on May 24 from 42nd to 47th Streets and from 33rd to 35th Streets to make that pedestrian mall announced back in February.
In addition to greater safety and access for pedestrians and cyclists, the project hopes to improve car traffic flow through the areas.
- Traffic lights with up to 66% more green time
- Significant travel time improvements on Sixth and Seventh Avenues
- Faster bus speeds for 70,000 daily riders
Anyone who, like me, had visions of a quick transition from gridlock to St. Marks Square in Venice, with tasteful tables and chairs, the capacity to have a drink of something and watching a promenade of unimpeded pedestrians, does not understand how America works. We rarely do things right. We muck it up somehow.
What is right about the Bloomberg experiment is that is is a blow against the dominance of the car.
What is wrong is that the present solution is neither safer nor more pedestrian friendly.
The execution of the project was both sloppy and ill-conceived if it was meant to serve people who live here or are trying to walk on Broadway. Take a trip with me up Broadway on foot if you dare.
Start downstairs from where I am writing on 34th Street, where the street in front of Macy's has been closed off. Most of it has been blocked by metal chairs and tables, intersected by a bike lane.
If cars in Manhattan often push the rules, the bike riders ignore them entirely. They wear armor while their victims on foot go unprotected. It is not uncommon to be grazed by a high speed biker getting between you and some barrier at speed.
Then there is the large number of pedicab drivers, maniacs all. They block the entrance to the area on 34th street and squeeze inside to take pedestrian space with impunity. There is some kind of construction at the 35th Street end, forcing pedestrians over to the sidewalk at the western end, where cars from Broadway are aggressively turning right, their only option. This happens through the the entire walk light.
The blocks from 35th Street to 42nd Street feature a strip of pedestrian tables with heavy traffic or parking on one side and a fast-track bicycle lane on the other. The brown gravelly substance on the ground has disgusting stains from the water leaked from huge and ugly cement planters. The planters cannot be rationalized as anything but barriers -- they have no redemptive floral aspect.
It is hard for a resident not to be a bit miffed at the appropriation of this newly opened experiment -- it will be zapped if it does not work -- by tourists.
Yes, tourists pretty much monopolize the newly open area -- anywhere will do, I guess, if you're tired enough. But then we get to 42nd Street. For the next three blocks, cars are banned. Since there are no more cars, the city has removed the lanes on the street were once designated for pedestrians.
Then the city dumped thousands of plastic deck chairs on each of these block-long areas. The tourists have them lined up arm-to-arm across every inch of the street. They sprawl in those chairs with legs spread wide. If you are trying to walk through, beware. If you manage to squeeze through without being tripped, you have won an uneven contest.
Looking at the chairs' sagging bottoms, it's possible they won't last long. The contrast between this mess and the Au Bon Pain scene sketched at the start reflects the disappointment I feel at an opportunity lost.
Apparently the shaky deck chairs will be replaced in August. But by what?
Today it is harder to pass through Times Square on foot than when cars were whizzing back and forth.
And don't hope you can walk on 7th Avenue. They city took away the walking lanes there too. The sidewalks are more impassable than ever. Finally, you reach 45th street and someone has had the good sense to keep the chairs mostly on one side of the street so it is actually a bit easier to get through.
But don't be deceived. When you reach 47th, the cars from Broadway have to turn right again, and as the pedestrians try to cross 47th Street you will see a police officer screeching at the cars, "Turn now, now, now, while you have the chance," at the top of her voice. Police have little patience with a pedestrian who would obey the lights when they are disobeying them to squeeze vehicles through,
All told today's traffic-free Times Square is half-baked at best.
But I have left out one salient fact. The object of the change was never really to improve my experience. It was mainly to improve traffic flow. For the Bloomberg folk, the car is still king no matter what is claimed.
For the moment I will content myself with walking to Au Bon Pain.