Whose Streets?

Pedestrian Streets

This is the fourth article in the ‘Whose Streets?’ feature. Articles in this series focus on different street localities and are accompanied by a StoryMap (a free tool developed by Northwestern University Knight Lab). Each StoryMap appears after the article and pioneers an experimental form of spatial history-telling, taking you onto the city streets of the past.

New York City in the early 1970s, anxious about its future, was grounds for combined experimentation in pedestrian environments and urban citizenship. During the celebration of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, Fifth Avenue at midday was transformed into a sea of people—250,000 by some accounts—filling the street from curb to curb. Five lanes of cars, taxis, trucks, and buses were replaced by pedestrians. This massive and peaceful gathering—unmarked by conflicts over race, class, age, or the Vietnam War—provided a welcome change from the tensions of the era. Observers made comparisons between Earth Day and anti-war demonstrations, noting that the celebration was a cause for joy instead of division. The scene also marked a new direction for New York City’s streets: the dawn of an age of pedestrianisation.

Building on the goodwill garnered by the Earth Day closure, Mayor John Lindsay announced a series of temporary street closings on Fifth Avenue and across the city. In these pedestrian experiments, the control of air pollution and traffic congestion were joined with the promotion of a loose sense of participation in public life. In a dramatic outpouring of mail to the mayor, participants were moved to describe their sense of “freedom”, of feeling a bond with the crowd, or “like a citizen of somewhere.” These political associations were central to the advancement of plans for the redevelopment of the city centre already under way. On the streets of midtown Manhattan in the early 1970s, popular protest, psychological research, environmental reforms, urban redevelopment, and urban design intersected to replace the figure of the citizen in the urban imagination with that of the pedestrian.

The scene relayed by the many promenaders was a familiar scenario for civil rights, anti-war, anti-poverty and other activists’ who marched in previous decades. As a site of protest and demonstration, the street was a space for communion and the exercise of citizenship rights. At the same time, participants wrote of the street closings in Midtown in 1970 and 1971 as a “civilising” gesture intended to enhance the city’s attractiveness for professionals or suburbanites. The celebration of the lively, peopled street (think of Jane Jacobs’ urban ballet) was inseparable from growing fears of disorder, crime, and racially-coded “strangers.” From this perspective, the so-called race riot, first seen on the streets of Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant in 1964, represented the intersection of crime and racial distrust in the public realm. The fear of violence and disorder was ever-present in city streets.

While temporary cultural interventions sought to keep streets cool in low-income and minority neighbourhoods, defusing frustration over larger structural and social problems, physical improvements were concentrated in the city centre. Looking to European precedents, architects and planners sought to re-create some of the street life lost to suburbanisation and modernisation. In 1967, a mayoral task force on urban design declared that a central problem of the city was its “anti-pedestrianism,” noting that “the pleasant custom of taking a walk with someone, and talking with him, is becoming very difficult, a real struggle against noise, crowds, obstacles, confusing signs, and street traffic.” City planners obsessed over the conditions of the pedestrian, “the forgotten man,” and how to redesign the centre for his happiness.

In a large-scale study of Midtown Manhattan, planners scrutinised streets and proposed new standards for urban design. They used helicopter photography and traffic flow counts to evaluate crowding behaviour, measuring pedestrian volumes and air pollution levels during temporary closings. They also relied on research by social scientists who used the street as a laboratory for the study of human behaviour. Psychologist Stanley Milgram, researching relationships between density and civility, sent his graduate students down to 42nd Street to deliberately bump into pedestrians and record the results. William H. Whyte took advantage of the experimental conditions of a round of street closings on Madison Avenue to make time-lapse photographs of pedestrian behaviour. The influential urbanist saw the street as the “best place to study urban man in his native habitat” and to assess the “marketplace verdicts of users” as to what worked and what did not, in the design of urban open space.

In the city’s 1969 master plan, to which Whyte contributed, Midtown Manhattan was conceived as a “National Centre” for corporate headquarters, cultural institutions, and other economic sectors that benefited from face-to-face interaction and proximity to specialised services. The area was still home to a large percentage of the city’s manufacturing jobs, but as these positions rapidly disappeared, planners expected to replace them with new white-collar ones. The redesign of the district was critical to navigating a period of economic and demographic upheaval. An emphasis on growth in Midtown meant that the role of planning was to facilitate an increase in density there by focusing on the nature of the pedestrian experience. Blue-collar workers and citizens were erased from the city’s consciousness in favour of the critical figure of the pedestrian, conceived as “workers, shoppers, theatre goers and holiday makers,” who resided outside city limits. As industrial employment declined, streets could replace factories as engines of the economy. The streets were the site and vehicle for the transformation of the citizen, or homo politicus, into a new homo ambulante.

As a first step in the creation of a new pedestrian environment in Midtown, city planners proposed redesigning the city’s commercial core with a continuous network of pedestrian streets, providing ample breathing room for Midtown visitors and workers. Renderings of its centrepiece, a new Madison Mall, are striking only in their neutrality. Men in suits and hats, and very few women, walk alone or in pairs on a widened sidewalk with a neat line of trees; a roadway with none of the vitality of the street protests that inspired the mall’s proposal, or the politics that led to its defeat. While initial, temporary closings of Madison Avenue were hailed in the press as “an experiment in returning streets to people,” the city’s taxi drivers applied pressure to stop the creation of a permanent mall on the grounds of its harm to the “men who earn an honest, but hard-gained livelihood on the streets of New York.” Cars were the enemy of the pedestrian, but the interests of the pedestrian were also opposed to that of many people.

While proposals for large-scale transformation floundered, architects and urbanists nonetheless trumpeted the rebirth of the street. In 1974, Whyte declared New York City to have “the best street life in the world.” The city moved ahead with the implementation of two other pedestrian malls, connecting a celebration and rationalisation of street life to the development of secondary business centres. The policy of urban redevelopment via pedestrianisation was accompanied at every step by revolutionary discourse. Designers and planners embellished the pedestrian mall with a rhetoric of freedom, continuing to make grand claims for the street as a political space. A long-time advocate of pedestrianisation in New York titled a book on the subject The Pedestrian Revolution. Yet pedestrianisation failed to extend the pleasures of the street beyond its most privileged precincts. These scenes of the street are no less familiar today, as new street closures prioritise dining over recreation, mobility, and protest.

This essay is adapted from Mariana Mogilevich, The Invention of Public Space: Designing for Inclusion in Lindsay’s New York (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020)

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