James S. Russell
Does NYC need a pedestrian plaza?
Disappearing the Desnudas
It’s desnudas versus New York City.
Somehow shapely underclad women who’ve body-painted scanty tops have become a crisis in the city, requiring the demolition of plazas being built to make Times Square civilized.
The mayor and police commissioner overreacted, blaming the paving stones for this offensive (to some) innovation in the age-old art of the busker. To separate tourists and pedestrians from their cash, you gotta get a gimmick, as Ms. Mazeppa said in the musical “Gypsy.” And painted breasts certainly got everyone’s attention.
But the reaction is of a piece with America’s fear of public space. In other countries, a town square, or boulevardized street with wide sidewalks and cafés, invites conviviality as people stroll, take coffee, or hang out. In America, we assume that any public space that is not cordoned off for some “useful” purpose can only become a refuge for criminals, the homeless, and the mentally unstable. (In many suburbs, even sidewalks are looked on with suspicion. )
The police commissioner has concluded that plazas—permitting louche idleness instead of puritanical destination-focused purposefulness—conjured the presence of nude women. The solution? “Removal” of the problem. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, but a common one, unfortunately.
The “problem” with public spaces is sometimes with the space, but mainly with our failure to gainfully employ people, who turn to public space to earn income. On Times Square, people push theater tickets, comedy clubs, tour busses. As cartoon characters, “naked” cowboys, and statues of liberty, they hustle tips from picture-taking tourists. Times Square is a buskerama. Which is absolutely in tune with its identity as the most commercial of public spaces. It would not be swarming with record millions if it was not fun. The allure is not the mall-style retail, but the mega-signage, which from time to time achieves dizzy heights of commercial nuttiness—but recently seems to have settled into a corporate coma.
Actually New York City is a model in many ways for the management of public space. Intimate plazas have been created out of little more than flower pots and paint. They work, they are actively managed, and they’ve proven very popular.
The City’s administration has come to its senses and will not demolish the plazas, which have cost millions to install. They are essential because there are many more people in the square than the inadequate sidewalks can handle, and accommodating them is a safety issue. With the excruciatingly length of the plaza construction project, much of the square has been torn up for years, leaving bottlenecks that are inhumane and unsafe.
A task force has been convened to address the desnudas, and sanity will probably prevail. (Though one idea, to cordon the desnudas, sounds even sillier than the designated prostitution zones found in Holland are.)
There are many ways to manage this problem (on a recent balmy afternoon there was not a painted breast to be seen), but resort to heavy-handed policing or to removal of the “offending” space is the kind of answer that destroyed peoples’ faith in cities through much of the 20th century.
Why “I Think I Can” Needs NYC
In downtown Seattle last night, I saw the soft glow in the dark of Westlake Park’s evolution from a “little engine that could” to the real deal. The evolution, you may ask? A one-year experiment in private management of a public place, partially inspired by Bryant Park, a New York City example. Yet this particular darkness said, in effect, worry not, for this is just a Friday night off for the Downtown Seattle Association/Metropolitan Improvement District management scheme.
Another New York City example has recently been at least a bit under siege. Like Bryant Park, the conversion of Times Square to a pedestrian plaza has become a model for the American experience. In civic discussions around the country, it is touted as proof of the possible, a domestic shining light of how every city can recreate places for people. Who needs to cite to Mayor Jaime Lerner’s similar accomplishments in Curitiba, Brazil—or to evoke European forbears—when you have an American story for local consumption that easily translates to “why not here”?
So, whether panhandling, or other tourist-oriented aversions drove (no pun intended) a late summer New York re-examination of the pedestrian concept, a “return to what was” for Times Square risks unintended consequences for the rest of us. As Seattle’s Westlake example shows, we covet the emblems and icons of big cities that lead, and for many Americans, the lessons of New York ring truer than Las Ramblas of Barcelona ever will.
If New York slides backward, so may also a multitude of “engines that could” who need the confidence that feeds the Little Engine’s immortal words, “I think I can”.
Public Space in New York's Times Square
When the Paint Fades: The pilot and the permanent Times Square
|Image: New York Times. January 21, 1975. “Decision Awaited on Permanent Times Sq. Mall|
In a period of intensified fears about crime, loitering, and ne’er-do-wells, the mall was never built, but the idea persisted. Other pedestrian malls of the era, most acutely in declining downtowns, were plagued by the anticipated social ills of the Times Square projects, and many were restored to car traffic in the 1980s and 90s.
Our present era bears scant resemblance to the first wave of pedestrianization schemes, especially as our narrative of the city has shifted from white flight-fueled decline and delinquency to gentrification and nagging fears of inauthenticity. We find ourselves at a strange cultural moment, somewhere between James Rouse’s festival marketplace and Banksy’s Disma-land, forging a beguiling Vegas-Orlando hybrid of friendly-faced characters trolling the now nostalgia-laden steps of buskers and prostitutes. In some sense, these larger than life figures inhabiting the Times Square plazas have become the ultimate irony of our Disneyfied landscape, their frustrated costumes bearing witness to the latent anger of a city beleaguered by class warfare, as though Guiliani had encased the beggars in costumes to disguise the pervasive squalor.
The problem with Times Square is not, however, that it has spawned a latent seediness, or even its intensified Disneyfication. The problem is that the success of the project and the trajectory of the city should have given weight to a much, much more ambitious vision of Broadway as a whole and that De Blasio should have instigated such a proposal upon taking office. To relieve the pedestrian congestion of the square, why not expand the plazas permanently north to Columbus Circle and south to Herald Square, as originally envisioned in the early 1970s. By undertaking a more comprehensive plan and capital investment in Times Square’s future, the administration might have had the foresight to craft a proactive strategy under which they could build out, manage, and define a clear vision of the Square, rather than defaulting to a reactive defeatism. Those within the administration and the advocates for public plazas, bike lanes, and other transportation investments that have multiplied across the city must also press beyond the painted lines of incremental progress in the interest of securing their investments in concrete and curbs. These capital investments can move the city and its citizens beyond the misconception of a perennial transportation experiment towards a new and permanent paradigm for the public realm.
The Stupid Starchitect Debate
Whining about celebrity architectureI have written a great deal about celebrity architects as well as practitioners of what Rybczynski calls “locatecture.” He names no architects that stick to their own city, however, which says to me he doesn’t really care about the kind of practitioner he claims to celebrate. He’d rather just complain about flashy architecture than deeply examine it. I find this typical of celebrity-architecture skepticism. Architecture, Rybczynski writes, “is a social art, rather than a personal one, a reflection of a society and its values rather than a medium of individual expression. So it’s a problem when the prevailing trend is one of franchises, particularly those of the globe-trotters: Renzo, Rem, Zaha and Frank.” Wrong, wrong and wrong. Architecture is a public art. No architect can build a spectacular museum, concert hall, or skyscraper without a client willing to underwrite it, a city willing to permit it, and a public that wants it. It’s often a very complicated dance; the Disney Concert Hall Rybczynski admires (as do I) overcame 17 years of cost overruns, funding woes, political difficulties, and redesigns. In so-called progressive cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle, unique architectural expression rarely survives an endless public process that tries (impossibly) to please everybody. These cities have mostly driven out homegrown talent because they are never hired.
Basking in the Brand-Name GlowCelebrity architecture is not a franchise (McDonalds is a franchise), but branding. Branding is repellently ubiquitous, and it is pure romanticism to think architecture can escape a trend that so powerfully guides spending. A friend became a museum director in part because building a new building was part of the job. I thought he would bring up an energetic young local talent, but he ended up with an international big name because, he said, only the stars would bring in the donors. That’s sad, but emblematic of an era when private wealth builds the cultural facilities the public won’t pay for. That’s why celebrity architects are brands—a title none of them sought, though all are adept at exploiting. Even wealthy, sophisticated trustees like to bask in the glow of a name that’s got cachet, rather than look hard for someone with obvious talent but who is not well known. Rybczynski writes that architecture should be “a reflection of a society and its values.” That’s inevitable. Ours is a society of great, concentrated wealth, and wealth will build what it wants. That wealth is sometimes devoted to creating great public buildings and places, like Millennium Park in Chicago, where international-standard art, architecture, and landscape architecture combine in a way that’s unique and invites everyone.
Nurturing a Sensitivity to PlaceRybczynski is right about our need to create alternatives to the cycling of the same two dozen names through every prominent project in every city. In Europe that’s done through mandatory design competitions for even small public projects (like libraries) that can help rising talents gain experience. We can’t have “locatects” unless communities hire them. Most American architects of talent must work nationally and internationally to survive. If not big-name designers, who? Some architects fly below the celebrity radar but embody truly public values and local sensitivity. I’m a fan of Ennead (formerly the Polshek Partnership), of New York; Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (known as Apple store architects, but also sensitive designers of houses and academic buildings); BNIM, of Kansas City (pioneers of green architecture); and Lake/Flato, a truly regional firm that practically owns Texas talentwise, even though it is from San Antonio rather than Houston, Dallas, or Austin. To be honest, these firms are not always bold enough. They can be a little bit too comfortable. So why are these not household names? Because we like urban spectacle, theatricality, expressiveness, and grand gestures. And we like to argue about style and the streetscape. What to do? Look, experience, and think about innovative, esthetically demanding architecture. Don’t dismiss by drive-by or by looking at pictures. If you like local talent that’s sensitive to circumstances—that thinks about climate, setting, and history—find them. Advocate for their hiring by businesses and government. Consider why you travel thousands of miles to look at architecture you cannot find at home. The Guggenheim Bilbao was not built in a vacuum, but pursuant to a large-scale program to remake a dying industrial city in a new image. In replacing an abandoned shipyard it was joined by mixed development, a tram line, a waterfront esplanade, and beautifully designed pedestrian connections to downtown. There’s no lack of architectural talent out there. Only a lack of boldness and commitment.
Two Unmentionable Words
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