New York’s streets are getting new ownership. Lane by lane, curb cut by parking space, in steps so scattered and incremental that they hardly get noticed, people on foot are wresting control of the asphalt from those behind the wheel. Even on a chill winter day, you can take a sandwich and a book and sit in a sunlit patch on Broadway between Times and Herald Squares—not at a curb café but in a lane that once belonged to cars. A strip has been painted tan, flanked by planters, and sprinkled with metal chairs and tables. On one side of this oasis, cyclists speed down their own green lane. Vans and trucks park on the other side of the planters, barricading the new plaza from moving cars. Having lunch in the middle of Broadway can be disconcerting, but it sends a signal of pedestrian pride.
For decades, it was almost inconceivable that any American city would requisition turf from motorized vehicles and turn it over to people who would use it for such low-speed, inefficient activities as strolling or sitting around. Robert Moses, who didn’t drive, nevertheless believed that the well-made street should speed the car. That long-unchallenged assumption has found an opponent in Commissioner of Transportation Janette Sadik-Khan, who last year hired Jan Gehl, the Danish guru of pedestrianism, to help transform traffic arteries into more-textured public places.
In the twenty months since Sadik-Khan took office, she has swiftly refashioned miles of streets, using inexpensive materials and commando operations. The commissioner often commutes by bicycle, and she made sure her two-wheeled people got their very own slice of Ninth Avenue in Chelsea, delimited by the curb on one side and a landscaped median on the other. Where the avenue widens at 14th Street, a low-tech armory of heavy planters, paint, and metal chairs has secured a pleasant haven in the middle of southbound traffic. Two blocks farther downtown is Gansevoort Plaza, where blocks of salvaged granite arranged into funky seating and a phalanx of spherical, nippled bollards protect a new pedestrian habitat. Across town at Madison Square, another loiterer’s haven has sprouted at an intersection that once was clogged with traffic.
Behind such tinkering with blacktop and hardware is an attempt to change the way people see and use their city. Sadik-Kahn has been called a “guerrilla bureaucrat,” and her experiments do have a revolutionary cast. On Saturday mornings last summer, vehicles started to vanish from various streets—without being replaced by tired fairs. First, in local actions taken under the city’s approving eye, parts of Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg became temporarily pedestrian. Then, for three Saturdays in August, a seven-mile stretch of Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge up Park Avenue to 72nd Street was transformed into a motor-free allée. Children played in the street, a brass ensemble oompahed, adults scooted along on their kids’ Razors, and Pomeranians promenaded down the center lane.
Public space comes in a range of shades. In the sixties, its cultivation was effectively delegated to private developers, who were permitted to put up bigger office buildings if they provided sidewalk-level oases where workers could eat their lunch. In the eighties and nineties, New York began to rejuvenate its parks, restoring enclaves that offer a cushion from noise and congestion. Now the Department of Transportation has realized that its jurisdiction covers the basic unit of urban life: the street. There, lifestyles intersect and city dwellers co-exist with people different from themselves. It’s where we learn toleration, where leisure shares space with urgency, commerce with activism, baby carriages with handcarts. When it is narrowed by garbage or overwhelmed by traffic, then the street reverts to its most primitive use: as a corridor. But a truly public place allows people to move at many different paces, or not to move at all.