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Honk, Honk, Aaah

One morning earlier this spring, Sadik-Khan was standing onstage with Mayor Bloomberg and a gaggle of officials near an industrial park in Greenpoint to announce the city’s plans for its first wave of stimulus spending. It was an unglamorous scene, and while she issued her talking points like a pro, she didn’t exactly fit in—either in gritty Greenpoint or among the crowd of machine pols with whom she shared the stage. Toward the end of the press conference, a reporter diverted the subject to the city’s streets. “What’s the thinking about the Thanksgiving Day parade?” he asked. (The new Broadway will force the parade to find an alternate route down to Macy’s.) Bloomberg seemed mildly irritated. “We are changing Broadway,” the mayor responded, “which I think will make it a lot easier to get to the theater district, to get to shopping. We think it’ll be great for business, and for pedestrians, and for tourism. And it’s going to require some changes, and we’re studying them. Things change—there’s always going to be change.”

To make sure that change works, the Broadway plan is ostensibly a temporary pilot project. If the modeling is wrong and it goes awry, the chairs will be hauled off and the epoxy surface peeled away. But Sadik-Khan insists she has left little to chance. At the mayor’s request, she recorded several days’ worth of traffic patterns on the newly shrunken Broadway south of Times Square. Once Broadway closes completely, the city will conduct even more obsessive research: video monitoring, business surveys, hourly and daily traffic counts, pedestrian surveys, vehicle-classification surveys. Even critics of Sadik-Khan’s Broadway plan don’t see much chance that it will fail. One skeptic who has met with DOT officials says he came away with “a general sense that it isn’t really a pilot program, that it was a permanent change that would only be taken back if it was completely disastrous.”

If the Broadway plan does succeed, the next step (though Sadik-Khan is not talking this way publicly) will likely be to close more sections of Broadway until one day in the near future the entire boulevard has been converted to pedestrianized open space. It’s hard to characterize how dramatic a change that would be. Imagine a Manhattan with two major parks: one built in the nineteenth century as a confined space of bucolic wonder; the other refashioned in the 21st century as a long, open boulevard slicing the island on the diagonal. This would be the most striking alteration of the city’s physical landscape since the days of Robert Moses. And more than a little ironic, seeing as Moses constructed his empire of roads and highways while serving for 26 years as the city’s Parks commissioner. One wonders what he would think of a Transportation commissioner who dismantled New York’s most famous street and turned it into a park.