Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Just because it's happening in New York...

...doesn't mean it's bad or shouldn't happen here

Your faithful blogspondent grew up, as is well-known by this time to RTUF Nation, down to the south. That is to say, in New York, the big, bad city of broken dreams and shattered romances. Among the surprises of living in Boston for the last 17 years (since coming north to obtain a law degree at what must be Pope Frank's favorite JD mill in the Commonwealth), perhaps the most suprising thing is the depth of the anti-New York reflex in this town. I get it about the Yankees (to begin with, who wouldn't loathe George Steinbrenner simply on sight?), and certainly the Jets, but it extends to virtually everything and is not even properly classified as a reflex. It is a deep-seated aversion, like discussing the theory of evolution among certain fundamentalists, or trying to get my friend Frankie-bell Galvin to agree that the sun rises in the east after he's heard President Obama just said the same thing. It's subconscious, it's visceral, it cannot be reasoned with, but, on the plus side, it tends to hurt only the benighted.

This all came forcefully to mind recently when I had the opportunity to sit down with some fellow tactical urbanism proponents and a former city official and brainstorm about where and how Boston might find the way to turn some of its excess, underused and unsightly public space into vibrant urban spaces and plazas. The conversation wound its way around to a brief discussion of one key tactical urbanism tactic -- the overnight public plaza within an existing street right of way that ultimately matures into a permanent public space. As it so happens, perhaps the highest profile and most successful of this kind of TU intervention has been Times Square in New York. Basically, virtually overnight several years ago, NYCDOT's then-commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, moved forward, on land her agency controlled within the existing street right of way of Broadway, and shut down auto traffic on the iconic thoroughfare from 42nd to 47th streets, allowing auto traffic only on the cross streets. To someone on foot, tourist and native alike, this was a no-brainer. To go to Times Square before this change was really to be in Times Traffic-Islands-Narrow-Sidewalks because the pedestrian-available parts of the square had been systematically squeezed back over the course of the automobile era to the point where the ratio of the space for cars to the space for people was grotesquely out of whack. Something had needed to happen to reverse this ratio for many, many years. Rather than do nothing until the final plaza could be built, Ms. Sadik-Khan, to paraphrase Boston's own Mel King, identifed the mess, found the broom in her hand to be more than sufficient to get meaningful change going, and started sweeping.

Now, five years on, the permanent installations and art work are well underway or already on the scene and Times Square feels much, much different. And it's all due to a willingness to use low-tech, low-capital cost, temporary interventions to show what can be done, demonstrate and actual experience what can be and build a constituency around permanent change for a place. What a shame that one reaction during the discussion was deeply reflexive -- what good is anything from New York? -- and also tragically emblematic. It would be a shame of epic proportions if Boston misses this wave just because the folks who dress in black 3.5 hours to the south have done it first. And, yes, I'm looking specifically at you, Franklin Street at Arch Street - NYC Phobia can't save you forever!!

View 1 - South on Broadway, across the block between
42nd and 43rd streets.

View 2 - North on Broadway, across 7th Avenue
to the Cohan statue in Duffy Square.
Blog Post No. 2014-10.