Taking back the streets?

2009 June 11
by Josh Brown

Damon Winter/New York Times

Since May 24th those of us who habituate midtown Manhattan have been subjected to a fascinating spectacle: amidst the bustle and bash of midtown traffic, sections of Broadway are now reserved solely for pedestrian use. At this point in time, these “plazas” are distinguished by the nonidyllic sight of disposable-looking planters, tables, and chairs plopped down mid-avenue, and in Times Square by the sort of fragile folding lounge chairs one glimpses only on the “tar beach” roofs of apartment houses (see right). In true New York fashion, the furniture already has been the target of criticism, but it also seems to be getting a fair amount of use (when it’s not raining). Once we reach true Gotham summer weather and experience that unforgettable variation of ovenlike heat that arises from sunbaked asphalt, I’m not sure if these oases will be as appealing as they currently seem to be.

Whether you choose to bask or broil, it will take some time for these traffic-free zones to merge into the cityscape. Nicolai Ouroussoff in a recent New York Times “Architecture Review” offers some observations about the dissonance created when applying new uses to spaces designed for very different purposes. As he notes, if the plan, instigated by transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, becomes permanent (or as permanent as one mayoral administration can make such transfigurations), the city plans to commission designs that may make the current anomalous arrangements more user-friendly. And while Ouroussoff is skeptical about the imposition from on high of even benign plans, he concludes that Sadik-Khan’s vision at least “reasserts the positive role government can play in shaping the public realm after decades of sitting by and watching private interests take over.”

Skepticism takes many forms, though, and John Louis Lucaites, one-half of the team responsible for the analytical photojournalism blog No Caption Needed (and the 2007 book of the same name), uses the institution of these pedestrian plazas—and the evidence provided in the photograph reproduced here—as a sort of Marcusian manifestation of the dilemma of liberal democracy:

The point, of course, is that there is no sense of a public here. Less a “big public room” [a characterization made in Ouroussoff’s piece], the photograph portrays a thoroughly fragmented social order, a setting in which the conventions of private living have completely colonized the most public space in America and where individuals have seemingly forgotten how to perform their private selves in public in a way that acknowledges others and accommodates to the demands and decorum of civic life.

I have my own, I like to think historically-informed, skepticism (not to mention a skepticism provoked by such subjective visual analyses). But whether you view these plazas or malls as symbolic reappropriations of vehicular-oppressed urban spaces for the pedestrian/citizen, or as a canvas for the display of a fractured and alienated polity, it’s necessary to look back at earlier uses of the streets, and proscriptions against those uses, to truly assess the significance of present-day visions and policies. The giddy feeling of liberation, or at least relief, that one may experience when trespassing on turf previously reserved for machines is admittedly not an ersatz emotion. But that response is an echo from the past, a reverberation of what New Yorkers lost long ago regarding the uses of the streets.

The nineteenth century witnessed a lengthy struggle over urban space where certain types of popular, largely working-class activity became progressively criminalized. To be sure, the installation of order included the suppression of the threat hovering over boisterous popular festivities and pastimes that often quickly shifted to violence—and we need mourn neither the diminishment of extensive public drunkenness nor the end to the meandering of domestic animals that halted traffic and posed health hazards. But as a long list of studies of the nineteenth- century urban crowd, labor organizing, and working class life have demonstrated (the most recent Lisa Keller’s Triumph of Order), the increasing codification of public behavior was also directed against processions, celebrations, and demonstrations that challenged the cruel status quo of the era and represented alternative visions of democracy and equality—epitomized in the many labor protests and parades of the Gilded Age city.

The triumph of public order was one factor that, by the turn of the last century, transformed the form and meaning of civic events, turning inclusive activities into spectacles, and participants into observers. There have been significant exceptions to this rule over urban space, most notably the wresting back of some of the restricted uses of the streets in the demonstrations and rallies of the 1960s and 1970s. But such victories proved to be short-lived, as evidenced during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City when we saw public displays of free speech and the right to congregate literally hemmed in and beaten back.

So while you may be inclined to stretch out on one of those Times Square lounge chairs, you may want to think twice before grouping them together for a cause!

Last 5 posts by Josh Brown

2009 June 12
John Lucaites permalink

Josh — Point taken and nicely put. But two things. One, my focus is on what the photograph seems to “show” and in that context what it models for civic life. But I don’t see anything here that would even be vaguely analogical to “processions, celebrations, and demonstrations that challenge the cruel status quo.” And if it is an alternate version of democracy it seems one trumped by a narrowly defined liberalism. My point then, I suppose, would be to say that if this is an “alternative”–and no doubt it is–it is one we should think about carefully (and, yes, skeptically). Your historicization is important to that to be sure. Thanks for the provocation.

2009 June 12
Josh Brown permalink

Thanks for this, John. I totally agree that the photo does not hint at all about any behavior that challenges the status quo; rather, if we stretch things a bit it could be interpreted as a spirit photo of what we can no longer see and have largely forgotten. I think we agree that the “reappropriation” of Times Square as manifested by the creation of these pedestrian plazas is a variation on the domestication of the uses of public space. I’m skeptical about what the photograph actually shows, but not your conclusion about the limits of political expression in the liberal state. Or, to use Raymond Williams’ useful distinction, the plazas may be a very pleasant “alternative” experience–but hardly an “oppositional” one.

Comments are closed for this entry.