Brooklyn’s World-Class Boulevards
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Think “boulevard,” and Paris comes to mind — or maybe Chicago. But New York, too, is a city of boulevards. Broadway in the Upper West Side once was officially named the Boulevard. It’s as close as we come to the typical boulevards of central Paris, where they are lined by stately apartment blocks with stores, restaurants, cafés, and so on at street level. The Grand Concourse in the Bronx is different. It’s the boulevard sans commerce. Even before zoning codes, developers respected Americans’ predilection for streets and neighborhoods that are exclusively residential, free of the moral taint of business. We share this predilection with the English. The French are different —hence the lively boulevards mixing residences and businesses.
Brooklyn has boulevards, too. Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway were laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1870s as their Prospect Park was being completed. Eastern Parkway extends from the park’s northeast corner and was intended to be part of a network of “parkways” linking parks throughout the metropolis. The network was never completed. Ocean Parkway, extending from the southern end of Prospect Park, was built to connect that park to Seaside Park at Coney Island. Ocean Parkway is our most finely realized boulevard.
Ocean Parkway had a Parisian model. But where are the cafés? In fact, Napoleon III built the Avenue de l’Impératrice, between the Arc de Triomphe and the Bois de Boulogne, as a strictly residential boulevard with fine houses and a carriage drive. The emperor was an Anglophile, and it is as though he was imagining how the English might build if they had a taste for grands projets. Olmsted had visited Paris and met Adolphe Alphand, the landscape architect the emperor put in charge of the renovation of the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes, the former royal hunting grounds. He told Alphand to make them more English than French.
Though lacking in cafés, and having stretches of undistinguished architecture, Ocean Parkway remains a model of sound urbanism. And our urban and suburban traffic planners should emulate it.
Though built in the 19th century, Ocean Parkway adapted to the automotive age without missing a beat. That is because a true boulevard is flexible and accommodating of a range of human needs.The center lane is for through, or “express,” automotive traffic — originally for carriages on pleasure drives. On either side of the express lane are tree-lined pedestrian malls. These aren’t just medians like on Broadway. They are accessed across their flanking “local” drives, hence do not require the pedestrian to traverse the central express lane. In 1894 the City of Brooklyn established on the parkway the first dedicated bicycle lanes in the present boundaries of New York City, and the fast, level surface of the parkway remains a bicyclists’ delight. Bridle paths operated on the parkway as late as the 1970s and one wishes they still did.
In their excellent “Boulevard Book,” Allan Jacobs, Elizabeth Macdonald, and Yodan Rofé extol the virtues of just such boulevards as Ocean Parkway, calling them “wonderful, human, community places.” Modern traffic planners wish to separate out forms of traffic in the wholly mistaken belief that such separation increases safety and efficiency. But boulevards knit together the community’s varied activities with safety, efficiency, comeliness, and a responsiveness to elemental human needs — that is to say, with everything that is missing from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.