Crowding Our Sidewalks, To What End?

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

The other day, dreaming of Steichen and Henry James, I walked up that mile of Fifth Avenue that stretches from Washington Square Park to the Flatiron Building. I must remember never to go there again.

The entire area has grown lousy with scaffolding sheds. From 7th Street to 23rd Street, only two blocks are free and clear, a deficiency compensated by as many as three sheds on some of the other streets. In total there are, by my wearied computation, 21 scaffolds in the 16 blocks from Washington Square to Madison Square Park.

Because of a surge in scaffolding, whole areas of the city have become essentially dead to pedestrian traffic. Even without quite realizing why, one avoids Broadway from Russell Square to Times Square or the east side of Fifth Avenue above 79th Street. Instead one walks on the other side of the street or, where that is impossible, takes another avenue all together.

Every few months, urbanists and concerned citizens go on about the aesthetics of street furniture, lighting, signage, and the like. You will excuse me if I tell you that I couldn’t care less about any of that. In a perfect world, or more precisely, in any other city, these would be matters of some moment. But in the context of New York, where the streetscape has already been destroyed by scaffolding, where it is no longer possible to walk more than a block without passing through these islands of dismal night, where the expectation of such interruptions has lodged itself like a reflex in the minds of a far too docile public, any adornment or minor correction becomes irrelevant.

In part, this problem exists because the very form of scaffolding implies impermanence, which is why communities do not rise up in open rebellion, as they would if they understood the true longevity of these sheds. On Park Avenue, just up the street from where I live, a building has received its fifth massive shed in eight years. I asked the super how long it will be there. “Two years,” he said nonchalantly.

Over on Central Park West, the landmarked Majestic has just mounted its fourth scaffolding shed in ten years. And how long will that be up? “Years and years,” the doorman replied.

What this means, among other things, is that in the past generation and the one to come, most of the people crossing the threshold into Irwin Chanin’s famous towers will have done so under the shadow of scaffolding.

Of course, there are times when scaffolding is needed — such as when construction is actually taking place. What is at stake is the very notion of New York as a pedestrian city — rather than a zone of cars and mass transit. Was it for this that we dismantled Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenue elevated trains — that they should be reborn a thousand times over?

Unless the Department of Buildings dispels the bureaucratic inertia that has brought us to this pass, unless it can drastically narrow and redefine the circumstances in which scaffolds are necessary, and unless it is willing to mandate that the projects that have them begin and end with all speed, we will have to from now on, change our habits accordingly. We will have to accept that whole stretches of the city are henceforth to be avoided unless necessity compels us to go there.

The New York Sun

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