Our city streets have become contested space. If you want proof, look no farther than urban mobility guru Jeanette Sadik-Kahn’s widely anticipated new book, Street Fight. On the dust jacket, the title’s clever appropriation of Barbara Kruger’s agitated color-bar italics denotes urgency, risk, and the turmoil of cultural warfare: She’s taking it to the street.
With frequent acrimony and arousing entitlement, pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers, diners and loiterers, performers, vendors, and public safety officials are vying for space in the street. Under Sadik-Kahn, the New York City Department of Transportation’s program of street alterations, especially along Broadway in mid-town, have aimed to enlivened the city, improve pedestrian comfort and bicyclist safety, and boost the commercial aims of several business improvement districts.
Mayor Bloomberg championed these efforts as reversing the old priority for optimized vehicle traffic flows and returning the street to the people. In the face of the resulting generation of plazas and bicycle lanes that complicate navigational cues, NYC Councilman James Vacca declared pedestrian safety a civil rights issue. Mayor DeBlasio threatened to remove Broadway’s new plazas—and then retreated—because they’d spawned indecorous behaviors in the amply expanded tourist territories. Are they reversible? Apparently not.
While we have countless ennobling examples of plazas and streets coexisting in the traditional city, the new interventions on Broadway have created a rambling meander. We’ve lost the clarity of Manhattan’s old high road, perhaps the world’s most storied urban thoroughfare. The compelling geometric conditions where Broadway intersects Fifth Avenue and the mid-town grid, which gave rise to Madison Square and Cass Gilbert’s elegant Flatiron Building, have been oddly impaired.