Make the Road By Walking

Pedestrians - Times Square

Pedestrians – Times Square

“Sorry about that. I normally don’t slam the brakes but sometimes, I don’t have a choice.”

“It’s not your fault that these people never look.”

“I know, but I have to still be careful. Some of them are my future passengers.”

Pedestrians.

I can’t stand them.

Most of the people in my business would probably say the same thing if they were to be asked about those on foot as well. With tourism at a record high and the economy in the Big Apple in decent shape, there’s never been more of them to contend with during a shift. For the record, I haven’t hit one yet but I’ve had enough close calls that I still haven’t completely mastered the art of dodging them with ease. I don’t mean to bash them – after all, I learned my way around New York by being one for many years as well, since I hardly ever drove in from my humble suburbs of New Jersey. I could count the number of times I brought my vehicle across the Hudson River in the 15+ years between the obtainment of my driver’s license and my hack license. Thankfully, I was able to get a lay of the land via foot before getting behind the wheel for a living on a nightly basis.

The average walker in Gotham has had it better than ever in recent years. While traffic fatalities remain a problem, they are in the news more than ever now and with the new mayoral team set to take office late next week, pedestrian safety already seems like it will move to the forefront of issues that need to be addressed. Yes, there will always be taxis that jump the curb and people racing around way too fast in the wee hours of the morning but the changes that have been implemented lately are already a harbinger of what’s to come.

And nowhere is this more apparent than on the Great White Way.

For those unfamiliar with the street grid in Manhattan, Broadway is the major exception to the orderly layout of thoroughfares from the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811. North of Houston Street, there were to be 12 major Avenues running north-south and 155 total Streets running east-west, which was later extended upwards as more of Manhattan became settled. Older thoroughfares like Greenwich Ave. and the Bowery would remain in place but for the most part, the plan that was drawn up was remarkably close to the one that was laid out. Central and Gramercy Parks filled in some of the streets with a superblocked green space and the topography of the northern part of the island dictated that some streets (like 116) would not be able to stretch from river to river. Mother nature also showed some resiliency over mankind’s attempt in impose an order of enlightened rationality, without having to tear apart the existing urban fabric like what was done in Paris by Baron Haussmann. Although part of the Village was indeed demolished to make way for the southern extension of 6 and 7 Ave’s in the early 20th Century, very little changed when it came to the layout of Manhattan’s arteries, unless one takes into the account the reworking of the Avenues into one-way streets in the 1950’s.

That was until Mayor Bloomberg came along.

Led by Transportation Commissioner Jeanette Sadik-Khan and City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, many thoroughfares were remade into “Complete Streets” during his 12 years as Mayor. Inspired by European cities, autos would no longer gain precedence when it came to deciding how the space on a given street would be utilized. Widening streets would no longer be an option, traffic calming measures would be implemented, and for the second time (the first being under Mayor Koch in 1980), bike lanes would be added to allow for the easier and safer movement of two-wheeled non-motorized vehicles. Hardly a week goes by now where someone at my garage isn’t complaining about bikes flying the wrong way down the lanes, traffic caused by them, or tickets being given out by the NYPD because a passenger wanted to be discharged in a lane and someone had a quota to fill that day. Toss in the addition of protected bus lanes on 1, 2, and Lexington Ave’s and the midtown bus lanes on Madison Ave being expanded from rush hours to all hours, and the ripple effect from the changes ended up affecting more than just those who had to make a living on the same streets that were becoming less and less spacious for motor vehicles.

So where did Broadway fit into all of this?

To put it simply, it didn’t.

North of Union Square, Broadway was a diagonal street that also served as a double-edged sword. When it crossed 5 or 6 Avenue’s, the result was a square that allowed for more sun and air to reach down to the streets, as well as for buildings like the Flatiron that were able to break free of the rectilinear mold that so many others were cast in. Where Broadway messed things up was in the traffic flow, as intersections that were two-phased were now forced to become three-phased. None of the streets were given sufficient time to get all of the traffic through the intersections. This called for some changes to the layout of Broadway and during Bloomberg’s tenure, an extraordinarily bold step was taken:

Broadway would be closed off to all traffic.

This didn’t take place along the entire length of it but through Times and Herald Squares, Broadway would no longer flow through them as it did for generations. There was significant outcry at first as drivers bemoaned the loss of more street space and were fearful of increased traffic on parallel routes. Even though this change was made before I started my current occupation, I could see that some of these fears were justified. Times Square is a complete mess now, as the increased space given for sidewalks has been nowhere near enough to compensate for the massive expansion in retail and office space that recent rezoning has allowed for. It’s torn apart nearly every night and since only one street flows out of it now, backups are quite common well after Midnight on most nights, when most of the rest of the City has quieted down.

As for 6 Ave, it flows better through Herald Square as the green phase on the lights is longer than it was when Broadway still went through it. While it is a plus, most of the rest of the Avenue of the Americas still gets congested during rush hours as the office buildings along it empty out and the buses jockey along the right-hand side of the street to get ahead of each other. Where Broadway still messes up the pulse of the City is in front of Lincoln Center, as it has to content with Columbus Ave and 65 St for valuable green time where they all cross. Since Broadway is a two-direction street north of Columbus Circle, further changes are not likely along it. Where changes will be seen is in how those outside of Manhattan will get from Point A to Point B.

The concept of Select Bus Service, which allows for express buses in dedicated lanes has taken off in the Outer Boroughs in the last few years and will probably be expanded under Bill de Blasio. If it gets people out of their vehicles, that’s great but already there has been an outcry along Nostrand Ave in Brooklyn as only *one* lane can now be used by cars that make their way down it. As New York grows in population and more people move to those Outer Boroughs, the ideas that first took root in Manhattan will branch out down major streets one by one. The difference is that Manhattan has a density seen in only a few other places on the Earth, while the Outer Boroughs have a lot more room to work when it comes to converting the layout of the streets there. Subways and until recently, metered Taxi service are lacking in many commuter and immigrant neighborhoods which has made the expansion of buses the preferred method of mass transit growth throughout much of the City. While many in Manhattan asked for SBS, many outside of it haven’t and it remains to be seen whether complete streets will be opposed more as the program takes off any further. Social engineering was easier in crowded Manhattan but in a less dense environment, would the conversion be met as receptively?

Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about that as the county known as New York still remains my home base and the one that I’ve gotten to know the best. One of the reasons I loved walking around it when I was still getting to know the layout of neighborhoods was that the traffic was so bad, and this was before the boom in tourism, drop in crime, and growth in people returning to New York from the suburbs led to more vehicles on the streets of the Big Apple. The number of yellow cabs has been capped for years, even though that’s set to change as more Outer Borough Taxis are added to the mix and the 1,500 medallions that were recently sold come online. It’s only a matter of time before Bus and bike lanes are expanded and more turn restrictions are added along the two-way crosstown rues like 23 and 34 Sts. Of course, emergency vehicles and the NYPD can turn wherever they want, but who’s going to ever pull *them* over?

I couldn’t imagine having to learn Manhattan by foot now, as Citi Bikes have permeated into every nearly nook and cranny south of Central Park and the attitudes of those riding them have threatened to make even the most relaxed of cabdrivers want to teach them a lesson or two. The calmness of backwater neighborhoods has been replaced by a frenzy that will only see temporary dips during the next recession, only to grow even further as upzoning results in more people needing to get around with less room to do so.

Someday when I’m not driving anymore, I’ll pick up where I left off in the ’90’s and set to re-explore what I can on foot. It won’t be the same as then, as everyone has their heads buried in their phones now and would rather let their apps be their brains instead of learning in ins and outs of neighborhood nuances on their own. I will fight the good fight and do my best to go where I want when I want, as more plazas, fences, security barriers, and closings will be put into place, all in the name of “security”, “flow”, “throughput”, and “efficiency”. The City I grew up with is still the one I desperately hold onto, even as it’s being remade into a playground for those who are totally unaware of the way things used to be. I know full well that I can’t go back, but I’ll refuse to go go forward without being dragged into the future. I can only hope that the planners and leaders of tomorrow take into account all modes of transit and show consideration for those who need to make a living on the street, no matter how they choose to get around.

“Don’t you think that bikes need some of the street too?”

“Look at this traffic. Do you think that anyone needing an ambulance is going to have one come on two wheels?”

Broadway, interrupted - Herald Square

Broadway, interrupted – Herald Square

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Tagged

Tagged - Long Island City

Tagged – Long Island City

“Hey there, where to?”

“30 Ave. in Astoria.”

“No problem – we’ll take the Upper Level of the Bridge and down 21 St. Is that alright?”

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

“I’m guessing you work over at NBC since I picked you up right in front of it.”

“That would be correct.”

“What department are you in?”

“I’m in news.”

“Well, since you’re in news and I’m taking you home to Queens, I’m sure you heard about what happened earlier today over at 5 Pointz.”

“Actually, I do international. What went on there?”

(I proceeded to hand her my phone, with the pictures I took on my way to the garage of the building.)

“Really?!?!???”

“Yeah, really.”

Planes, Trains, and changes - Long Island City

Planes, Trains, and changes – Long Island City

It came quite a shock to New Yorkers a few weeks back when they woke up one morning and saw the reports that 5 Pointz had been whitewashed over in the middle of the night. I actually worked that same night and nearly went right by it on my way back to Greenpoint, after getting the junk washed off of my cab at 4:30 in the morning. Because that section of Long Island City is nearly dark after hours, I had no idea of what went on there until my alarm went off, I pulled up Twitter, and saw that it was trending. At first, I was hoping that the Landmarks Preservation Commission had finally designated the building hands-off to developers but the first image that came up edifice completely painted over in white, done under the cover of overnight darkness.

Artists, preservationists, locals, and New Yorkers who had followed the saga for years where shocked at what was considered by many to be an artistic crime. Sure, it seemed likely that the building was going to come down sometime early next year, another victim of the gentrification’s relentless pursuit into the Outer Boroughs. This was different than battles of the past though, since 5 Pointz had a facade that was exclusively turned over for the use by graffiti artists from around the Big Apple as well as around the world.

There was a big gathering there over the Summer to celebrate 40 years of Hip Hop as many DJ’s, artists, dancers, and those from the Boogie-down Bronx back in the day made their way over to celebrate a musical movement that rose up out of the decay of postwar New York and redefined what Americans coast-to-coast listened to and ultimately, embodied in their dress, manner, and style. There were rumors at the time that the complex’s days were numbered but it wasn’t until a few months later that another rally was held at the same place, This time around, it was with the specific intent of gathering support to landmark the building and send a message to developers that they had to look elsewhere to sink their capital when it came to upgrading former (and sometimes still) industrial neighborhoods.

Jammin' - Long Island City

Jammin’ – Long Island City

Yours truly went to both rallies – partially because of historical interest, partially out of curiosity, and partially to do whatever was possible to save 5 Pointz from the wrecking ball.

“So what do we have here?”

“Signed subway maps, a petition, shirts, have a look…”

“This one’s big enough – I like mine baggy. What lines do you have?”

“A and 7, both in black and white.”

“I’ll take the 7 since runs right by this place.”

“That’s what most people say. It’ll be $25.”

“Here you go. What’s your name by the way?”

“Panic.”

“Well, thanks for signing this. Good luck with everything!”

A few minutes later, turntables 1 and 2 stopped for some speeches by anyone who wanted to express how they felt about the impending decision on the sites fate. I couldn’t say to listen to them since call time at work beckoned but all I can remember was the disgust at all of the “glass tissue boxes that were popping up around the City” and a mantra that Yogi Berra would have been proud to hear:

“It’s ain’t over until we say it’s over!”

The crowd cheered  in a scene somewhat reminiscent out of The Warriors, but it turns out to be short-lived as I passed by it a few days later.

Most of the building was whitewashed that first night and the Police said that anyone throwing up a tag on it from there on out would be subject to arrest. Sure enough, a few teenagers learned that the hard way later on that week as they attempted to put their name on it with a simple writing utensil. A Pyrrhic victory was the last thing that anyone who danced, laughed, and snapped away that afternoon would have described what took place but once the writing wasn’t on the wall anymore, that’s when it was truly over.

Hendrix - Long Island City

Hendrix – Long Island City

The owner said that he wanted it cleaned up so when demolition started, no one would have to bear the sight of watching years of tags, murals, and illustrations meet their demise. Instead, it was done in the same manner as so many heists over the centuries – in the middle of the night while no one had any advance notice. No, it wasn’t Washington crossing the Delaware but one could make the argument that the British were just as surprised as I was when they woke up and realized that their cause was for nothing.

Or was it?

Opponents of the works that were applied over the last 20 years would make the claim that graffiti is *not* a true art form, as its very anti-authoritarian and method of application ensures that its days are extremely numbered, before a piece is painted over or cleaned up. While no one will ever see anything from Panic hanging in the Met, that doesn’t take away from the significance of what was there. 5 Pointz was famous because of where it was, what it represented, and what it challenged artists to do:

Which would be improving their craft.

Most graffiti that popped up overnight in the 1970’s was just a simple tag, that everyone wanted to leave behind. It wasn’t art as much as it was a signature – a way for those without a voice to leave one, if only for self-satisfaction. Real art took time and space, which usually ended up on the side of a building or on a Subway car that would make its way to Manhattan for the oppressors to see. The greatest works of graffiti that are in my New York History books or on Youtube clips are only there now and not in actual existence anymore, washed away as part of a relentless assault on quality-of-life crimes that culminated with the election of Rudolph Giuliani in 1993.

 

Work in Progress - Long Island City

Work in Progress – Long Island City

 

That wasn’t the case at 5 Pointz. Artists took their time planning what they created, and executed their work as painstakingly as possible, knowing that being to be able to display their work there was one of the highest achievements that a street artist could boast. One of the biggest lamentations after the whitewashing of the facade was that thousands of New Yorkers who took the 7 train in and out of Manhattan every day would no longer see the newest pieces as the Subway rose and fell out of the Steinway Tunnels. That was one of my fondest memories of attending the nearby Taxi School, broke and desperate for money as my loans from Columbia were coming due.

No, graffiti didn’t die with the demise of 5 Pointz but its role with the City at large has been re-examined as the site is prepared to make way for luxury condo towers. The British artist Banksy put a piece up a night a few months back, sparking off a frenzy as to where he would strike next and how much his creations were worth. Real artists were not down with his schtick though, as they merely painted for the love of the end result. While I never fully understood some of the angst and anger behind what was drawn, I could appreciate something that they poured their heart as soul into, just as much as I loved and will always admire the works of Money, Mondrian, and Warhol.

Rest in Power - Long Island City

Rest in Power – Long Island City

The greatest tragedy was that the art forms that came to prominence one night at a time under the cover of darkness took its greatest blow in the same conditions as well. Whether anyone questioned the legitimacy of the art itself only had to look at all the Police that were there at the Save 5 Pointz rally and in the weeks afterwards, as it turned from a Mecca of art to one of mourning. Like everything else in the city that has been a victim of creative destruction over the generations, the community will find a new cause, a new rallying point and maybe, a permanent home where a museum can flourish for future generations. 5 Pointz will probably serve as a smaller and more poignant reminder of what Penn Station did for the greater Metropolitan region 50 years ago. While the mistakes made on the West Side of Manhattan are finally starting to be undone, it’s not too late to learn from what took place in Long Island City a few weeks back. Graffiti is as much an art form in New York as the music that came out of Tin Pan Alley or the Swing that flourished in Harlem during the Jazz Age and needs to be commemorated just as much as those places were as their respective neighborhoods changed during wave after wave of capital and demographic renewal.

The real tragedy will be if 5 Pointz suffered an ignominious fate without helping to win the war of urban artistic preservation.

Whitewashed - Long Island City

Whitewashed – Long Island City