Public space is both the glory and shame of New York. New Yorkers glory in the liveliness of our sidewalks and plazas, the vitality that sets us apart from other big cities where reliance on the automobile has reduced the streets to a mere means of getting about. Our shame is that we’ve allowed fear and filth to subvert one of our most important assets.
The slow subversion of civility in New York’s public spaces has caused even diehard New York loyalists, black and white, to think about what was once unthinkable—leaving. This is not merely a passing phase, a response to the economic downturn. Rather, it is a long-term trend that actually intensified during the boom of the l980s. In a December 1991 New York Times survey, more than half the adult residents polled said they had plans to leave. The Times also found that pessimism about the city’s future, which is closely tied to the sense of social breakdown, has been increasing steadily since 1985.
Traditionally, the Big Apple’s boosters have thought of themselves as tart yet tender, driven yet tolerant and compassionate. That self-conception was long reflected in their regard for city spaces. New Yorkers saw their own relentless energy reflected in what Jane Jacobs described as the “intricate ballet” of the streets. New York’s dynamic diversity—its mix of touts and tribes, characters and con men—gave total strangers a shared satisfaction in watching the drama of daily life unfold in our parks and plazas. For many, the public character of their private selves was revealed in the pleasure they took in being described as “streetwise.”
Contemptuous of conformity, New Yorkers were happy to draw on the energy of “the street,” even as they were wary of being drawn too deeply into the depravity they sometimes glimpsed. That balance between pride in being part of the action and prudence in interacting with strangers has been unsettled by the sense of menace that now too often pervades our public places.
Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American City, has set the terms for discussion of public space ever since, argued that “lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.... The tolerance, the room for great differences among neighbors, are possible and normal only when the streets of great cities have built-in equipment allowing strangers to dwell in peace together on civilized but essentially dignified and reserved terms.” New York’s reputation for rudeness notwithstanding, there was much to the image of a street ballet in which thousands of individuals rushed past each other, guided by the unspoken assumptions of an urban choreography. But the grace of the ballet has too often been replaced by something resembling roller derby. This new “in your face” assault on what were once widely shared sensibilities is symbolized by the bold-letter T-shirts: “It’s a thing—you wouldn’t understand” (the blank is filled in with the name of the preferred ethnic group).
New Yorkers understand that entering public places leaves them open to what have become the indignities of everyday interaction. Walking in the park outside city hall, the New Yorker faces an aesthetic assault in the form of mounds of swirling garbage. In the East Village and on Upper Broadway, “thieves’ markets” set up by predatory peddlers block the sidewalks. On nearly every street, homeless men panhandle aggressively, often “rough tailing” passersby. Even those who drive must pay a toll to not-so-subtle shakedown artists, the “squeegie men.” Writer Gil Schwartz tells of picking up his daughter from a play-date: “I told another parent we were moving out of the city. ’Why?’ he asked. I quietly took my child, stepped over the wino sleeping in the vestibule, [and left].”
The fear of what nineteenth-century journalists called the “dangerous classes” and Marxists described as the “lumpenproletariat” now directs both private choices and public policy. Individuals organize their days to minimize unpleasant encounters. When I asked a variety of New Yorkers—men and women, black and white—about how they viewed public space in the city, they told me the distress of their daily rounds could be measured by the number of times they were “hassled” between home and work. Not surprisingly, a 1989 Metropolitan Transit Authority survey of subway riders found that nearly half chose to stay home at night rather than contend with the fear, not to mention the crime, associated with public places.
Increasingly, fear has turned the city outside in. Author Michael Davis writes that a “second civil war,” which began in the long hot summers of the 1960s, has been institutionalized into the very structure of urban space. For example, the midtown Marriott hotel—well known for its vast interior atrium—has its lobby on the seventh floor, sealed off from the “street people” below in Times Square. Similarly, the new Zeckendorf Tower deliberately cuts itself off from adjacent Union Square Park. The sole entrance to the complex is hidden on 15th Street. On a grander scale, projects like Battery Park City, with their vast internal expanses, effectively create private versions of public space. All of these projects, organized around the concept of “defensible space,” illustrate how urban planning, both public and private, is now driven in considerable measure by attempts at “insulation.”
Journalist Phil Weiss reports that new buildings in the open city are now “filled with gates, guards, and solid planes [to] funnel you this way and that,” so designed to facilitate surveillance. Without such measures, he writes, “in a matter of days drug dealers can take over a public space, even a public space that is privately owned, [and] make it theirs.” In Battery Park City, 32 surveillance cameras linked to 28 VCRs monitor the entrances and stairwells of 17 State Street. “New York wasn’t supposed to be this way,” Weiss writes. “License was one of the reasons you came here.”
In the Progressive era, roughly the first two decades of the twentieth century, New York’s public places were largely reclaimed from the “dangerous classes.” Progressive institutions like the settlement house, sanitation corps, juvenile court, and recreation leagues later made possible the full integration of new immigrants and the victims of industrial society into the mainstream of New York life. Indigenous organizations of the working poor, such as fraternal associations, trade unions, and local churches, played a similar role, channeling personal hostilities into collective action. As the urban poor were assimilated into the working and middle classes, the city became an ocean of passable public behavior with a few islands of incivility. (Today, by contrast, we speak of islands of civility in an ocean of incivility.) Deviance of the most extreme sort was largely confined to skid row and to mental institutions, which, whatever their faults, were an improvement over the earlier practice of simply jailing the mentally ill.
It was the Progressives who built the vast network of public toilets that once allowed New Yorkers to enjoy walking the city in comfort. But we can no longer even maintain what these late-Victorians and their working-class allies once built, as anyone looking for a public toilet can attest.
Beginning roughly a quarter-century ago, the work of the Progressives and their New Deal successors was undone. In a great but now all too obviously failed experiment, the Progressive ideals of integration and uplift that had served the city so well were largely abandoned as repressive mechanisms of middle-class social control. In the great wave of moral deregulation that began in the mid-1960s, the poor and the insane were freed from the fetters of middle-class mores. The “revolution” achieved some important gains: It freed people unjustly imprisoned in mental hospitals, made the police a bit less highhanded, and gave welfare recipients the dignity afforded by due process rights. But like every revolution, it had its victims. In the new climate in which drug use was redefined as a “victimless crime” and purity of legal procedure took precedence over the safety of the community, people who had once been shackled by the inequities of the law found themselves trapped by a pervasive lawlessness. Delivered into the tender mercies of the streets, the most vulnerable among us have suffered immeasurably. Their suffering now overwhelms our public life.
When the police were withdrawn from the neighborhoods and the social workers pulled out of the projects, skid row behavior and a sense of menace extended outward to include larger and larger portions of the city. The attempt to eliminate arbitrary authority resulted in the elimination of almost all stabilizing authority. The upshot, as a woman enraged by the litter in front of her apartment building explained, is that “you feel you’re all alone when you ask someone not to drop garbage on the sidewalk.”
The collapse of common standards first threatened minority neighborhoods and then spread to ethnic “villages” in the outer boroughs. Cosmopolitan Manhattanites first ignored the problem, then dismissed concerns about it as a not-so-thinly-disguised expression of bigotry. But as decay, disorder, and the greater dangers they portend spread geographically, they spread up the class structure as well. While it was once possible for New Yorkers to enjoy the city by staying out of specific areas, there is now, as one Brooklynite put it, “almost no place to run, no place to hide.”
As the fabled images of “tapping feet on 42nd Street” have been displaced by the almost Dickensian despair of New York’s suffering street people, the connections between our identities as New Yorkers and our public places have also been severed. Residents now tend to define themselves against their surroundings, and thus against the city that once inspired them. James Bowman’s review of Bret Easton Ellis’s recent novel American Psycho captures the current cynicism. “The book,” writes Bowman, “unintentionally poses a new idea for crime fiction”—the murderer who has no problem disposing of bodies “because no one can see them against the background of New York’s moral and physical squalor.”
Yet all is not lost. There are some signs of renewal and regeneration, and of what, for want of a better term, might be described as nascent neo-Progressivism. Some of the civic spirit of Progressivism, if not its specific policies, is being recreate in efforts to restore and revive one of the city’s greatest assets, its parks.
New York’s flagship parks were designed after the Civil War by Frederick Law Olmstead, the Mugwump, who saw pleasing public spaces as both a balm for the injuries of industrialization and a means to calm the “rough element of the city.” The parks, he hoped, would restore some of the civic “communicativeness” that had been lost in a rapidly growing city of strangers. Olmstead inspired the Progressives, who built on his ideas with the “playground movement,” the Outdoor Recreation League, and the movement for children’s gardens.
For the Progressives, the parks were an irreplaceable part of a “livable city.” In the century between the early 1870s and the early 1960s—the period linking the accomplishments of Olmstead to those of Robert Moses—the parks expanded almost continuously. But in the late 1960s, they came to be viewed as almost the first bit of ballast to be tossed overboard in an emergency. Undercut first by the shift of money into social spending, and then by the budget cuts of the mid-1970s, the city’s 26,000 acres of parks and playgrounds were deprived of the funds needed for basic maintenance, let alone long-term capital investment. During the fiscal crisis, staff was cut from 6,200 to 3,850, and morale declined as well.
Ironically, it was precisely because the parks were so vulnerable that they became the focus of new public/private initiatives. For most agencies of the city government, the mid-1970s “crisis of the old order” was little more than a brief, unfortunate interlude of belt-tightening and fiscal reorganization, which resulted in little change in the way the government delivered services. But the parks were different. The first steps were taken under Parks Commissioner Martin Lang when the fiscal crisis hit. Lang encouraged the formation of “Friends of the Parks” organizations and extended help to the community garden groups that had already sprung up. But it was under Gordon Davis’s tenure as Parks Commissioner from 1978 through 1983 that restructuring began in earnest.
Davis and his successor, Henry Stern, upgraded the quality of management, spun off the zoological society and golf courses, and reached out to fledgling community organizations concerned with the parks. Davis, who has been described as “the first of the modern parks commissioners,” also created the highly visible new post of Central Park administrator in order to decentralize management and provide a focus for local fund-raising. At the same time, Davis was instrumental in joining with the Friends of Central Park, headed by Elizabeth Rogers, to initiate the Central Park Conservancy, a group that was to become a model for community involvement around the city and the country.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Conservancy was joined by a number of other organizations dedicated to restoring the democratic promise of New York’s parks, playgrounds, and gardens. Among the most important of the “revival” and “reintegration” organizations was the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, which represents eighty community organizations including the Green Guerrillas, the Friends of Prospect Park, and the older, but reinvigorated, Parks Council.
While both funding and faith in government were declining, these groups initiated public/private partnerships to achieve what the city alone could not. The Central Park Conservancy raised $64 million during the 1980s. Under the leadership of its president, Elizabeth Barlow, who also served as the city’s Central Park administrator, the Conservancy was providing more than half of the park’s operating funds and underwriting more than half of its work force. The Conservancy became the model for groups established to support Prospect, Riverside, Flushing Meadows-Corona, Van Cortlandt, and Pelham Bay parks.
Private involvement in the large parks has naturally garnered the most attention. But from the South Bronx to downtown Brooklyn, community groups are increasingly adopting small parks and playgrounds as well. The Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, led by Tom Fox, pioneered a grass roots version of the public/private partnership. Just as the Conservancy has taken over from the city the care of trees, lawns, and plants, neighborhood groups have taken over abandoned lots and parks, many of which are tiny and have been turned into gardens. Almost a quarter of the city’s 1,490 parks, mostly the smallest ones, are cared for by community groups in cooperation with the city’s Operation Green Thumb. These efforts cultivate character as well as flowers. They catalyze neighborhood energies and can become an emblem of pride for local communities. These are efforts that can only grow in importance during the current recession since the city has already reduced park funding, proportionately, to the lowest levels of the twentieth century.
Tupper Thomas, administrator of Prospect Park, has been widely praised for her ability to get citizens involved in the parks at a time when government in general is held in barely disguised contempt. “Parks are places where people can make a difference,” says Thomas. Describing how local mechanics and carpenters had donated their skills and services, she called the parks “an outlet for the borough and local pride” that can’t be tapped by a centralized government.
In the carefully studied case of Central Park, the public/private partnership has produced payoffs in public perception. In 1982, research by William Kornblum and Terry Williams showed that only 56 percent of park users surveyed felt that Central Park was as safe as or safer than two years before. That number jumped to 72 percent in the 1989 survey. In the seven years between the two surveys, reported crime in the park dropped by 59 percent, robberies by 73 percent. The survey was taken before the infamous rape and assault of the Central Park jogger, but nonetheless fear persisted. Despite the improvements, 82 percent of the men and 71 percent of the women questioned in 1989 still said they had “felt victimized, harassed, [or] threatened in the park.” The people polled also called for more crime-prevention measures and less litter. A 1988 telephone survey conducted by the Department of Parks and Recreation’s Office of Operations Management and Planning likewise found that excessive litter and the absence of visible park employees were high on the list of complaints.
People grew to feel safer in Central Park in part because of the increased number of planned activities, designed on the assumption that good uses will drive out bad. “There is,” states the Conservancy’s 1990 annual report, “a direct correlation between the volume of park use and the perception of security.” But it’s more than a matter of perception. Malicious mischief, not to mention crime, Jane Jacobs explained, is most likely to flourish in a “vacuum,” that is, when the park has fewer “legitimate” uses.
In the case of smaller parks, Jacobs argued that one way to fill the vacuum is by developing mixed-use neighborhoods, where the interspersion of commercial and residential buildings guarantees an ongoing flow of street life. In recent years, William H. Whyte has applied Jacobs’s ideas about mixed-used neighborhoods to the parks and plazas of the center city. Through an almost microscopic study of how small parks and plazas are used, Whyte has shown that public spaces can be almost self-policing if they are in continuous use by ordinary citizens. In City: Rediscovering the Center, Whyte argues that “the biggest single obstacle to the provision of better spaces is the undesirables problem.” But he argues that measures like ridged benches designed to be impossible to lie down on and high fences designed to make space uninviting are often self-defeating. “Places designed in distrust get what was anticipated,” he says. “The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else.”
Whyte’s ideas have been applied by a new kind of organization—a consulting firm for sick spaces called the Project for Public Space. Begun by Fred Kent in 1975, the project employs “space therapists” whose job is to troubleshoot problem spaces. Architects, Kent says, often approach the design of plazas as a purely aesthetic exercise: They “like to build plazas as settings for their buildings, not as usable space.” The project associates approach the problem anthropologically: They observe, record, and analyze spaces, with an eye toward making them hospitable. Often they recommend small, simple changes: Replace fixed benches with movable chairs, for instance, to facilitate conversation and cordiality. The project’s microscopic methods have succeeded in reviving a number of “dead” or drug-ridden spaces, like midtown’s Exxon Park, by taking down fences, rearranging benches and chairs, and moving in vendors to attract a steady flow of people.
The notable successes of Whyte’s acolytes notwithstanding, there are sharp limitations to their “continuous use” model. Jane Jacobs’s most original proposal, wrote Lewis Mumford, was to turn the cities’ “chronic symptom of disorganization—excessive congestion—into a remedy, by deliberately enlarging the scope of the disease.” Jacobs loved the streets but had little use for the parks. They were for her little more than vacuums waiting to be filled by crime. But what, asks Mumford, of the individual who longs to get away from being bumped and scraped by crowds, what of the lone soul who longs to escape the throngs and take a solitary walk in the woods? Is there to be no place in the city for them? Mumford’s critique of Jacobs was written thirty years ago, but someone searching for serenity and solitude today would do well to avoid, for instance, the heavily wooded northern sections of Central Park, where solitude can only be pursued by risking robbery or worse.
Beauty is similarly inaccessible in Highbridge Park located in Washington Heights. In what amounts to geographic triage, the more beautiful and remote sections of Highbridge have been given over to hookers, drug dealers, the homeless, and chop shops for stolen cars. Because the park is in an immigrant area where pressing necessities seem to preclude effective community involvement, the people of Washington Heights have settled for using a portion of the park that receives regular police protection.
Whyte’s applications of Jacobs’s ideas have proven most effective for well-financed midtown plazas, where unconnected individuals come and go casually and where money to support attractive improvements is readily available from corporate proprietors. But a Parks Department already bearing the disproportionate brunt of budget cuts can spare little in the way of programming activity for local parks that lack financial support. And at times it is just as well. For neighborhood parks, congestion can create more conflict than comfort, unless there is a consensus about how the park should be used. Tompkins Square, which has aroused bitter antagonism on the Lower East Side, was, after all, precisely the kind of dense and continuously used space called for by Jacobs and Whyte.
What Whyte’s ingenious but limited solutions studiously avoid, and what the homeless crisis has made unavoidable, is the clash of values created around contested spaces. The problems of public space and the homeless have become inextricably intertwined. Last fall, an early-morning survey by the city found two thousand homeless living in parks in Manhattan alone. The controversy surrounding the closing of Tompkins Square Park and the expulsion of its homeless population is too extensive to go into here. But the same problem can be examined in miniature at two other Greenwich Village parks.
Jackson Park is a quarter-acre triangle bounded on two sides by Eighth and Greenwich avenues and blessed with what the New York Times describes as “24 pin oak trees” which “form a verdant canopy over a functioning fountain.” Beset by homeless addicts, drunks, and all manner of deviants, the park was cleared of undesirables, closed, and given a $1.2 million reconstruction. Fenced in as part of the rebuilding, the reclaimed park is largely maintained by the Friends of Jackson Park, who, with the cooperation of Parks Commissioner Betsy Gotbaum, organize volunteers to pick up litter and lock the park each day at dusk. The Parks Department unlocks the fence in the morning.
The West Village neighborhood bordering Abingdon Square Park and the adjacent Bleecker Street playground tells a different story. “We lost,” said Arthur Schwartz, a member of Community Board 2 and a founder of Bring Back Our Parks (BBOP), who worries that the local parks families depend on are “out of control.” On any given night, as many as forty people, many of whom appear to be mentally ill, homeless, transvestite prostitutes, as well as the usual drunks and drug addicts, sleep in the park and use its bathrooms for sex. BBOP members proposed the Jackson Park solution, a fence that could be locked at night. But they were denounced by local activists as “yuppie scum and yuppie speculators,” a cry also heard from East Village residents opposed to clearing out Tompkins Square.
“Park cleanup,” said Schwartz, a lawyer, “was a way for middle-class families to stay in the city. People wanted to put time, money, and effort into cleaning up and improving the park.” But the fencing plan, which Commissioner Gotbaum supported, was opposed by the West Village Committee, an organization founded in the 1950s by Jane Jacobs to oppose Robert Moses’s proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. The organization’s initial and effective idealism has curdled into a hostility to change so intense that some members even threatened to vandalize a temporary fence erected as an experiment. One of Schwartz’s neighbors warned him, “There are many ways to make this experiment unviable, and many of them involve hand tools.”
In the West Village Committee, two of Jacobs’s prime concerns came crashing up against each other. On the one hand, as Mumford had noted, “Her ideal city is mainly an organization for the prevention of crime . . . in which each householder, compelled to find both his main occupations and his recreations on the street, will serve as a watchman and policeman.” But Jacobs saw the surveillance of neighborly eyes as the best security, and feared the conformity and sterility she associated with planning and imposed regularity. Some of her heirs went further, opposing all efforts to contain disorder as attempts to enforce conformity. Frozen in old animosities, the West Village Committee “prefers the homeless to children,” Schwartz says. The upshot, he adds, is that many middle-class families are more likely to flee the city.
The revival of public parks in the 1970s and 1980s was paralleled by another innovation in the management of public space, the Business Improvement District. This experiment in decentralization may be even more important to the city’s long-term future. The Bryant Park Business Improvement District played a path-breaking role for BIDs, similar to that played for parks by the Central Park Conservancy.
Bryant Park, located next to the stately main branch of the New York Public Library, has long been a midtown sore spot. As early as the 1920s, New York Times accounts described the park as “poorly planned,” a “disgrace,” and an “eyesore.” No other city in the world, the Times asserted, “would have tolerated such a park in the heart of the most important district.” In 1934, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s new Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, redesigned Bryant with a plan that went against almost everything organizations like the Project for Public Space have subsequently learned about city spaces. Raised four feet above the street, the new park was isolated from the surrounding sidewalks, making it an ideal location for “undesirables.” “Bad design,” says landscape architect Chris Allen, “contributed to bad uses.” By the 1970s the park had become a haven for muggers and marijuana dealers who appreciated its isolation.
In the late 1970s, the Parks Council took the initiative by helping to bring music and art to the park on a part-time basis. Food kiosks, book stalls, and flower stands were introduced, followed by a booth selling discount music and dance tickets. But all this activity made the park safer only during the day. Andrew Heiskell, who was chairman of both Time Inc. and the library board, approached Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis about the need for more fundamental changes. Heiskell brought together people from the library board, the Parks Department, the Parks Council, and other civic groups, with financial support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, to create the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation.
The corporation, under the direction of Executive Director Daniel Biederman, institutionalized the advances initiated by the Parks Council and laid plans for the full-scale redesign of the park. The redesign has been carried out by the Bryant Park Business Improvement District, which was established in 1985. The Grand Central Partnership, a spin-off of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, was organized in 1988 to clean up the area around Grand Central Station.
The city has long benefited from local development corporations (LDCs) like those involved in the rehabilitation of Bryant Park, Union Square, and the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. The LDCs, like the recently developed BIDs, provide supplemental sanitation and security services. Both are involved in what has been described as “neighborhood space management.” The crucial difference is that while even effective, well-established LDCs like the Flatbush Development Corporation have to scramble for funds, the BIDs, which levy taxes on commercial property owners, are on a far firmer financial footing. In the words of the New York City Department of Business Services, the BIDs “use the city’s tax collection power to assess themselves. These funds are . . . returned in entirety to the BID,” so that “the program is one of self-help through self-taxation.”
Prior to 1981 there were three SADs (Special Assessment Districts), local entities which, like BIDs, had taxing power. Each of these districts required special legislation for its establishment. In 1981, Albany passed a law allowing for the creation, without separate legislation, of BIDs. The development and approval process, however, remains long and complex. There must, of course, be local support, and a majority of property owners must approve the assessments. Moreover, BIDs need to consult extensively with local community boards and win approval from the City Council, the Mayor, and the State Comptroller. Although establishing a BID can require years of effort and organization, there are now 24 of them in the city, including eight in Manhattan. Fifteen to twenty more are “deep in the planning process,” according to Barbara Wolff, assistant commissioner of the city’s Office of Business Development.
The BIDs vary widely in size and scope, from Grand Street, with a 1991 budget of just $65,000, to the Grand Central Partnership, with a budget of $5 million, a capital improvement program of more than $20 million, and an outreach program for the homeless. What they have in common is an attempt to reclaim public space from the sense of menace that drives shoppers, and eventually store owners and citizens, to the suburbs.
The problem for any business district is that it is forced to deal with wildly overlapping jurisdictions. Take the 14th Street BID, the city’s first, for example. It includes 14th Street between First and Sixth avenues as well as the streets adjacent to Union Square. Its area includes parts of five community boards, five sanitation districts, and three police precincts, not to mention several City Council and state legislative districts. The BID, explains Executive Director Joan Talbert, coordinates the city services coming into the area. It functions “like a little city hall,” says the owner of a small business in Talbert’s BID. “By watching out for the district all the time, it stays on top of the petty problems like crime and litter in a way that city bureaus can’t.” Another businessman likens the BID to “the cop on the beat and the guy with the broom keeping the streets clean.”
George Verdone, president of the 82nd Street BID in Jackson Heights, Queens, agrees. “We have a very great self-interest in maintaining the area,” he says. “Because we are not tied up in red tape, we are able to respond quickly to problems and make repairs before they become disasters.”
One such disaster is the “trash storm” of swirling litter—a visible sign of a city out of control, a city that can’t protect either its space or its citizens. “The BIDs are in part a response to the city’s neglect of basic services like sanitation,” says Emory Jackson, president of We Care About New York, an antilitter organization run largely with volunteer labor. Jackson, who has organized antilitter drives throughout the city, says that New Yorkers “perceive clean areas of the city as safe areas.” It’s a connection also made by neighborhood cleanup groups that have slogans such as “Don’t Move—Improve” and “Fight Crime and Grime.”
The BIDs are not without their critics. Some small businessmen object to paying additional taxes for basic services the city should be providing. Tenants object to provisions which can allow their landlords’ assessments to be passed on to them. More fundamentally, despite the fact that each BID is subject to extensive city oversight, critics complain that the BIDs represent a reversion to private, hence potentially unresponsive, government. Property owners, they note, are the largest bloc on the BID boards. These criticisms seem to be strongest in mid-Manhattan; Biederman, the guiding force behind the Bryant Park, Grand Central, and now the 34th street BIDs, has even been accused of being a “mini-Moses.” The potential unresponsiveness of BIDs is a legitimate concern, but it’s hard to argue that our overcentralized city government, one of a dying breed of command-driven bureaucracies, has been responsive to local needs.
There are still a few writers on public space who revel in the romance of what they describe as the continuous carnival of city street life. One is Professor Richard Sennett, who since the 1960s has been writing on the virtues of anarchic liberty. In his recent book, The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of the Cities, Sennett urges his readers to “transcend the need for order.” The “public realm,” he says, “should be gritty and disturbing rather than pleasant.” Sennett hopes for what might be described as the experimental life, life as it might be led in a postmodern novel. He writes that “urbanists might learn from modern artists who have experimented with notions of fragmentation and indeterminacy.” The irony which escapes him is that the experiment was carried out, the city’s Progressive legacy was dismantled, but it was an experiment that failed.
But as those who find the city “disturbing rather than pleasant” decamp—Sennett seems not to be able to find any resting place between the two—his is an increasingly lonely voice. What was once “funky” and “freaky” is now seen more often than not, even by children of the Sixties, as merely repellent. That change of heart suggests the possibility of a new consensus on the problems of public space, a consensus based on the need to respect individuality even while demanding a common standard of behavior.
The decline and partial revitalization of the city’s parks and other public places illustrate the intimate connection between the problems of public space and the structure of government. Under the current form of city government, the parks have been “rewarded” for their ingenuity and success by having their allocations cut sharply, while agencies that fail are rewarded with an increased percentage of the budget. Similarly, the crisis of public space is the result in large measure of the city’s well-meaning attempt to make the crooked straight by continuously shifting resources away from basic services like sanitation (and until recently street police patrols) and into social services. Here, too, failure has been rewarded. In the midst of the current cutbacks and almost all-pervasive gloom, it is all the more important to tell the story of the Parks Department and the BIDs—examples of how government can be made to work. They demonstrate what might be possible if the rethinking and restructuring they represent is carried out on a wider scale.