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Midtown, Repurposed

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Midtown, Repurposed

New York’s usually strained public spaces are performing a new role. May 28, 2020
Covid-19
New York

Midtown Manhattan is not meant for walking and sitting. Of course, people walk—before the coronavirus, sidewalks thronged with millions of pedestrians daily, spilling into streets to squeeze past one another. And people sat, as a respite from their walking. But neither walking nor sitting was the goal.

Until mid-March, midtown’s walkers, heading to work or meetings or lunch, moved about freely and quickly. Tourists had their own walking patterns—stopping in the middle of the street to look at maps on their phones. Staring down at the Rockefeller ice rink, taking a selfie, check. Staring up at the Empire State Building, kids smiling for the family picture, check. People sat in midtown’s pocket parks and plazas, but only for a short break, not as leisure.

Now, New York City between Eighth and Lexington Avenues, 57th and 34th Streets, is likely the easiest place in the region to get some exercise while observing social distancing. Unlike on the Upper East Side and in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, midtown is not crowded with residents seeking to-go cocktails or ice cream. Unlike East Harlem or the South Bronx, midtown isn’t newly plagued by a doubling in shootings, absent much policing. Too few people live here, not too many.

Today’s midtown is dotted by its few residents and stray curiosity-seekers from other neighborhoods, looking for exercise and an uncrowded place to sit. Fifth Avenue is free and clear for cyclists, with only near-empty buses plying the curbs. Wares from luxury Prada bags to fast-fashion Zara dresses sit behind their thick glass, out of date, their season expired. Godiva chocolate stores warn holiday dawdlers that “Easter is coming,” while paper “Closed” signs in retail and restaurant doors promise that they’ll be back for business . . . on March 31.

Midtown’s usually overcrowded public spaces are being put to different uses now. In Times Square, a mother watches two small children chase each other around. Normally, a New York parent would never dream of taking her children here for recreation, but it’s a good bet these days. A Times Square for New Yorkers, not for tourists, is far less crowded than Central Park. Bryant Park, too, has a growing number of people at its well-distanced tables and on its freshly opened grass: a New Yorker meeting a friend for the first time in months, a homeless man sitting, an office-building security guard on a break, a remote worker typing away on a laptop.

Many “privately owned public plazas,” or POPS, are shuttered, and likely illegally. In return for a 1960s-era zoning bonus that lets developers build taller buildings, managers are supposed to keep these small spaces open to the public. Yet enforcement is complaint-based, and it would be harsh to complain. Office owners are bleeding money and building security is short-staffed. Many such plazas, awkward spaces on a busy day, don’t have enough foot traffic now to justify an additional security burden.

The newly refurbished plaza outside the General Motors building, at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, is an exception. A well-designed and well-sunned expanse of marble and water, it’s open and busy. Midtown’s strollers sit there, talking and reading in the sun by the bubbly water. The Apple Store cube, usually the focus of pedestrian activity in the area, stands uninhabited, save for a guard.

Rockefeller Center, the heart of midtown, makes a valiant attempt at normalcy. In late March, it closed off its Channel Gardens to pedestrians, via clunkily placed metal gates, and turned off its fountains. As the Depression-era complex predates the POPS zoning provision, Rock Center can, legally speaking, do what it likes with its property. Still, it was disconcerting to watch the March tulips wither in their boxes from behind the gates.

Just as mysteriously as the complex closed the gardens, in early May, it reopened them and let the water flow again. It was heartening to walk back through, and to see that Rock Center has continued its rigorous seasonal planting schedule, replacing purple and yellow tulips with bright pink May periwinkles. Grand Central Terminal, while open, has closed off many entrances with metal gates, and just outside of midtown, Lincoln Center has cordoned off its own vast, fountained plaza and grass—both jarring sights.

Mid-Manhattan, usually the center of wealth for a tristate region with a radius of 100 miles, is indefinitely crippled. It will be months, if not until next year, before white-collar workers crowd back onto public transportation to come to their offices, and they may do so in a permanently changed way—say, working on-site three days a week instead of five. Tourists are likely to stay away, too. Government restrictions on global travel hinder overseas visitors, and with theaters and museums still closed, there is not much to do besides walk around. But midtown’s well-designed public spaces are working. Without Times Square and Rockefeller Center, more people would crowd the parks or leave town.

As New York gradually awakens from its coma, midtown will need even more public spaces. Already, as the weather warms, Bryant Park is on the cusp of being too crowded for comfortable social distancing. (Just south of midtown, Madison Square’s lawn is overcrowded.) The city should dot midtown with outdoor dining, drinking, and recreation districts, with plenty of room for generous distancing, and ample safe lanes to walk and bike there from other Manhattan neighborhoods. The area’s restaurants and retail shops have no prayer of surviving unless New Yorkers within a reasonable distance can eat and shop outdoors, on repurposed curbs and traffic lanes.

For the contrarians among us who make midtown our home, it will be yet another strange season—but not a miserable one. Through terror attack and snowstorm, blackout and hurricane, financial crisis and record boom, we’ve never seen core Manhattan like this. The hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who rushed to rent country homes and beach houses to wait out the plague have missed the real solitude—in the emptied-out city, among the silent skyscrapers.

Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

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