Category: History

A Photo is Worth 729 Words, by Charles Romanow

Photo credits: Madeline Berry

Hundreds of years of development reveal a constantly changing skyscraper-studded Lower Manhattan skyline.  Modern flashy buildings rise while aged relics retreat into the Manhattan schist, the foundation allowing the man-made mountains to protrude.  A slight glimpse of nature hangs off the Financial District at Battery Park. Created by landfill, the manicured space includes a fort, statues, memorials and an unfettered view of the world beyond.  Lying against the East River sits a cluster of 1970’s office towers. Catering to the world’s financial leaders, the buildings’ and their tenants cling to the Financial District through triumph and terror, serenity and flooding.  On either side of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel entrance lie the International Mercantile Marine Company Building and Whitehall Building. Preserved artifacts each nearly a century old; they await time and surrounding structures to entirely overshadow them.  Built through landfill and enormous wealth, Battery Park City lies on Manhattan’s southwest corner. Sitting neatly between the Hudson River and West Street, the neighborhood’s peaceful streets host an indoor shopping mall and thousands of residents and workers.  West Street and FDR Drive enclose the remainder of Lower Manhattan. Inventions of Robert Moses, the frequently congested highways’ separate New Yorkers’ from the island’s most prosperous resource; water.

Lower Manhattan’s prominent location on the water sped the flow of development and travel.  Millions of people entered America through New York Harbor; gazing at the eternally impressive skyline.  Though once bringing hope to New Yorkers’, the sea creeps ever closer.

Hurricane Sandy flooded the Lower Manhattan skyline.  Sea level rise maps paint a startling picture of a waterfront ¼ mile inland from present.  Communities in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island face more imminent danger. Coney Island, the Rockaways and Midland Beach, like much of New York, developed because of proximity to water.  City government and residents’ face the impossible decision of whether to stay and fight the inevitable or retreat and allocate resources elsewhere. Due to Lower Manhattan’s historical presence and wealth of economic and infrastructural resources, fight they must.  Constructed walls and protections slow disaster while New Yorkers’ wait for miracles to appear beyond our lifetime. New York’s strongest asset becomes its greatest foe.

As sea level rise gradually shrinks the physical envelope of New York City, the universal nature of climate change brings the shared essence of life to the forefront.  The same process affects different corners of the Earth in similar ways. Though having the potential to divide, the existentialist force should instead inspire us to see similarities.  

The water adjacent to Lower Manhattan allows a view of the reflection of our creations.  Together, the most rewarding and hurtful pieces of life manifest themselves in New York. All visitors are able to experience the architectural landscape of the Financial District, but the benefits are not equally distributed.  The early flow of capital through New York Harbor fueled the construction of buildings throughout the City. Further exploration and creation of new markets led to larger and more profitable industries. Maintaining the growth we had become accustomed to required the development of new real estate ventures, such as Battery Park City and Hudson Yards.  Once the only place for capital and wealth in New York, the culture of Lower Manhattan spread across all three hundred miles of the City through real estate development and gentrification. The greater the flow to the top, the larger the divide from the bottom. Emma Lazarus famously stated to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  Masses continue to wander into and through New York City. Though no longer living in such crowded, squalid conditions life in New York City remains a battleground.

The photo of Lower Manhattan identifies various facets of New York City.  Once used as a fortification against invaders of Lower Manhattan, Governors Island now provides an oasis from the dense city it protected.  The fence on Governor’s Island obstructs the striking skyline.

The water splits the City while engulfing those closest to it.  Highways separate New Yorkers’ from the peace and tranquility of the Hudson and East Rivers.  The skyline of the Financial District creates an image of prosperity and peace, but blocks the view of poverty and crime beyond.  New York has remained resilient and innovative through natural and human-made terrors. The City’s future remains uncertain; belonging in the hands of all users of the City, particularly planners.


Article published in the Fall Issue of URBAN, Supra. You can access it here.


Times square has changed drastically but has always lacked a public space

Union Square is a square. Madison Square is a square too. Even Herald Square is a square. But Times Square is not a square. In fact, it is nothing but a glorified intersection. At least, that’s the way it had been until Broadway was closed to traffic in 2009, finally creating a desperately needed public square.

In this case, “square,” refers not to the four-sided polygon, but the dictionary definition of “an open area or plaza in a city or town, formed by the meeting or intersecting of two or more streets.” The fact is that Times Square had long been a square in name only; for decades it did not have an open plaza. For all of its length in Manhattan, Broadway forms a square with a public park or plaza wherever it crosses an avenue — Union Square at Fourth Avenue, Madison Square at Fifth Avenue, Herald Square at Sixth Avenue, and so on.

But where Broadway crosses Seventh Avenue, it intersects at such an acute angle that it creates only four median islands in the shape of a bowtie so narrow that they don’t usually appear on a map.

In the 19th century, the intersection lay at the heart of the city’s carriage-making district, and was called Longacre Square, after Long Acre Street in the carriage-making district of London. With no park or plaza, to call it a “square” was an overstatement that seems to have been made for consistancy’s sake, since the small roped-off medians were simply part of the unpaved streets. Just uptown, Broadway formed Columbus Circle at Eighth Avenue and public squares at Columbus, Amsterdam, and West End Avenues. But at Seventh Avenue, Longacre Square had no square.

The misnomer “Times Square” dates back to 1904, when New York Times owner Adolph Ochs urged Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. to rename Longacre Square after his newly built headquarters at the south end of the intersection. The building’s opening was marked with a celebration on January 1, 1905, an annual tradition that continues at this location to this day. In fact, the 25-story Beaux-Arts New York Times Headquarters at 1475 Broadway is still there. You’ve probably walked passed it, looked at pictures of it, even watched it on TV, but you’ve never really seen it. Today it’s vacant, plastered with concrete, covered with electronic signs and, on the anniversary of its New Year’s Eve opening celebration, topped by an enormous crystal ball.

City’s annual New Year’s celebration, but the Times headquarters marked the introduction of an invention in 1910 that would define Times Square’s identity to this day: the electronic news ticker. People would gather by the thousands on the sidewalks and the small medians in front of the Times Building to get news and play-by-play accounts of sporting events. The electronic billboards soon followed in 1917. During a big sporting event or New Year’s Eve, the sidewalks of Times Square would become so flooded with people that the intersection was shut down to traffic; there was just no place for people in Times Square.

To accommodate more pedestrian traffic, in 1937 the City paved the largest parcel at the north end of the bowtie and created “Duffy Square,” named after WWI chaplain Father Francis Duffy, whose statue remains there today. In 1945, a military recruiting office occupied the small parcel at the south end of the bowtie sometimes known as “military island.” The recruiting station is still there, but Father Duffy’s plaza did not last; in 1973 theater ticket vendor TKTS opened a ticket booth there that overwhelmed the small plaza.
With little pedestrian space, Times Square’s congestion problems continued. With over 356,000 pedestrians and 50,000 cars passing though every day, Times Square in 2009 was the most congested intersection in New York, yet one of Manhattan’s most vibrant public spaces. Despite this, it hardly had any spaces for people. While there were over seven times as many pedestrians in Times Square as automobiles, 90% of the space was allocated for cars. Both Broadway and Seventh Avenue topped the list of deadliest streets for pedestrians for the period 2007-2009. In 2009, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan announced a $1.5 million project that would close Broadway to vehicle traffic from 42nd to 47th streets and transform it into a public plaza.

The idea was to create a “safer environment for pedestrians, facilitate traffic flow along Seventh and Sixth Avenues, and create new public plazas.” Initially no more than lawn furniture in the street, the changes became permanent in early 2010 with the installation of permanent planters, tables, and chairs. Although the changes never achieved all the traffic reductions promised, pedestrian fatalities sharply declined, and over an acre of public space was repurposed for pedestrians on Broadway. While the problem of congestion is far from solved, for the first time in its history, Times Square is a proper square…a bowtie-shaped square, that is.

By Alex Wallach

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