Jan Gehl and Enrique Penalosa often talk about the important role that public space plays in a healthy, functioning democracy. I was reminded of that last night as joyous Brooklynites took to the streets for spontaneous celebration following Barack Obama’s election victory. This was the scene at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Union Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn last night around 1:15 a.m.
By that time I’m guessing there were about 350 people out there chanting "O-BA-MA" and "Yes We Can!" People were cheering and high-fiving the drivers of horn-honking taxis and garbage trucks. Things were festive, conflict-free and traffic was managing to squeeze its way through the intersection without any real problem. Until….
…the NYPD showed up. In their apparently never-ending quest to keep the city safe for vehicular throughput, the cops seemed intent on turning a peaceful, Park Slopey neighborhood celebration into a mini-riot (likewise, over in Williamsburg). If the goal was to keep the streets clear for traffic, the genius officer, above right, didn’t help matters when he stopped a limo driver in the middle of the street and wrote him a summons. Another officer cranked up his most obnoxious siren and slowly drove his cruiser into the throng in an apparent attempt to push people back on to the sidewalk. This had the effect of dispersing people into the middle of the intersection and putting an angry edge on the crowd.
Finally, someone at the precinct used his brain and decided to just cork the four intersections around Fifth and Union, diverting the small amount of late night motor traffic around what had become a kind of spontaneous town square. By 1:30 a.m. the neighborhood’s outpouring of democratic fervor was spent and the intersection was once again safe for gypsy cabs and private carting trucks.