Who Can Make Parks Car-Free? Commissioner Hoving Says: “Benepe”

hovings_happenings.jpgThis photo from the Parks Department vault depicts what appears to be a pavement painting during Thomas Hoving’s tenure as commissioner.

If New York City had a livable streets hall of fame, Thomas P. F. Hoving would be enshrined alongside heroes like Jane Jacobs. As Parks Commissioner under Mayor John Lindsay, Hoving spearheaded the original effort to reverse the onslaught of motor vehicle traffic in the city’s flagship parks, instituting the first car-free hours on the Central Park loop drive in 1966. It was a pioneering act of reclamation for pedestrians and cyclists.

Hoving died last week at the age of 78. In his later years, he remained a supporter of car-free parks. After meeting up with Hoving in 2003, car-free Central Park advocate Ken Coughlin received this email, in which the former commissioner explained exactly who has the legal authority to make New York City parks car-free. In light of the NYPD’s recent foray into traffic policy, the message is extremely timely.

The 1961 City Charter provisions stating that Traffic Commissioner is in charge of Traffic Flow but Parks Commissioner can select curb lines and park entrance gates are still in effect. Benepe needs no legislation, executive order or act of the almighty to close 24-7-365. He needs to get his courage perking.

ALL the arguments against any closing which will emerge today surfaced when I closed Central the first time, 6 a.m to 9 a.m. that Sunday

  • Traffic would jam from Tampa to Maine
  • NYC transport systems would collapse
  • Huge economic loss, Etc., etc.

But nothing happened.

In three months — you can even check to Parks Horti records — the trees on the drive flourished. It was as if a cloud of poison had been lifted from them.

Car carbon dioxide is like second-hand smoking. Which suggests that if permanent closing advocates use this as an argument Bloomberg can hardly be against it.

  • Wow! Maybe some day we’ll get another Parks Commissioner with vision.

  • fdr

    Robert Moses was a Parks Commissioner with vision.

  • For those of us who don’t know, I have one question, “Benepe who?!?!”

    Jen Benepe writes a good bike blog but I doubt she is to whom this post is referring.

    Ohhh… Adrian Benepe! The parks commissioner. Sorry, but I had to Google it!

  • Didn’t we always know this?

  • Hilary Kitasei

    Likewise a Park Commissioner with spine could protect the parkways.

  • Ken Coughlin

    For those unfamiliar with the history of car-free Central Park, there’s an ironic twist. The current Parks Commissioner is Adrian Benepe. His father is Barry Benepe, who in the 60s was a leader of the car-free park movement. The campaign that Barry Benepe helped lead resulted in the first car-free hours in the park, instituted by Thomas Hoving, the man who, before his death last week, said the younger Benepe has the power to close the park to cars if he wants to.

    I have also heard that Mayor John Lindsay planned to make the Central Park loop entirely car-free but that some forgotten crisis distracted him and he never got back to the matter.

  • Anon

    This is too high-profile a decision for the Parks Commissioner to make on their own, even if they wanted to. It’s the Mayor’s call. And if it wasn’t in PlaNYC, that means for whatever reason he isn’t interested.

  • I thought Adrian Benepe was a good witch, rather than a bad witch. (Isn’t he a committed cyclist?) Can anyone closer to this situation (Ken?) elaborate on what’s holding him back from making the park car-free? It seems like an obvious step, given his father’s history and his sister’s activist bike blog.

  • Doug

    That’s what’s amazing and what Hoving completely nails. You can’t smoke in a bar, even though anyone who didn’t want to be exposed to smoke could simply not go in — an oversimplification of the law, I know — but you can fill the park with cars while people who are playing and exercising are trying to get healthy. If smoking was allowed in bars, I could always choose to go to one that’s outside or that banned it on its own. But there’s only one Central Park. Where else in this city can we get clear, clean, open green space so that we can get some fresh air?

  • Thanks for the nice comments about my Uncle.

    I remember distinctly when Tommy closed the parks, he even had a citizen bike patrol for a little while. It was a different time, not better, just different.

    Even if the current Parks Commissioner had the courage, conviction, or the whatever, to stand up and actually just shit down the Parks to traffic 24/7/365, I am quite sure he would be escorted to the door at the Armory and looking for another job by sundown!

    A new commissioner would be promptly by mayor for life Bloomberg and the parks would be re-opened by the time the sun went up!

    Some how something like this would have to come from the top down and clearly the present administration could not give a good you know what about the parks or the environment for that matter!

    If they did we, the City of New York, would be more environmentally conscious about every single decision that affects the quality of life here, across the board; from the construction, to the recycling policies, to the noise level to name a few pet peeves of mine.

    Why anyone wants to live here anymore is a true puzzle to me and I have lived here my whole life!

  • link appears to be wrong! Sorry!

  • @John Hoving, after paragraph 2 why bother to mince words? 😉

    @Doug, there’s an interesting Neighborhood air quality graph/report released today by the City Health Dept indicating that Central Park is the only relatively clean breath of air we have in Manhattan.

    http://tinyurl.com/y8e4ls6

    But air quality isn’t the only reason for a car-free Central Park. It’s also about density. Not long ago I was knocked into traffic when I tried to pass a jogger who decided to make an unexpected turn. If it wasn’t for the fact that traffic happened to be stopped for one of the red lights I probably wouldn’t be here to whine about it. One recreational lane, or a recreational lane with a buffer simply isn’t enough for all the dog walkers, skaters, skateboarders, runners, and cyclists who use the park drive on a daily basis.

  • robert moses is the main reason why there are so many cars in new york city. he also made many of the bridges that run over his beloved “parkways” too short for the city buses of his time to go under, specifically so that inner city (african-american) kids couldn’t enjoy his new parks and beaches.

    yeah, he created a lot of parks in the city, but the dude did some serious damage and certainly wasn’t a saint.

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