Fifth Avenue, 1909: So Long Promenade, Hello Motorway

1909_Fifth_Avenue.jpgImage: New York Times.

This image of Fifth Avenue unearthed by the Times’ Jennifer 8. Lee (nice headline!) is a fascinating relic from the dawn of the motoring age. The new geometry pictured here nicked 15 feet of sidewalk from pedestrians to make room for two traffic lanes. In one fell swoop, the balance of space shifted dramatically: Two 30-foot sidewalks and a 40-foot roadway became 22½-foot sidewalks and a 55-foot roadway. The insets show the sort of "imperfections" slated for elimination on the auto-friendly Fifth Avenue: terraces, stoops, gardens — the type of amenities that make streets more than simply thoroughfares to pass through.

Which got me wondering: A hundred years from now, how will we interpret images like this?

  • Pursuant

    “That’s what streets looked like before we had pods.”

  • Headline from the not so distant future?

    Fifth Avenue, 2009: So Long Motorway, Hello Promenade?

    The thing about popular sentiment is that it changes. One can imagine the reclamation of that space for people, whereas a few years ago that was inconceivable.

  • Glenn

    In the photo it looks like Fifth was a two way street. When did it become a one way street?

  • I \v/ NY

    its amazing to me how early this auto-centric designing occured, its hard to believe this would occur in the first decade of the 20th century… 1909, did anyone even own a car then?

    for the most part, years ago, i had always thought this auto-centric thinking was a product of the 50s, 60s and 70s, and that prior to WWII everything was all good. yet the more i’d hear about this, it became clear that this autopian thinking went well back to the 20s, 30s and 40s and was actually when some of the worst and most destructive examples occured. the book ‘fighting traffic’ essentially says that the auto had completely taken over the streets by 1930.

    on a related note… not 5th avenue but i’d love JSK to study returning park avenue to its original state. all she’d have to do is pitch it to the adjacent property owners and they’d support it in an instant as it would make their buildings more valuable, being right on a park as opposed to the current skinny median and traffic thouroughfare.

  • Braddy

    100 years from now, I’m sure we’ll still have cars of some sort, but I’m hoping urban design that prioritizes private motorized transport above all else will be relic of our primitive past. Wouldn’t it be nice if our ancestors could ask “What the hell were they thinking?”

  • This saddens me because it illustrates how much beauty and civility our city has lost. But it also brings out the optimist in me because it shows how such amenities might make a comeback, building support for street redesign.

  • Glenn: Most of the avenues in Manhattan became one way around 1960. The Fifth Avenue bus used to run downtown to Washington Square Park where it would circle the arch, and then go back uptown again.

  • Glenn

    Making all the Avenues two way would be really great for people who take buses. Speeds would moderate during off hours. It would also virtually eliminate all wrong way cycling on the avenues. And it would not even take away any lanes from cars – it would just increase the number of Avenue options.

  • It’s not too reasonable to expect stoops on most parts of 5th Avenue. Look at that drawing above and compare the density of buildings there to the density now.

    I’d much rather see that road space given over to cyclists and a center median that adds some trees in the center. New Yorkers would lose some of the views, but having pedestrian refuges and more shade would be worth the cost.

  • I \v/ NY

    i was just searching the NY Times archive for one way streets. some very interesting stuff… the private bus companies strongly fought the conversion to one way streets which harmed their ridership and obviously made people have to walk an extra long block. also the one way street conversions began on the westside and eastsides avenues first, with the busiest avenues in the center of manhattan last. the first conversions were in the early 50s and the entire manhattan street conversion process went well into the 1960s. interestingly enough there were some letters to the editor saying one way streets would make traffic worse, encourage auto use and harm transit usage. there was growing opposition in the mid-1960s to one way street conversion. there was a 9 year fight over the lexington/3rd conversion.

  • Here’s an interim step towards a narrower 5th Ave.: give the outside lanes back to pedestrians from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

    Fifth Ave. sidewalks are always too crowded, but never more than during holiday shopping season. Even a solution as ugly and awkward as Jersey barriers to keep cars and trucks out of the outside lanes would make a marked improvement and show the way to a more permanent re-allocation.

  • bus companies strongly fought the conversion to one way streets which harmed their ridership and obviously made people have to walk an extra long block.

    It’s even worse than that. Take a look at the M6 on Broadway and 6th Ave–that’s at least 2 long blocks.

    100 years from now, I’m sure we’ll still have cars of some sort, but I’m hoping urban design that prioritizes private motorized transport above all else will be relic of our primitive past.

    The only way that’ll happen is if owning and operating one is too expensive for most people, and streets revert to an 18th century appearance–hopefully without all the horses. On the other hand, maybe we’ll discover teleportation by then, and cities as we know them will essentially cease to exist, except for a few die-hard traditionalists….

  • What is the ‘8.’ short for in Jennifer Lee’s middle name, I wonder?

  • Interesting how there was no mention by any of the ‘smart growth’ ‘new urbanist’ flock about how Washington DC was deprived of a new promenade along South Capitol Street because of the selfishness of a single property holder, and how telling about that entities disproportionate influence.


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