Giving Up on Public Spaces Is Exactly What NYC Did in “The Bad Old Days”

Time to abandon this dysfunctional space where people can walk and sit comfortably. Photo: Stephen Miller

Normally Streetsblog would just ignore Steve Cuozzo’s rant yesterday about the evils of giving New Yorkers more room to walk and sit. But yanking out public space is a surprisingly credible threat these days, so here goes.

If you missed it, the nut of Cuozzo’s piece is that because he saw some homeless people sitting on benches in the temporary sidewalk expansion on 32nd Street by Penn Station, “the bad old days are back.” This fits neatly into the Post’s campaign to paint #deBlasiosNewYork as a place where decent folk are constantly menaced by aggressive lunatics on the street and you ought to be cowering inside all the time.

It also depends on stupendous ignorance of how the reclamation of public spaces helped New York turn the corner on “the bad old days.”

Cuozzo singles out “the ‘pedestrian’-besotted 34th Street Partnership” — the local Business Improvement District — for backing the 32nd Street sidewalk expansion. The 34th Street Partnership is also responsible for foolishness like restoring Herald Square and maintaining sidewalk benches. It has an interesting intellectual lineage — the organization’s founder, Dan Biederman, is a disciple of the influential urbanist William H. Whyte.

Whyte’s 1980 book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, is full of ideas that guide the management of the city’s public spaces to this day. One of his key insights was that attempts to keep certain people out of public spaces were woefully misguided. “So-called ‘undesirables’ are not the problem,” he wrote. “It is the measures taken to combat them that is the problem.”

Basing decisions about public space solely on the desire to exclude is tantamount to abandoning a public space altogether. Make a place unsittable, and you’ll prevent homeless people from sitting there. But then you’ll repel everyone else too.

Whyte’s theories about public space design and management — that “the idea is to make all of a place usable for everyone” — helped transform Bryant Park from a symbol of New York’s decay to a flourishing square in the heart of Midtown. His influence remains evident today in the city’s plaza program, which is as much about public space management as the repurposing of street space, and in the Midtown BIDs, which have been the strongest backers of the new car-free public spaces along Broadway.

You can hear echoes of Whyte in Times Square Alliance chief Tim Tompkins’ recent defense of the Broadway pedestrian plazas. “Sure, let’s tear up Broadway! We can’t govern, manage or police our public spaces, so we should just tear them up… That’s not a solution. It’s a surrender.”

  • “stupendous ignorance” is a sufficient and economical retort to the original article

  • Albert

    You can also hear echoes, in Cuozzo’s own term, “‘pedestrian’-besotted 34th Street Partnership,” of Dorothy Rabinowitz’s “Citibike-begrimed neighborhoods.”

  • Jonathan R

    Does Mr. Cuozzo have any particular credibility on livable streets issues that I was not aware of, or is he just some guy who writes for the Post?

  • cjstephens

    I saw the Cuozzo piece yesterday and thought I would take a look myself today, so I could see how much he was exaggerating. I walked the block from Sixth Avenue, and everyone seated on the benches was either a tourist or a local worker eating lunch. However, as I made my way down the block, the scene changed completely. By the time I reached Seventh Avenue, all the benches were taken over by homeless people surrounded by their bags, mostly stoned or talking to themselves, and at least one man splayed on the ground. Cuozzo is right this time. I don’t mind that they took out a lane of parking (though if I ran a business on that street I would be annoyed at how much more difficult it is now to get deliveries). However, it seems that here, unlike in Times Square, absolutely no thought was put into the design and how people were likely to use the new street furniture. This was never a particularly nice block, but the new “improvements” have made it a significantly less welcoming place for pedestrians.

    I strongly encourage anyone who is interested in the city’s street life to look for yourselves at this particular example. Pedestrian plazas can be a great thing for the city. Here, however, they need to start over or pick a better location.

  • c2check

    If the problem is with the homeless, the solution must tackle homelessness. Removing pedestrian areas doesn’t do that. If anything, I would think this scene should cause people to act, not to hide the problem.

    Not to mention that there’s a dearth of decent seating around Midtown. Perhaps if more areas had decent places to sit, this particular one would see less a density of homeless folks.

    The other thing that’s a shame is that, even if this isn’t the best possible location for such a plaza, this is the one that had enough political will behind it to get it installed.

  • cjstephens

    There have always been homeless people in Manhattan. There have also always been public plazas. Some attract the homeless. Others, by virtue of design, location or enforcement techniques, do not. This one became a magnet for homeless almost instantly (something that didn’t happen when Times Square was turned into a plaza). It should be fixed – if that’s even possible, given the location. It could be that there’s no way to turn this block’s parking lane into something useful for pedestrians (maybe just widen the sidewalk?). Otherwise, it should be removed.

  • cjstephens

    Have you looked at this particular block? This time, Cuozzo is right.

  • Maggie

    Why? Being homeless is not a crime. Neither is sitting on a bench.

    Really, I’m curious to hear what you mean. If illegal activity is going on, we should tackle that. We handle this in public spaces all over the city, without giving up and closing them down.

  • c2check

    Wider sidewalks can be the next step. The purpose of these paint-on-the-ground sort of thing is to be temporary, a trial run for the real deal. (unfortunately extending sidewalks can be really expensive, depending on utilities and such)

    But narratives like Cuozzo’s (and Bratton’s) simply propagate the idea that plazas just inherently attract homeless or crazy people (and these people are bad!)
    It’s as if nothing else possibly could have caused the issue.

    Anecdotally, I walked 32nd just now (6:30) and most of the benches seemed to be occupied by “homed” people, with the exception of perhaps the 3 closest to Penn Station. But if not seated there, they’d be on the ground, or just elsewhere. The problem not only still exists, it becomes easier for the rest of us to forget it exists, perpetuating the problem.

  • cjstephens

    My point is that some (not all) plazas do attract homeless and/or crazy people (and, yes, these people are bad if they’re preventing other people from using public amenities in the way they are intended). And this poorly designed space is playing into the narrative that Cuozzo (in my opinion incorrectly) is trying to apply elsewhere.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one observing that the benches closest to Penn Station are attracting the population that Cuozzo and I noticed. Here’s a question for you: how far down the block would you go to avoid these people before sitting down to eat your lunch?

  • cjstephens

    Homelessness is not a crime, but using illegal drugs is a crime (and there’s plenty of overlap between drug users and the homeless). More important, there is behavior that is anti-social that falls below the level of being criminal but that we still want to discourage. Sitting on a bench is great, as that’s what benches are for, but when you are lying on a bench so that no one else can use it, that’s wrong, even if it’s not a crime. So is camping out on that bench all day and all night. So is blocking off a group of benches with your bags and shopping carts.

    Maggie, I invite you to take a look for yourself at this particular plaza (really just a re-painted traffic lane with some benches). Then I would ask how far down the block would you feel you would have to go to feel safe enough to sit on one of the benches to eat your lunch or sip a cup of coffee. Then I would suggest you try the same exercise at other public spaces like Times Square or Bryant Park and again ask yourself if there is anywhere you would feel uncomfortable sitting. Compared with other public spaces, this one is a failure.

  • Maggie

    I was there a couple weeks ago and thought it was fantastic. Happy to check it out again tomorrow. I typically don’t squeeze on crowded benches, so I’m going to say if the benches are crowded with people using them, and I don’t sit there, but still get to walk down 32nd Street, that’s all right with me.

    I don’t mean to sound naive. Of course no one wants a Needle Park on 32nd! But if that were the case, I think NYPD, Vornado, and the 34th Street Partnership have the tools to fix it.

    To be honest, I’m more concerned about solving the issue of the cancer treatment hospice that says it’s having trouble driving its patients to their east-side treatment centers. That’s been weighing on me. I’m interested to see in person how it’s working.

  • c2check

    Personally, I don’t want to be eating lunch near Penn Station is all 😉

    I wouldn’t really want to eat lunch anywhere along 32nd. It’s still not nearly relaxed/peaceful enough for me. I think it’s a testament to how starved people in NYC are for public space. (But if I had to, I wouldn’t mind sitting in proximity to anyone who wasn’t smelly or loud)

  • cjstephens

    It’s also an odd place for a “plaza”. It’s a dark narrow side street. The benches that got sunlight, closest to Sixth Avenue, seemed relatively pleasant. The rest, not so much, even without the crazies. If you’re going to take away a lane from cars, I would have thought something on Seventh Avenue would have made more sense and would have gotten more use.

  • He’s wrong in principle, sloppy in execution always, and devoid of virtuous intent. It’s a pattern with him. He’s written negatively about every plaza space he’s encountered, and refused to stop beating the drum.

    This is not saying that there are only happy things going on in the plaza. Perhaps there are issues playing out that aren’t petty or insignificant to the community. But that wouldn’t be a reason to argue that we should minimize or eliminate public space altogether. So then why does the Post constantly take that position?

  • KeNYC2030

    If indeed there are homeless people taking advantage of a real place to sit for a change, the solution is not to rip the damned thing up but to create even more public spaces — and more affordable public housing. Compared to most world-class cities, NYC has pathetically few public spaces, unless you count the vast acreage we allot to motor vehicles. We have no problem with someone driving a dangerous, polluting vehicle into a crowded city center — that’s not an anti-social act — but should a homeless person take refuge on a bench, that’s a big threat to the power structure that Cuozzo and the Post represent because it’s a not-so-subtle reminder to them that the system they so fiercely defend isn’t working.

  • c2check

    I’m sure the extra walking space helps ease Penn Station congestion, at least. But yeah, I would love to see more of these (with more seating) in other (perhaps better) locations. There are, at least, a heck of a lot of sidewalks that could use widening (E 41st!)

  • Andrew

    Babies, bathwater, etc.

  • Mathew Smithburger

    We have to understand that many of the tourists that visit our city, and in fact most of America outside of NYC (outside of NYC includes all of Staten Island and portions of Brooklyn and Queens), is profoundly and morbidly obese. They are incapable of walking very far or very briskly. This is not to be mean or cruel this is a fact. We see them lumbering along on our sidewalks and intersections, huffing and puffing their way from one bus stop to another, groaning about the the subway stairs or the distance of a city block. If they could they would bring their SUVs along in their wheelybags and drive everywhere. In fact their offspring, though young and fit, are attached Uber, because the subways and cabs and bikes are hard and after a big meal it is hard to move very much. But NYC, the core, is fighting right now the car. And what a fight that is. Our part time legislative/full time felons in waiting New York State assembly is on the side of the car, the obese and against the pedestrian and the healthy. The pedestrian plazas and the muni bikes are viewed as a problem by Albany, our mayor and by our tourists. It’s a tough row to hoe. Look out for left turning SUVs.

  • bolwerk

    The bad old days end when civil liberties count more than groundless suspicions about violence, drugs, sex, disorder, and crime. Police states ARE NOT safe.

  • AnoNYC

    I was going to type something similar. A lack of supportive housing, high housing costs and limited and/or poor homeless services are an issue.

    The city really does need more public space and significantly more pedestrianization of streets.

    I also agree that our priorities are created to privilege some at the expense of the rest of society.

  • Miles Bader

    I do give Ms. Rabinowitz credit for single-handledly dragging the word “begrime” back into common usage…

  • Alex 3speed

    I had actually just posted the following after walking by the plaza again on Saturday. Not agreeing with Cuozzo, of course, but very fearful indeed of his comments in light of recent threats to public space.

    “I walked through this on Saturday late
    afternoon and I guess the security had the weekend off, because there
    were 50-75 homeless in the plaza. Homelessness and inequality is as
    looming a threat to public space as the increased congestion from
    construction, deliveries, and increased cabs.”

  • Joe R.

    Were the homeless also aggressively panhandling? I get it that seeing filthy, incoherent, often drug-addicted people is unsettling. I find I have that reaction to them myself. And if they’re trying to shake down passers-by for money it’s downright threatening. I lived through the so-called bad old days. I used to pass through Penn Station and the PABT at midnight or 1 AM at times when going to college. The scene was like you saw but multiplied by a 100.

    At the same time though I also realize scenes like this are a direct result of epic failures of public policy. Just yesterday I saw a piece on NY1 about how there is no longer any affordable housing anywhere in the 5 boroughs for someone making minimum wage. That’s certainly not helping the homeless situation. Granted, a significant number of these homeless are that way on account of substance abuse, but one wonders if the substance abuse started only after they realized the hopelessness of their situation, not before. All these issues are intertwined. Lack of substance abuse treatment, lack of services for the mentally ill, lack of affordable housing, a general reluctance by those in a position to improve things to even acknowledge the problem exists. I suppose we can draw a good analogy here to the situation with traffic violence. It’s taken decades of advocacy to even get those in power to acknowledge the problem, then take baby steps to deal with it. I don’t think NYC has ever really come to terms with its homeless problem. Homelessness and the problems it breeds are part of what resulted in a large part of the tax base fleeing the city in the 1960s and 1970s. There were others but in general when a significant portion of the population lives in dire poverty while others ignore them you have a recipe for social unrest. I don’t have all the answers on fixing this problem, but a good first step is acknowledging it exists because sweeping it to less visible areas doesn’t make it go away.

  • JoshNY

    Is there a word that means the opposite of credibility? He has that.


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