Here are two photos of the northwest corner of 89th Street and Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side. The first is from 1913. The second is from today. In 1991, the new owner of the corner building upset neighbors and preservationists by altering the building in preparation for retail use. Seven years later, the building and six others were designated the smallest historic district in the city, preventing further alteration of the buildings without permission. It is nice to see the buildings preserved, but the real damage to them came many years earlier, when the sidewalks were narrowed and the stoops were removed. What was each building’s first floor is now the second, and each one has an odd-looking window where the door used to be. Though preserved more or less intact, these buildings are another in a long line of casualties of Autotopia, the prevailing fascination with the benefits of automobile travel during the 20th century combined with ignorance about the problems cars create when overused.
The history of the 20th century is one in which every square inch of land that could conceivably be put to use for the movement or storage of automobiles was. Streetcars were removed from the tunnel under Park Avenue south of Grand Central Terminal, at right, so the space could be given over to drivers. Brooklyn’s Third Avenue elevated train was replaced with the Gowanus Expressway. Bridges carrying subway and trolley lines were converted to automobile use, even though that led to fewer people to using the bridges. Walkable neighborhoods with three- and four-story buildings were razed for towers surrounded by parking lots or perched atop multi-story concrete garages. Central Park’s loop drive was opened up to traffic.
The trend continues to this day, as bulldozers in the countryside convert forests and farms to ever more cookie-cutter housing subdivisions and strip mall parking lots. The result is traffic. Automobiles, parked or moving, invading your space everywhere you go — on city streets, on the highway, in vast parking lots outside Wal Marts, even wizzing past us in the park.
But we have the chance to take back some of the land that was given over to traffic. Transportation advocates may be nearing another milestone if they can persuade New York City officials to try banning cars from using Central Park’s Loop Drive for a summer. The ban wouldn’t affect traffic on the Transverse Roads. Submerged by Olmsted and Vaux for a reason, these east-west roads were designed with traffic in mind.
Cars enjoy a free pass throughout the rest of the city and country. Central Park is no place for cars. I’ll be at a rally next Monday that will press this issue. I hope you’ll be there too.
- Car-Free Central Park Campaign [Transportation Alternatives]