The ecologist Benton MacKaye once observed that if New York City wanted to change the traffic pattern at Broadway and 42nd Street it would require diverting the passage of goods being shipped from the United States to the rest of the world. Of course, in the 1920s, when MacKaye made this comment, more than 50 percent of all American imports and exports were passing through Manhattan’s West Side docks. Then when shipping containerization required larger storage areas than the city could provide, the docks began moving out of this tangled web of clogged streets and dense urban fabric to the looser spaces of Newark and Long Island.
It was cars, not ships that dictated the next big shift on the waterfront, when Robert Moses decided to locate his modern highway system along the island’s edge. In the 1930s he created the limited-access FDR and West Side highways and until 1973, when a section of the elevated West Side road bed collapsed, those highways defined how traffic moved through the city even as they cut the population off from the most valuable open space in the metropolis, its waterfront.
Since then, much has changed but the relationship of the city to the waterfront is more than ever an essential key to New York’s success. Today we are witnessing the most profound reshaping of our city edges since Robert Moses focused on moving automobiles as quickly as possible around and into the urban core. That model for urban transportation never worked very well, nor did it provide a pleasant environment for those who lived in the city.
The third wave is underway, and its focus is neither on shipping nor cars but on people. We have witnessed a bold series of new designs that still provide for automobile access—like the on-grade and landscaped West Side Highway—while more significantly aiming to open up our waterfront to exciting new uses that are less noxious and friendlier to pedestrians. Modest in scale, but not in transformative power, the new bicycle lanes that circumambulate the island are encouraging people to think about using this healthier, quieter and less polluting form of transportation to commute along our riverfronts, and even as far as Governors Island and beyond.
As we show in this issue, the city is bringing back two long-neglected streets along the water’s edge: Greenwich Street once again passing through the landscape of the old World Trade Center site, and West 60th Street, with its accompanying waterfront park in Riverside South. These new boulevards will not necessarily improve automobile transportation, but they will re-knit long-sundered neighborhoods in the city. It’s nice to see that at long last New York policy is taking the urban lessons of Jane Jacobs to heart and giving priority to the experience of people, not goods or cars.
A version of this article appeared in AN 17_10.21.2009.