Looking Back: Urbanism in John Lindsay’s New York

Today’s cities are relearning the same planning tools a Gotham mayor pioneered forty years ago.

South Street Seaport Flickr user garybembridge

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During his time as mayor of New York City, John V. Lindsay witnessed an explosion in poverty, a vast decrease in middle-class white residents, and a huge increase in crime. Few of these changes, however, were a result of his decision-making alone; rather, similar trends affected every major city in America during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

What made Lindsay’s mayoralty so different, however, was his willingness to experiment with the urban environment in face of these difficulties. In the space of the two terms that he held between 1966 and 1973, Lindsay reshaped New York by questioning mores and reforming policy. But the advances he made may have in some ways been ahead of their time.

The Museum of the City of New York is now holding an exhibit on the 103rd Mayor, though October in the museum’s Upper East Side home (and online). The display coincides with the release of a wonderful compilation of images and texts in a book called America’s Mayor, edited by Sam Roberts, and the production of a documentary on the same subject for public television.

Though the exhibit fills just a few rooms, it captures the Lindsay period effectively, allowing visitors to pass through a period subway turnstile and bombarding them with large images and mementos of protest marches and political campaigns. But it doesn’t do enough to emphasize the radical nature of urban improvements the Lindsay Administration approved.

New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller — who served during a similar period as Lindsay — was the primary proponent of huge state-sponsored projects in the city, including the World Trade Center, Roosevelt Island, and Battery Park City.

But Lindsay’s work at the municipal level was ultimately more transformative in terms of policy. His most significant achievement was the creation of the Urban Design Group, an organization that solidified the role of aesthetics in the city’s approach to new development. “The Lindsay Administration occupied the historic moment when the [planning] profession was beginning to make itself felt,” said venerable architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable in a column in the New York Herald Tribune in early 1974. Huxtable argued that the city was “lavishing” “care, quality, and sophistication” on the design of new buildings and urban landscapes.

The Urban Design Group was intricately involved in the historic preservation and reuse of the South Street Seaport and managed to successfully convince developers in Times Square to incorporate theaters into the ground floor of their new commercial buildings. In negotiations with Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton, the group also developed the city’s first inclusionary zoning practices, bringing in affordable housing to the Lincoln Center neighborhood.

Yet the greatest forgotten achievement of Mayor Lindsay was his dedication to livable streets. Not only was he known for walking the streets of areas of the city previously thought off-limits to a white mayor, but he led parades of bicyclists down boulevards. His Parks commissioner Thomas P.F. Hoving initiated a weekend ban on automobiles in Central Park during the mayor’s first year in office — a policy that has stuck into place. And the mayor added some of the first bike and bus lanes in the country. He also closed Fifth Avenue to traffic on Sundays beginning on Earth Day 1970.

Unfortunately, Lindsay’s record was largely ignored once he left office.

Mayor Ed Koch, who was in office between 1978 and 1989, backtracked and attempted to ban bikes entirely from some Manhattan avenues during the summer of 1987. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani shut down a pedestrian area on the Bronx’s Grand Concourse in 1996.

Only in recent years under Mayor Michael Bloomberg has the city made encouraging pedestrian and cyclist use of the streets a higher priority, with projects like the closing of some major roads to cars during summer weekends. The Lindsay experience, however, shows just how quickly similar advances in urban policy can be thrown away.

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Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he is the research director of the Land Use Lab at Urban. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation, and governance.

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Tags: new york cityparksbuilt environmentyonah freemarkgrassroutes

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