The Design Observer Group


Posted 05.04.10


James Sanders

Adventure Playground: John V. Lindsay and the Transformation of Modern New York


Actors Peter Falk and Jack Lemmon with Mayor John V. Lindsay during the filming of Luv on the Williamsburg Bridge, 1967. [Credit: Photofest]

In recent years it has been scarcely possible to walk down the major streets of New York (especially in good weather) without coming across a film crew at work: fleets of specialized vehicles, and dozens of dedicated craftspeople — directors, cinematographers, camera operators, production designers, property masters, gaffers, grips, and, of course, celebrated or world-famous actors and performers — busily transforming the everyday landscape of the city into the setting for some larger-than-life, cinematic vision of urban life. Similarly, it is scarcely possible to walk today into a movie theater, or look at a television screen, and not soon find New York City serving as the setting for — and often enough the subject of — romantic comedies, thrillers, police dramas, science-fiction fantasies, or any of a dozen other film genres regularly shot on location. Over the past decade, no fewer than 200 feature films, and hundreds more episodes for television, have been shot each year on the streets of New York, a total that no other American city — not even Los Angeles — can match. Thanks to this pervasive filmic presence, audiences across the country, and indeed around the world, have come to know New York as well as — or better than — their own hometowns.

The city’s onscreen prominence is so taken for granted today that it is hard to imagine that as late as 1965 — the last year of Robert F. Wagner’s mayoralty — New York hardly appeared in films at all. That year, only two features were shot substantially in the city: The Pawnbroker, an early landmark in the career of veteran New York director Sidney Lumet, and A Thousand Clowns, directed by Fred Coe, which used extensive location work to “open up" a Broadway stage hit of a few years earlier by the playwright Herb Gardner.

This big change, of course, was due to Wagner’s successor as mayor, John V. Lindsay — who, soon after taking office in 1966, made New York the first city in history to encourage location filmmaking: establishing a simple, one-stop permit process through a newly created agency (now called the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting), creating a special unit of the Police Department to assist filmmakers, and ordering all city agencies and departments to cooperate with producers and directors.

The founding of the Mayor’s Film Office — the first agency of its kind in the world — remains to this day one of the Lindsay administration’s signal achievements, an innovation in governance since replicated by agencies or commissions in almost every state and major city in America, and scores of countries and provinces around the world. In New York alone, it helped to usher in what has become virtually an entire new industry, generating over five billion dollars a year in economic activity and bringing work to more than 100,000 New Yorkers: renowned directors and stars, working actors and technicians, and tens of thousands of men and women employed by supporting businesses, from equipment-rental houses to scenery shops to major studio complexes that now rival those of Southern California. Along the way, it has also helped to ensure that New York retains its status as one of the most familiar and compelling urban landscapes in the world.

Yet in retrospect, the creation of the Mayor’s Film Office, significant as it was, can be seen as simply one piece of a much larger and more pervasive shift introduced during Lindsay's two terms in City Hall. It is a change in sensibility so pervasive — from the city as a place of function, in essence, to a place of pleasure — that today it surrounds us, almost invisibly, having quietly revolutionized the way we think about the meaning and purpose of New York and other American cities.

To understand and appreciate this subtle yet tectonic shift there is no better guide, ironically, than those last two films of the pre-Lindsay era, The Pawnbroker and A Thousand Clowns, which serve almost perfectly to frame the dramatic change in perception that was about to come.

Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) opens his East Harlem pawnshop in The Pawnbroker, 1965. [Credit: Photofest]

The Pawnbroker centers on a middle-aged Holocaust survivor named Sol Nazerman (played by Rod Steiger), the proprietor of a decrepit pawnshop on East 116th Street, who fills out his days in his shabby store amidst a universe of unwanted objects — clocks, jewelry, appliances, musical instruments — and trudges to work and back each day through the grim streets of East Harlem.

Though the horrific past of its protagonist gives The Pawnbroker its special import and trajectory, it is easy to look beyond the particulars of the story to see the film in broader terms, as a fine-grained portrait of the kind of ordinary working life that prevailed across much of Manhattan in the first half of the 20th century — the city that remained very much in place through Mayor Wagner’s three terms in office. It is, in fact, a portrait of the classic industrial city: a place of endless labor, devoted primarily to the making, moving and selling (in this case, reselling) of physical goods. (Nazerman’s pawnshop, in its way, represents one small corner of the vast wholesale and retail industries that did so much to build and sustain the city’s economic engine for more than a hundred years, from the 1850s to the 1960s.) For Nazerman, as for so many of the unsung millions of men and women who toiled in the city’s factories, warehouses and stores, the city is above all a place for work: a cheerless, essentially functional environment in which to spend five or six days each week, to be valued as a place of gainful employment, perhaps, but certainly not to be treasured as a source of delight or even regarded as a setting or “landscape” at all. Indeed, Nazerman barely notices the city as he walks to and from his shop each day, except to observe an occasional strange sight or distant horror, triggering a flashback of his nightmarish past. Otherwise, the gray, gritty city simply passes by — not a “place” at all, really, but merely a serviceable location for economic activity.

A Thousand Clowns offers a completely different view of the city — and not only (or even mostly) because its main character, a comedy writer named Murray Burns, played by Jason Robards, is part of the city’s new “post-industrial” economy rather than the older, goods-oriented commercial world of Sol Nazerman. In fact, during most of the film, Murray is out of work, having chosen sometime earlier to quit his job on a children’s TV show. Instead, he spends his time touring the city with his live-in nephew (Barry Gordon) and a new girlfriend (Barbara Harris) — meandering the streets and parks on foot and by bicycle, binoculars in hand, seeking out picturesque corners of the urban landscape, enjoying a range of unusual or eccentric attractions (often on or near the water’s edge) outside the mainstream of busy, white-collar Manhattan. His relationship with the city is based not on its role as a center for commercial activity at all, but on something else entirely: as a kind of spectacular, full-sized stage set, through which he is free to wander joyfully, like an overgrown child, finding delight in its endless surprises and discoveries, its hidden corners and unexpected vistas. For Murray, the great urban construct that is mid-century New York serves, at some level, as a giant playground.

Murray Burns (Jason Robards) and his nephew (Barry Gordon) touring the East River waterfront in A Thousand Clowns, 1965. [Credit: James Sanders]

If Sol Nazerman’s New York was, in some real way, the city of Mayor Robert F. Wagner — a gray, functional environment, devoted almost entirely to commercial pursuits — then A Thousand Clowns perfectly presaged the new urban vision that John Lindsay and his colleagues sought, consciously or not, to put forward: a new, officially sanctioned spirit in which the city was actually to be enjoyed as a place.

The notion itself was hardly new. For decades, individual writers, artists, filmmakers and others had drawn attention to the distinctions and pleasures of New York as an urban environment, one that — though devoted largely to commercial purpose — could offer a romantic, exciting, even delirious sense of place. But rarely, if ever, had there been any official approval or appreciation of the city’s existing physical environment, as such. Indeed, by the late '50s and early '60s — as urban renewal and highway programs leveled and rebuilt one neighborhood after another — exactly the opposite was true. “Everyone, it would seem, is for the rebuilding of our cities, with a unity of approach that is remarkable,” the editor and critic William H. Whyte observed in 1958, in his introduction to The Exploding Metropolis. “But this is not the same thing as liking cities,” he continued. “[M]ost of the rebuilding under way and in prospect is being designed by people who don’t like cities. They do not merely dislike the noise and the dirt and the congestion. They dislike the city’s variety and concentration, its tension, its hustle and bustle.”

By contrast, Lindsay and his colleagues generally liked cities, in the sense described by Whyte and portrayed in A Thousand Clowns. But that was only part of it. In a striking variety of ways, Lindsay and his team would also seek to promote the other notion suggested by the 1965 film: that the urban landscape of New York could be considered a kind of giant outdoor “stage” — one that could be enhanced, moreover, as a theatrical designer or art director might transform a stage or film set: with “scenic” improvements that would allow it to serve as a setting, or frame, for the widest imaginable range of public and private pleasures.

Shooting The Night They Raided Minsky’s on East 26th Street, Manhattan, redressed to the film’s period, the mid-1920s, 1968. [Credit: Photofest]

The most obvious example of this, of course, was the administration’s effort to encourage location filming, which set off a sudden explosion of creative energy, as dozens of filmmakers fanned out across the city’s urban landscape, eager to exploit it as (literally) a giant stage, and determined to adapt it to their own purposes. (In 1967, just a year after the Mayor’s Office was founded, 42 feature films were produced in New York.) Audiences tended to imagine that location-shot films represented some kind of simplistic, documentary-like “truth” about their setting, but nothing could have been further from the case: cinematographers, production designers and art directors almost always modified or transformed real locations — sometimes quite ambitiously — to meet the needs of story and script. This was most evident in historic period films, which employed ingenious production design and set-dressing techniques to allow contemporary New York streets to be turned back to the 1920s (for The Night They Raided Minsky’s, 1968) or the 1940s (for The Godfather, 1973). But it also held for films set in the present day, which adapted the city’s urban landscape no less imaginatively to their own ends — turning Lincoln Center’s central fountain, for example, into a thrilling set piece in The Producers (1968), its waters exploding into the sky to underscore the joyous moment when a repressed accountant, played by Gene Wilder, joins forces with the larger-than-life impresario played by Zero Mostel. Or transforming the contemporary high-rise landscape of New York — by eerily emptying it of people — into a haunting and somehow timeless setting for a musical retelling of St. Matthew’s Gospel in Godspell (1973).

Left: Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) and Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) at the Lincoln Center fountain in The Producers, 1968. Right: Musical number filmed on an electric sign on Times Square, in Godspell, 1973. [Credit: Photofest]

Lindsay’s radical new approach to location shooting — encouraging moviemakers to transform (or creatively reimagine) every corner of the city’s urban landscape — was the most literal embodiment of the impulse to turn New York into a kind of giant outdoor stage. But that same impulse underpinned a far more ambitious effort by the Lindsay administration: to extend a similar approach to the actual fabric of the city, which was not only to be regarded as a source of delight, but manipulated and enhanced as if it, too, were somehow a kind of scenic environment.

The obvious place to start was the city’s parks — one of the few places, even in the old days of the relentlessly commercial city, to be dedicated to the unworldly values of pleasure, respite and even joy. Yet in practice, New York City’s parks, for decades under the firm but heavy hand of Robert Moses — who had run them directly as Park Commissioner from 1934 to 1960, then through faithful surrogates in later years — had been curiously dull and joyless places. Obsessed with orderliness and propriety, Moses had tirelessly sought to disallow any type of behavior outside the strictest possible norms (an authoritarian instinct embodied almost risibly by the wooden sign posted at every park and playground entrance in the city, featuring a giant printed “NO” followed by a long list of proscribed activities). Though he had been known in his early career (nearly forty years before) for the imaginative and even whimsical approach he brought to the design of Jones Beach and other state parks, the structures and equipment the older Moses had installed in the city’s parks and playgrounds in the '50s and early '60s were almost uniformly grim, banal and uninspired, plainly more concerned with ease of maintenance and discouraging vandalism than with offering any sense of delight or whimsy.

But all that would change overnight, when, even before Lindsay officially took office, the Mayor-elect appointed Thomas P.F. Hoving, an iconoclastic 34-year-old curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as the city’s new Parks Commissioner. Declaring that “the old rinky-dink, hand-me-down stereotype of the park is out, OUT!,” Hoving proclaimed the advent of the “park as public theater” — and within months, he followed with a series of stunning initiatives to fulfill his promise. To the astonishment of cab drivers (and traffic commissioner Henry Barnes, who predicted traffic jams stretching “from Maine to Florida”), Hoving ordered Central Park’s drives closed to automobiles on early Sunday mornings, to encourage bicyclists to savor its 19th-century landscape (much as Murray Burns had done in A Thousand Clowns). He borrowed an art-world idea from the curator Alan Kaprow and introduced what were soon dubbed “happenings”: loosely structured — or entirely unstructured — public events and gatherings in the city’s parks, from a five hundred-person game of “capture-the-flag” on Central Park Mall, to a Gay Nineties-themed cocktail party at the Naumburg Bandshell, which drew 35,000 participants. There were “kite happenings,” a “folk song happening,” and a nighttime “scientific happening” to observe a meteor shower.

Left: Happening in Central Park, 1967. Right: Thomas Hoving participates in a Central Park Happening. [Credit: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation]

“A park is like a stage,” Hoving announced, in no uncertain terms. “If you leave it sitting, nothing good is going to happen.” Having re-envisioned the city’s parks as an almost theatrical environment, Hoving now sought to enhance their “scenic” elements, through a series of innovative, small-scale interventions designed specifically to bring new life to existing spaces. At Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, he promoted an open-air “Fountain Café,” which disposed of the need for major permanent structures to achieve its effects by using lightweight canvas canopies and outdoor café seating — elements that were suggestively scenery-like in their portable, casual, temporary nature. In place of the standardized, almost grudging playground designs of the Moses era, meanwhile, Hoving commissioned an “Adventure Playground” near West 67th Street in Central Park, which, drawing on the ideas of “participatory play” popular in England and Scandinavia, offered a stylish, exuberant design by the architect Richard Dattner, plainly intended not only to engage the imagination of children but also to spark pleasure and delight in adults.

Left: Fountain Café at Bethesda Fountain, designed by James Lamantia. Right: Adventure Playground, Central Park, designed by Richard Dattner. [Credit: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation]

As the years went on, Lindsay’s colleagues — some in government, others in arts groups that worked closely with the city — sought to extend the same spirit still further, reaching beyond the leafy confines of the parks and into the streets. If less explicit than Hoving in comparing the city to a stage, these groups were motivated by similar goals and means: to celebrate the urban environment — and enhance its appeal as a pedestrian setting — through small-scale, imaginative, often temporary or portable elements or installations. These “scenic” elements would take the form of public art — not the traditional classical statues of civic worthies, but unconventional, often lighthearted works that would at once animate the urban landscape and encourage it to be seen and enjoyed afresh. In 1967, the city’s newly founded Office of Cultural Affairs mounted a temporary open-air exhibit called “Sculpture in the Environment,” whose 26 art works, placed into pedestrian spaces around the city, were like nothing ever quite seen before: striking, often playful set pieces, with no purpose other than to enhance the public’s enjoyment of the larger urban landscape (at least until the two-month run of the show was over, when, like any theatrical experience, they receded into collective memory).

The theatrical parallel grew more obvious a few years later, when Doris C. Freedman, a public arts advocate who had organized the open-air sculpture show, established a group called City Walls to sponsor murals on the blank walls of New York buildings. Among their most notable projects was a five-story-tall painting by the artist Richard Haas on a building on SoHo’s Prince Street, using an artful trompe l’oeil technique to recreate, on an exposed brick side wall, the ornate cast-iron architecture of the building’s street façade — an unmistakable piece of urban scenography, rendered at the grandest scale.

Left: 112–114 Prince Street, Manhattan. Right: 112-114 Prince Street, with trompe l’oeil mural by Richard Haas. [Credit: Hangford Yang]

The ironies could not have been more stark. Just a few years earlier and a few hundred yards to the south, Robert Moses, with the blessing of Mayor Wagner, had sought to destroy hundreds of similar cast-iron buildings to clear a path for his Lower Manhattan Expressway, with no thought whatsoever for the area’s historic architecture. Now, under a new mayor, that same architecture was not only being saved (in part by new zoning provisions designed to encourage its reuse) but also being lovingly and imaginatively reinterpreted. The desire to actively enjoy the existing landscape of the city — to find delight in its idiosyncrasies, its mixture of new and old, its picturesque vistas and tucked-away corners — was no longer the private, somewhat suspect pleasure of a few eccentric individuals like Murray Burns, but had come to be societally approved and officially supported.

Toward the end of Lindsay’s second term came his administration’s most ambitious attempt to remake the urban fabric as a kind of an open-air setting or stage for city dwellers: the Madison Avenue Mall. Conceived by a city agency called the Office of Midtown Planning and Development — one of a handful of young planning teams created by Lindsay to promote advanced urban design ideas — the project called for the stretch of Madison Avenue between 42nd and 57th Street to be closed permanently to cars (buses would still be allowed down a center lane) and re-landscaped as a pedestrian-only promenade. The plan had been inspired by street closings for the second Earth Week, in April 1971, which had drawn tens of thousands of joyous pedestrians down the middle of Madison Avenue: a kind of theatrical Hoving “happening” that had somehow burst the bounds of Central Park and occupied the heart of the city — and now, at last, was about to receive a permanent, dedicated outdoor “stage,” fifteen blocks long.

Left: Temporary closing of Madison Avenue, April 1971. [Credit: David Kenneth Specter] Right: The proposed Madison Avenue Mall, 1972, designed by Van Ginkel Associates, rendering by B. Johnson [Credit: Centre Canadien d’Architecture]

Yet in the end, the Madison Avenue Mall was killed: defeated at the Board of Estimate in July 1973, five months before the end of Lindsay’s second term, by the joint efforts of the city’s taxicab industry and department-store interests, fearful for a loss of business from well-heeled cab-riding customers.

In retrospect, the death of the mall project seemed to be a harbinger, as the brave and fragile new approach to the urban landscape that Lindsay had pioneered was soon overwhelmed almost entirely by the tidal wave of troubles now crashing over the city.

To be sure, there had been criticism from the start — from skeptical observers who (not without reason) regarded the Lindsay approach as elitist, Manhattan-centric and essentially oblivious to the needs of the working people who made up most of the city’s population. Many older, traditionally minded New Yorkers, meanwhile, were suspicious of the anti-authoritarian undercurrents — and sometimes almost reckless tone — in the words and actions of the young mayor and his even younger colleagues. Prominent among these critics, not surprisingly, was Robert Moses himself. “It has yet to be shown,” he declared in his 1970 collection, Public Works: A Dangerous Trade, "that [an] essentially honest, youthful municipal administration based on impulse rather than experience — with . . . extravagant promises, invitations to disorder in the name of satisfying youth, uncontrollable events and happenings — can maintain New York’s supremacy and livability. We must soon decide whether we want a fun town [or] one guaranteeing outward order and decency."

If it was easy to dismiss Moses’s attack as the bitter sentiments of an old lion turned out of power, it gradually became apparent that there was more than a grain of truth in what he said. Hoving’s fervent desire to fill the parks with people almost any way he could, for example, began to succeed all too well — as the fragile landscapes of Central Park and other open spaces were overrun and trampled by thousands of visitors who, responding to the commissioner’s liberatory declarations, felt no need to curb their behavior in any way. Within a few years, the city’s parks began to fray and then fall badly into disrepair — not only from heavy use and abuse, but also because maintenance and operations budgets were being dramatically slashed as the city started its plunge into fiscal disarray.

But parks were the least of it. As Moses had haughtily (but more or less correctly) observed, the Lindsay administration’s gift for bringing a spirit of joy and “fun” to New York was not matched by an equivalent ability to bring order and safety to a city increasingly besieged by economic and social problems. The soaring incidence of crime and disorder, in particular, made a brutal mockery of the administration’s attempts to inspire a sense of pleasure or delight in the city’s landscape. How could one find delight in an urban space that had been vandalized or defaced, or, worse still, in which one feared being mugged or even killed?

Once the city’s economic and social fortunes began their sudden, vertiginous descent — coming to a climax in the 1975 fiscal crisis, after Lindsay’s mayoralty had given way to that of his successor Abraham D. Beame — it was probably inevitable that the Lindsay-era’s approach to the city would be mostly discredited. To be sure, some innovations not only survived but expanded: Central Park’s drives were closed to traffic, for example, not only on Sunday mornings but also weekday evenings and all weekend long — an amenity now taken for granted and regarded as almost an inalienable right. Pedestrian malls, similar to the proposal for Madison Avenue, were eventually completed on Nassau Street in lower Manhattan and on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. And the Mayor’s Film Office prospered, encouraging ever more features to be shot on location in the city — though as the years went on, the image of the city presented in those films grew ever grimmer, from the dark expressionistic tones of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and The French Connection (1971), to the outright city-hating posturing of Death Wish (1974), to the haunting, nightmarish vision of Taxi Driver (1976).

Left: Joe Buck (Jon Voight) on the sidewalks of Times Square in Midnight Cowboy, 1969. Right: Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver, 1976. [Credit: Photofest]

But for the most part, there was little return (at the official level) to the Lindsay administration’s initiatives, even after the city’s fortunes began to improve in the 1980s under the mayoralty of Edward I. Koch. With the crime rate still high, and New York in many ways still a grim and unfriendly place, it was hard to ignite the kind of optimistic spirit that might see the city’s landscape as a source of delight, or as any kind of scenic environment.

In a subtle but significant way, however, something new had been introduced, a different way of thinking about the city — and as the decades passed, the new sensibility began to take hold among much of New York’s population.

Not all, by any means. Many parts of New York, especially outside Manhattan, were being dramatically remade in the same decades by waves of immigrants from around the world — newcomers who, if anything, appeared to share the same attitude toward the city as Sol Nazerman’s generation: that the city was primarily a place for hard work, and, with luck, a modest measure of economic advancement. But even as that change was underway, other parts of the city (beginning with “historic districts” in Manhattan and Brooklyn but soon spilling over to other areas) were being transformed by more affluent New Yorkers, often with young families, who in previous decades might have fled the city but who now chose to stay — not only because of its traditional draw as a commercial center but specifically because they enjoyed it as a place, valuing its quirkiness and character over the perceived homogeneity and dullness of the suburbs. Though the trend could be (and roundly was) criticized as gentrification, it continued to gain strength throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, even as a distinct but related change to the fabric of the city was underway. By the mid-1980s, urban observers like Phillip Lopate were taking note of the ranks of young people filling the sidewalk cafés that had sprung up along Columbus Avenue and elsewhere, bringing an almost European, “see-and-be-seen” atmosphere that, Lopate recognized, was essentially theatrical in spirit, turning the sidewalk itself into a kind of extended stage.

Left: Filming Sex and the City on Bleecker Street, 2003. [Credit: James Sanders] Right: Sidewalk café scene from Sex and the City. [Credit: Photofest]

In the decade and a half since the mid-1990s, with the crime rate finally under control and the city once again perceived as an essentially benign environment, much of New York has been remade by this flood of newcomers: ambitious young men and women from around the country, attracted — as young people have always been — by the unique economic opportunities the city offered, but perhaps even more by the new sensibility, which regards the city as the most desirable place possible not only to work, but also to live and, yes, play. (The impact of these newcomers has been dramatically extended by a major demographic shift, in which college-educated Americans choose today to spend ten or fifteen years finding their life partners — rather than the fifteen months they once might have spent — and so remain for a decade or more in the city’s romantic "market.") To complete the circle almost perfectly, it is a trend that has been propelled and amplified by the portrayal of New York onscreen, thanks to the recent explosion in local film and television production encouraged by the Mayor’s Film Office: the countless romantic comedy features, and cable television series like Sex and the City, whose effective use of New York locations has extended as never before the Lindsay-era impulse to regard the city’s urban landscape as, in some real sense, a giant outdoor stage. Like gentrification, it is a phenomenon easy enough to criticize or mock, but, like it or not, it has given rise to an essential new reality of modern urban life: that cities like New York owe their renewed prosperity (and, to some degree, their continuing survival) not only to their traditional role as a functional location for commerce but instead — as Lindsay and his colleagues had first dared to officially suggest, four decades ago — as a place to be enjoyed, a landscape to be explored, a vast “adventure playground.”