Actors Peter Falk and Jack Lemmon with Mayor John V. Lindsay during the filming of Luv on the Williamsburg Bridge, 1967. [Credit: Photofest]
Murray Burns (Jason Robards) and his nephew (Barry Gordon) touring the East River waterfront in A Thousand Clowns, 1965. [Credit: James Sanders]
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]
Left: Happening in Central Park, 1967. Right: Thomas Hoving participates in a Central Park Happening. [Credit: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation]
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]
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
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.”