How designers tried to fix New York’s chaos throughout history, from blimps to hanging sidewalks

New York opens traffic-clogged streets to people during the pandemic. It’s just the city’s latest redesign in times of dramatic change.

How designers tried to fix New York’s chaos throughout history, from blimps to hanging sidewalks
Harvest Kitchen restaurant, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, making use of New York City’s new policy of opening streets to walking, biking, and dining. [Photo: Ron Adar/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images]
of reopening after its severe coronavirus outbreak, allowing many businesses to resume operations with restrictions.


沙巴体育手机登录permitting restaurants to spread into streets is one of several pandemic-induced initiatives designed to enable social distancing in this densely packed city. in may, new york launched its “” program, which will hand 100 miles of car-free streets to pedestrians and cyclists.

in a city often for letting –with –these are fairly dramatic changes. past efforts to protect new york pedestrians and cyclists have included lowering , adding crosswalks, and creating bike lanes–approaches that “sort” street users into their own spaces, but do not fundamentally question the basic organization of city streets.

the pandemic has quieted both pedestrian and vehicle traffic, stimulating a bolder reconsideration of how streets should be used–at least temporarily. as shows, the city has a long history of considering audacious designs to tame urban chaos.

Broadway ca. 1897. [Photo: World Stereoscopic Co./United States Library of Congress]

Moving above ground

沙巴体育手机登录between the 1870s and the 1930s, the city repeatedly adjusted to new types of transportation: first the railroad, then the automobile.

trains, which reached , allowed people and goods to move further and more quickly than ever before. but speeding through cities, they tangled with other street users, resulting in gruesome accidents between horses, carts, and pedestrians.

沙巴体育手机登录a freight railroad that ran along new york city’s eleventh avenue from 1846 to 1941 was so notorious for killing pedestrians that the street earned the nickname “.”


沙巴体育手机登录to combat the train hazard, city and business leaders sought to provide separate spaces for different types of street users. railroad magnates argued for , which required no time-consuming excavation. this solution created new problems, including noise, falling embers, and the dangers of aerial train accidents.

沙巴体育手机登录in 1866, a hat merchant named genin the hatter had another idea: elevate people, not trains. troubled by the dangers of crossing broadway, he successfully lobbied new york to construct a . but the cast iron footbridge lasted only a year before complaints about aesthetics and shadows compelled its removal.

such piecemeal solutions could not fully address the complexities of street activity in late 19th-century new york, which already had nearly four million residents. but they did pilot some concepts that would reappear in later years–especially when the to further complicate urban life.

Elevated railway, Sixth Avenue from 18th St. ca. 1899. [Photo: Strohmeyer & Wyman/United States Library of Congress]

Utopian ideas

cars joined streets already teeming with pedestrians, horses and carts, peddlers, streetcars and elevated railways, with deadly results. new york city documented and more than . in 2019, by contrast, 220 drivers, pedestrians and cyclists died in traffic accidents, according to .

Newspapers frequently published editorials about the threat of automobiles. In 1924, The Washington Post called “death by motorcar” a “national menace” while The New York Times compared car congestion to a .

city leaders responded to rising deaths by imposing . these changes, largely made in the late 1910s and 1920s, began to systematize the street chaos.


but throughout this period, creative architects, engineers, and citizens were thinking bigger. in op-eds, books, and journal articles, they proposed a wild assortment of designs questioning basic assumptions about how cities should work.

some designs moved new york’s sidewalks to make more room for vehicles. these proposals included an along the hudson river, sidewalks hung from the second stories of buildings, and , so that adjoining streets could be widened. more high-tech ideas envisioned building or creating futuristic accessed by elevator-served platforms. one proposal imagined adding highways and moving walkways .

沙巴体育手机登录new york architects hugh ferriss and harvey wiley corbett fused aspects of many of these ideas in a series of and exhibits during the 1920s. the cities of their dreams had regularly spaced modern skyscrapers topped by rooftop gardens, all connected by multilevel streets and aerial pedestrian walkways.

A 1927 proposal for stacked avenues in Manhattan. [Image: The American City/]

From dream to reality

沙巴体育手机登录while none of these proposals came to fruition, they eventually informed some real projects in new york.

the , constructed between 1927 and 1937, combined the earlier idea for a riverside pedestrian promenade with the need to address congestion around manhattan’s shipping piers. its elevated path from canal street northward sped cars for four miles above the chaos of local streets, while its street-level art deco decoration provided a new sleek waterfront identity. it was torn down in the 1970s.

沙巴体育手机登录, though, remains standing. built in the 1930s, this development reordered 22 acres of midtown manhattan, arranging skyscrapers, a performance venue, shops, and restaurants around one central plaza. with multilevel pedestrian connections between spaces, it realized portions of corbett and ferriss’s ideas.


沙巴体育手机登录the still-popular unites two periods in new york’s transportation history. built in 1934 as an elevated freight railroad, it closed in 1980 and was left to decay. in the early 2000s, the city revitalized the high line as a garden-laden, aerial promenade that weaves between buildings and above streets, recalling the utopian plans from a century ago.

these are all precedents for new york’s current effort to transform its streets. like banishing cars from some streets, many past ideas seemed exceedingly unlikely before they happened. the coronavirus pandemic has paused this bustling city long enough to again reframe what residents need to survive in a time of great change.

is an assistant professor of architectural history at . This article is republished from under a Creative Commons license. Read the .

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