by Bill Millard
Event: The New Urbanism of Mayor Lindsay: The Downtown Scene
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.31.10
Speakers: Hilary Ballon, Ph.D. — Deputy Vice Chancellor, NYU Abu Dhabi, & University Professor of Art History and Archaeology, NYU
Organizers: AIANY; NYU Grey Art Gallery; Fales Library
Photograph by Katrina Thomas, courtesy of the photographer, via the Museum of the City of New York
Casual readers of Hilary Ballon’s title could be fooled twice: there’s nothing here about the 1960s “downtown scene” in the Warhol sense, and no references to The New Urbanism as advocated later by Andrés Duany, FAIA. But a new kind of urbanism (uncapitalized) was brewing in those heady days under Mayor John Lindsay. An approach to policy that brings architects into public service and recognizes the critical effects of design on the quality of life, these concepts are now familiar enough in city-planning circles to seem transparent. However, when Lindsay took office in 1966, in the twilight of the Robert Moses era, they were innovations. They are among the many changes that appear, through historical excavations of Hilary Ballon, Ph.D., to be valuable long after the Lindsay era was dead and buried. Ballon’s work on Moses (editing Robert Moses and the Modern City along with Kenneth Jackson) did a great deal to complicate and rescue the reputation of that pivotal figure; she is now bringing a comparably balanced perspective to a very different metropolitan icon.
Mentioning the phrase “quality of life” in the same breath with Lindsay’s name is a guaranteed provocation for those who associate him with transit and garbage strikes and rising crime rates. Lindsay’s leadership is overdue for a reappraisal; it’s about to get one not only from Ballon, but from the Museum of the City of New York, which will mount an exhibition called “The Lindsay Years” this May, along with a day-long symposium, a book edited by Sam Roberts of the Times, and a WNET documentary. Lindsay couldn’t deflect every social storm that battered NY, but some of his less-heralded accomplishments helped the city eventually become, once again, not only governable but worth inhabiting.
Lindsay took the heat for, among other things, a host of problems he’d inherited from predecessor Robert Wagner. Largely unrecognized in this picture is the paradigm shift he generated by making the design of public spaces an institutional priority. “Moses didn’t regard design as a matter of public policy,” Ballon noted. At the peak of his power, even some of the strongest legacies of “the good Moses,” such as his myriad playgrounds, took a cookie-cutter approach to design. Under Lindsay, whose campaign made urban design a prominent component of his platform, the city got Richard Dattner, FAIA’s Adventure Playground, a park-use policy under August Heckscher and Thomas Hoving, Hon. AIA, that made Central Park a “space for happenings,” and an explicit recognition of pedestrians’ right to street space. We got Battery Park City, built on downtown landfill, with new rules preserving visual corridors and pedestrian paths. Most important in the long run, we got the City Planning Commission’s Urban Design Group, an architectural and infrastructural brain trust that pioneered tools such as bonus zoning and air-rights transfer, all guided by a philosophy of using zoning, as Ballon said, “to create public benefits, not just restrict harms.”
Though Moses was largely defanged by then, it must be noted, we also nearly got his long-planned Lower Manhattan Expressway (LoMEx). Lindsay first campaigned against it, but after taking office reversed course and supported it, assigning the Urban Design Group to come up with a plan less intrusive than Moses’s massive elevated roadway. The group brought architect Shadrach Woods back to NY from housing-project work in France in 1968, “committed,” as Richard Buford’s invitation letter declared, “to the proposition that the expressway not be a scar on the body of the city.” Woods produced feasibility studies incorporating immense sociological data on SoHo residents and businesses, all aimed at mitigating neighborhood conflicts and preserving the area’s cast-iron architecture. Even in attempting to implement LoMEx, Ballon noted, Lindsay’s team thought progressively about how it might be a positive influence, a mixed-use project including replacement housing, not just another neighborhood-killing car conduit like the Cross-Bronx Expressway.
Veterans of Lindsay’s City Hall and the Urban Design Group spoke spontaneously as well, including Jordan Gruzen, FAIA; Terrance Williams; Lance Jay Brown, FAIA; and former mayoral chief of staff Jay Kriegel. All recalled the era as a formative period in their careers and an unsung heyday in the city’s development. Ballon quoted Ada Louise Huxtable, Hon. AIA, writing of Lindsay’s group in a 1971 Times piece with her customary prescience, hailing “a revolution going on in American cities: in conceptual, legal, and administrative aspects of zoning that sets such innovative patterns of land use that it will change whole parts of cities as we know them. Don’t write off the revolution because it is being made by men in business suits at City Hall.”
Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in OCULUS, Icon, Content, The Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.