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Guess what? Park Avenue used to be …a park

A gazillion years ago when I was 17 I traveled solo to Paris, as part of a 3-month sojourn in Europe where I took trains and hitchhiked (molto pericoloso!) if the trains didn’t run to where I needed to go. The fashion of the day was halter-tops, bell-bottoms, and platform shoes …which gives an indication of the era I’m talking about.

When I got to Paris, I was frankly disappointed. It was summer, therefore hot, and the city was choked to the gills with cars. Lots of cars. The automobile had absolute priority over everything else: no sidewalk cafe seemed safe from an intrusive bumper or stinking car exhaust, drivers “parked” on sidewalks, and basically the whole show was a mess.

At one point, I thought, “The car has killed this city.”

Paris, for pete’s sake. How could you not love Paris?

Well, cars are pretty intrusive. It takes training to tune them out, and I wanted to let the city in, not have cars run me over.

It’s so damn obvious that cars destroy a city’s street life, yet we’re only now getting policy-wise and serious about stopping urban death-by-car.

So, props to Streetfilms for this video, Fixing the Great Mistake: Autocentric Development. From the description:

“Fixing the Great Mistake” is a new Streetfilms series that examines what went wrong in the early part of the 20th Century, when our cities began catering to the automobile, and how those decisions continue to affect our lives today.

In this episode, Transportation Alternatives director Paul Steely White shows how planning for cars drastically altered Park Avenue. Watch and see what Park Avenue used to look like, how we ceded it to the automobile, and what we need to do to reclaim the street as a space where people take precedence over traffic.

Oddly, Manhattan traffic struck me as electrifying when I experienced it a couple of years after Paris: a kind of visceral thrum that drove energy into your bones. (Of course that might just have been NYC itself at work, its automobile traffic a white noise to the energy of its people.) But New York City with fewer cars is obviously a great idea.

When you watch this video and see Paul Steely White sitting on a tiny little strip of grass, the vestige that remains of the “park” in Manhattan’s Park Avenue, you really get an idea of what was …and what could be.

Added bonus in the video: a reference to Robert Moses, exporter of super-highways as well as mostly gracious Westchester parkways, but too often a destroyer of the urban street fabric, aka the man Jane Jacobs beat. (See Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint.)


  1. Now this is a subject I feel very strongly about. I agree that cars kill street life, but I don’t agree that we’re getting serious about it. Most people don’t even realize it’s a problem. Some people in New York might be thinking about it, but it’s going to be years or even decades before anything happens in Victoria.

    Comment by Daniel — March 7, 2010 #

  2. […] And so I drove, which is kind of ironic in light of my earlier blog post about how cars kill cities. […]

    Pingback by » Inbetween places Yule Heibel's Post Studio © 2003-2010 — March 8, 2010 #

  3. I think part of the problem is our inability to address transportation as a regional issue. Each municipality guards its “turf,” as we’ve seen ad nauseum now with the Johnson Street Bridge (a piece of City of Victoria turf, even though it should be a regional asset).
    Thus, for example, when I recently asked Mayor Fortin why the JSB should be upgraded to “lifeline” status instead of the Bay Street Bridge (which carries vital infrastructure, including water main, electrical lines, phone lines, and gas lines), I was told that the city doesn’t own the water (CRD) or the electrical lines (BC Hydro) or phone lines (Telus) or the gas lines (Terasen), therefore they’re not going to upgrade the Bay Street Bridge because why should they (we) pay for that when it benefits all these other stakeholders …who aren’t (yet??) at the table? (Hello? I think my brain just had an aneurysm…)
    Ya know, with thinking like that, it’s a marvel we don’t all still live in caves… (with attached parking garage, of course…)

    Comment by Yule — March 8, 2010 #

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