President’s Letter: February 2024

Monthly observations and insights from MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein

February 29, 2024

I walked up Broadway from Madison Square last week and experienced a neighborhood in transformation. From a vehicle-dominated thoroughfare to a bike/ped friendly one, the change is amazing. It made me look up at the odd amalgam of architecture from 28th to 31st Streets along Broadway these days. Modern high-end hotels cheek by jowl with beautiful historic buildings slowly finding new life. I realized as I moved through this changing cityscape that I was but a few blocks from the Flower District I had explored not too long ago. I have gotten to know this area well for a variety of reasons. Until recently one of my Board member’s shops was here showcasing her elegant, no-nonsense clothing. It is also home to one of my husband’s jazz finds, the gem of a club called the Jazz Gallery.

It is bordered on the south by Madison Square Park, a green oasis that is home to both some of the most significant classical monuments in the city and some of the most modern public art. At the northern end are Herald and Greeley Squares. I worked in Macy’s in one of my last years in high school, counting paint brushes, if I recall correctly. This area is such an interesting microcosm of New York, changing block by block from Tin Pan Alley to the southern pieces of the Garment District and wholesale/retail accessory stores. But it is the streets where the city’s life flows. Transformed from a back-of-house sort of district to a front-of-house one. There is lots to celebrate here and lots to fear. Will the back-of-house businesses survive that change at their front door? Or will the economic opportunity pass them by?

Giles House at West 29th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, in the mid to later 1800s and in 2010. Historical photo: Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs at the New York Public Library, photographer unknown. Present-day photo: Wikimedia Commons, Beyond My Ken.

That walk reminds me of a conversation I had in the early 80s with someone from Paragon, the sporting goods supplier, at the north corner of Union Square. I was working on the revitalization of Union Square, then just coming out of reconstruction after a decade as a park that people were afraid of and walked around. The person was expressing great fear that if customers could not park their cars at Union Square their business would not survive. I can’t speak to the solidity of Paragon’s business today; but I know that the removal of car parking along Union Square West may have felt like a make-or-break change then, but it wasn’t. No one could have guessed the surge in foot traffic that that entire portion of Broadway was going to experience back then.

Fast forward to 2024 and February 16th marked the one-year anniversary of the appointment of New York City’s Chief Public Realm Officer, Ya-Ting Liu. The transformation of Broadway did not begin during her watch, but it has flourished under it. Similar efforts to re-envision Jamaica and Broadway Junction are underway. These are physical changes to the streetscape that clearly signal a different way to see public spaces. But what is more impressive is that Ya-Ting and her team are tackling the two bureaucratic bugbears that make the community partners managing Open Streets and BIDs tear their hair out: liability and permitting. Following strong advocacy from MAS and our partners in the Alliance for Public Space Leadership, the city is now modulating the permitting process to differentiate between huge events like parades and music events and smaller fare like face-painting and hula hoop classes for kids after school. It is a thankless task to take on this kind of bureaucracy. It doesn’t make you popular inside the halls of government, which is why we want to thank her and everyone else in New York City government who is fighting that fight for all of us.

It is a moment for us who fought so hard to have this position created in city government, to let out a sigh of relief. There is a long way to go, but for a split second, we should allow ourselves to say, yeah, we were right, it is working!

Thanks to you for helping us along this journey!

Elizabeth Goldstein Signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
President, Municipal Art Society of New York

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