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It Takes a Village to Change a Street

May 8, 2013

As I’ve written many times before, historic charm is often in the eye of the beholder.  So when people say that changing a street will in some way ruin the historic characteristics of the neighborhood, it’s important to ask them which historic characteristics they mean.  When, exactly, does their sense of New York City History begin?

For the residents of 99 Bank Street, the answer seems to be sometime in the 1960s.  They’re currently pursuing whatever legal options they have left to remove a Citi Bike station in front of their building, and have played the “historic charm” card to make their case.  Here’s attorney Jeffrey Barr as quoted in the  Daily News:

“The placement of such a massive futuristic structure … (and) dropping … a slab in front of (their) 100 year old landmark building located on an historic street in a landmarks protected district is offensive to the public and residents,” the owners’ lawyer, Jeffrey Barr, says in court papers.

Futuristic structures on historic streets in a landmarks protected district?  If the residents of 99 Bank Street care to leave their immediate street and walk barely one block east, they’ll find plenty of things that might not jibe with some people’s idea of history.  Via Ephemeral New York, here’s a picture of nearby Abingdon Square in 1900:

AbingdonSquare1900

Click to enlarge.

Abingdon Square became a public park in 1831.  Surely such futuristic structures as the electric cable stretching across Hudson Street and 8th Avenue and the [theatre? hotel?] sign that reads “Abingdon” would have looked completely odd and out of place to the Villagers of the pre-Civil-War era when they first laid eyes on them.

Now check out the futuristic structures surrounding Abingdon Square in this screen grab from Google Maps, taken from approximately the same angle:

AbingdonSq2013

A few things haven’t changed, including some of the buildings along Hudson Street.  Even the lamp in the 2013 picture at the edge of Abingdon Square seems to be historically accurate.  But almost everything else, from the traffic signals to the brightly colored automobiles, would look shock the residents of 1900s-era 99 Bank Street residents if they were suddenly transported to today’s New York.  (Not least of all the prices people are now paying to live in their old building!)

As Ben Fried at Streetsblog put it, “It’s Too Late to Preserve New York Streets in Amber.”  When appropriate, we should fight to preserve buildings, blocks, and structures that reflect our city’s long and storied history, but the streets almost always need to reflect the current needs of today’s citizens.

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One Comment
  1. Gaston Rosquet permalink
    May 9, 2013 9:31 am

    I lived at 99 Bank Street for many years. My how things have changed.
    The sense of history you mention is more than selective; it is either delusional or completely disingenuous. Few if any of the current residents of that building would have deigned to set foot on that block in 1960.

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