Comments Worth Saving: Manhattan Walkability and the Obstacle of Central Park

I left this comment a couple weeks ago on Streetsblog, discussing the possibility of developing bicycle routes across Central Park:

The park itself is the problem. Who decided it would be a good idea to separate the East and West Sides with an imitation landscape? As Dr. Bones points out, crossing the darn thing on bicycle involves long detours or inconvenient walking or both.

Even on foot, there are really only seven transverse routes: W 63 to E 60, along the north side of Hecksher PG and south of the zoo; W 67 to E 69, along the north side of Sheep Meadow and crossing south of Rumsey Playfield; 72d St; W 81 to E 79, past the Delacorte, along the south side of the Great Lawn, and out south of the Met; W 85 to E 84, along the north side of the Great Lawn, and north of the Met; 96th along the path marked for bikes, or 97th by the tennis courts and bathrooms (on opposite sides of the transverse road); and 102d via the shortcut road.

The four routes south of the reservoir are indirect and winding, usually very crowded with people on foot, and poorly marked as cross-park routes. I did use to go around the north end of the Great Lawn after dark back 10 years ago and that was never a problem, but perhaps it has gotten busier now.

The notion that the transverses could be made tolerable for bicycling is seductive, but who wants to ride in a jersey-barriered lane in a ditch? It lacks appeal as anything more than an expedient shortcut.

It seems to me that in a contest between maintaining the park according to the Olmstead-Vaux vision and using parkland to create bicycle facilities, the architects’ vision must take precedence. A three-block-wide green zone in the middle of Manhattan is of course going to impede people getting from one side to the other, no matter how much bicycle infrastructure you build. If Olmstead and Vaux wanted to make bicycling between East and West Sides easy, they wouldn’t have built the park.

Moving on to another aspect of Manhattan’s walkability versus bikeability, I came down firmly on the side of Manhattan being the epitome of walkability, with negative consequences for bikeability, in a short BikePortland comment,

As a Manhattan resident and daily bicyclist, I can attest to the truth of this statement. On my block (no crossing streets), I have day care, flower stand, restaurant, convenience store, pharmacy, fish restaurant, pizza parlor, subway entrance, newsstand, and supermarket. Everything I need, and too close to make bicycling worthwhile. The farmers’ market is about the farthest unique thing away, and that’s only a 20-minute walk.

You can take the woman out of Manhattan, but you can’t take Manhattan out of the woman.

“Kavanagh said it was evident she was from Manhattan.” Queens Gazette, March 3, 2010

You can take the woman out of Manhattan, but you can’t take Manhattan out of the woman. Despite having been killed late last year and left under the eastern end of the Queensboro Bridge, Miss Mannahatta still, in Deputy Inspector Kavanagh’s opinion, retained that je ne sais quoi that residents of New York County, alone among the five boroughs, possess.

I immediately project myself into some kind of Kavanagh-overlaid-with-Dupin persona and begin to conceptualize a physical object, curio or charm that would signify Manhattan residence. What could this signifier be? A key to Gramercy Park? A membership card for the J. Hood Wright Recreation Center? A sloppily-xeroxed weekly schedule of activities from Gouverneur Nursing Home? A half-eaten piece of kippered salmon from Russ & Daughters?

Seeking expert advice, as the next step in my relentless investigation I consulted Lauren Cerand, the mixmaster responsible for Lux Lotus, my personal lodestar of look. Surprisingly, she chose to interpret the question in a more behavioral context:

Because most people are on foot, everything is very village-y in New York and so neighborhoods tend to really reflect the perspectives and interests of their inhabitants more than other places that I’ve lived. Usually when I leave my neighborhood in downtown Manhattan and go somewhere in another borough I am struck by how pretty (more trees, you can see the sky, etc.) and how quiet it is. But I didn’t move to New York because I thought it would be pretty and quiet. And I am sure you can tell that just by looking at me.

So there we are. It wasn’t a trinket or tattoo that Deputy Inspector Kavanagh had discovered, but rather that Manhattan-specific attitude he recognized in Miss Mannahatta, even in her eternal repose.

How can one tell where you live, dear reader?

(B.H. Hellmich’s picture of the Queensboro Bridge from the New York Public Library)