Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Controlling Astor Place

Astor Place has long been a site of public protest and free expression. Today, after an upscale redesign, it is being controlled. This is what happens in a neoliberalized city. Public space becomes quasi-privatized.

And as urban scholar Sharon Zukin notes in Naked City, "Privatized public space...tends to reinforce social inequality."

New signs asserting the rules have gone up over Astor Place. Prohibited activities include the "unreasonable obstruction" of sitting areas and pedestrians, along with camping, storing personal belongings, and lying down.

This language clearly refers to the presence of homeless people and presumably will be used to harass them out of the new plaza. They can also be used to stop political protests and spontaneous, unregulated art performances.

Skateboarding is also not allowed, though it's been an unofficial Astor Place tradition for decades. In addition to this sign, there are several other day-glo signs placed on the ground around the plaza. They look like they're yelling. If you did try to skateboard (or bike) here, you'd have to maneuver around the signs, like in an obstacle course, there are so many of them.

You also can't smoke at the New Astor Place. It used to be an open public square, a city street, but now it's officially a Pedestrian Plaza, and Bloomberg outlawed smoking in Pedestrian Plazas.

A Pedestrian Plaza is much more controllable than an ordinary public square. The city's Department of Transportation began the Public Plaza Program in 2008 under Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan of the Bloomberg Administration. They hyped Pedestrian Plazas as a way to improve the "quality of life" for New Yorkers by removing cars from the streets and providing open space for sitting.

But one thing Pedestrian Plazas do really well, aside from controlling the populace, is to raise property values in the surrounding area. The Times Square Pedestrian Plaza, for example, helped to hike retail rents by 71 percent in just six months. Sadik-Khan called it “the largest increase in the city’s history.”

photo: Taji Ameen and Justin Fly, via Vice

The new Astor Place Pedestrian Plaza is run by the Business Improvement District known as Village Alliance, a private group managed mostly by real-estate developers. BIDs are invested in raising property values. As Max Rivlin-Nadler wrote in The New Republic this year, "Business Improvement Districts are a favored neoliberal practice that transforms mixed-income neighborhoods into the same chain stores one can find at any outlet mall across the country."

A BID can also "hire its own security to patrol an area, effectively control who is offered retail space, kick out street vendors, and influence legislation and expansion efforts."

People who live in nearby condos also want to raise property values. Recall the rumor we heard this summer that "some type of committee at the Sculpture for Living building," the green glass condo tower on the square, is helping to dictate what happens at Astor Place.

(While I've not been able to confirm that rumor, I don't doubt it. We saw something similar happen with Washington Square Park, when a private group of "wealthy women" incorporated themselves into a conservancy to push “unsightly” hot dog vendors from the park.)

Where's the Cube?

"BIDs," Sharon Zukin wrote, "are an oligarchy; they embody the norm that the rich should rule."

They "direct a new kind of governance of public spaces by creating 'discretely manicured spaces' as playgrounds for adult consumers who have internalized norms of proper behavior and keep watch over others to make sure they conform to the rules. In an implicit bargain for the power to exercise control, BIDs provide quality services that show users they are being catered to: cleanliness, safety, well-tended flower beds, poetry readings."

When our public spaces are quasi-privatized, given over to zombie urbanism, they no longer belong to us. They may look pleasant on the surface, with benches, umbrellas, and public art installations, but they conceal a darker intention.

They are meant to control the people and the spaces of the city. They increase inequality and raise the rents. They squash public dissent. They package corporate advertising as interactive installation. As they hyper-gentrify our neighborhoods, they displace those of us who might protest.

Be aware. You are being civilized.

Battle for Astor Place
Astor Place Farce


Scout said...

I love freedom and deregulation, but I can't defend skateboarders (a nasty group of slacker and slacker-wanna-be terrorists, who we have all witnessed run pedestrians down) or smokers (poisoning yourself is your choice, but your smoke poisons those around you as well).

I support freedom; but I draw the line at freedom to physically harass or harm the community around you.

Unknown said...

So corny.

Montage of skateboarding at Astor Place circa 1997:


Brian said...

Just my opinion: Astor Place has been a unique architectural place for decades/centuries, but the pedestrian part of it as I have known it has never been much of a place for folks to hang out on. The recent buildings that have been added the last 10 years are IMHO just horrible and offensive. The open parts that make up the Plaza set off the architecture nicely. But I would never have thought to sit or hang out in the Plaza area before. But maybe now I will if there are tables and chairs. The same BID thing happened in Herald Square and the Flat Iron and I think it improved both places imensely.

Downtowner said...

I normally agree with the POV of Jeremiah, but as others have noted, Astor Place used to be a pedestrian hell. The odd merging of streets made navigating very difficult. While the new installations are anemic in design, the area is easier to traverse as a pedestrian. And the BIDs help keep the areas clean, and often provide work for those who are recovering addicts seeking a job and a sense of stability.

Suomi.Rager said...

It seems to me a class-action suit against the City could be mounted, for selling land that belongs to us (or transferring control of that land).

mrnickcooper said...

Oh my god. What is wrong with these commentators? I bet not one of them grew up within 20 blocks of Astor Place or ever rode a board. Jeremiah, the success of this blog has brought the urban-lifestyle tourists to your url. What a great joy it will be to sit beside heinous architecture looking at KMart signs and take in the branded artwork These phonies don't want to live in NY, they want to live in Kansas in NY.

SadEnding said...

You want to "hang out"? Go to a park. The intersection of Lafayette, 4th Avenue, 8th Street, Astor Place, and the Northern extension of the Bowery is what NYC is all about: traffic: traffic that allows businesses to thrive that provide goods and services to millions of people who work and live here.

Any time I see a new "pedestrian" space, all I can this is: "higher rental cost." Period. that's what this is all about, making the real estate interests richer and richer.

Bring back "The Alamo"!!!

Unknown said...

Yep, I agree with others who state that these BID public sitting spaces or "ass parks" as I call them are just another scam to produce higher rents. The city is basically postponing the imminent bankruptcy it is facing by essentially selling off its property to what else?...CORPORATIONS. I think they come up with these privatization ideas so they can reduce the payroll for police and maintenance while the rent in those areas miraculously sore. It's another win win, but a sign that the city desperately needs to raise some funds to keep up appearances.

The people that think these staged urban squares make the city more palatable for pedestrians must love visiting the food court at the mall. At least there you get a roof over your head and heat in the winter while you eat your Panera and Cinnabon. New York may be the city that never sleeps, but it sure loves to sit these days!

Pat said...

Interestingly, the pedestrian plazas were built where Broadway intersects another avenue at Times Square, Herald Square, 23rd Street Flatiron, 17th Street Union Square, Astor Place. I also shudder at the Orwellian overtones of the controlling of Astor Place and the other "not quite public" plazas. But, as a senior whose days of sprinting across the street against the yellow traffic light are over I do find it easier to get around. Especially 17th Street Union Square and 23rd Street Flatiron, you were just taking your life in your hands before as I recall.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your insights about agendas of Social Control.

From your rules on Comments:
"this is an individually run blog, not a democratic nation nor a wide-open public forum"

From your Post:
"Be aware. You are being civilized."

So, you expect people to be civilized in your Blog comments, but not in Public Places.

Many people like myself are sick to death of seeing what happens on Public Streets where people openly flaunt their refusal to be civilized...

Like the streets of Chicago, where children, the elderly and everyday normal people are preyed upon, victimized and *shot* on a daily basis by people who have no use for the common courtesies you demand for *your* blog, but you insist that the rest of us are dupes when we want those things for our *entire* city.

Safety. Stability. The opportunity to *enjoy* something without ignorant, selfish people inflicting their narcissism on everybody else.

IF you want disinhibition go live in the hell-hole "'hoods" of Chicago and witness what happens when *no Businesses* want to deal with the lawlessness that suffocates any enterprises except pimping, drug-dealing and selling CDs and loose cigarettes.

Some of us *want* to be civilized, and when we don't - we go to Burning Man.

In the immortal words of Bob Dylan: "The pumps don't work cause the Vandals stole the handles."

cmarrtyy said...

Astor Plaza redo represents the failure of government to deal affectively with the problems and wishes of a community. Noise is the # 1 complaint in the EV as it is around the city. So what do our politicians do? They create a space to make noise... to allow second rate circus acts and product promotions to add to the jumble that already is annoying. The second most important problem in the EV is the lack of open, green space. Astor would have been a perfect solution. It still is if you add about 25 more trees and actual benches(not those slabs of stone). If that were to happen the area would be alive with people eating, reading, chatting or just quietly enjoying the time of day. But that concept of use is anathema to the desire of the Business District that sees an open concrete space as a source of income. And politicians and pundits wonder why people don't vote and don't care and are willing to support "far out" candidates. WE'RE HELPLESS. WHERE ARE OUR POLITICIANS!?

Matthew has 2 T's, dumbass said...

stupid waste of money all of it.
fuck off Bloomberg

Anonymous said...

I went here yesterday, and there is actually a security guard posted there. I thought it was just a guy hanging out in a red t-shirt and black pants and coat. But then a couple of people moved their chairs into the sun a few feet away, and he rushed to scold them and tell them they weren't allowed to move the furniture. I literally laughed out loud and said "whatever..." which got me a series of dirty looks. The funny thing is, the chastised people apologized profusely for their apparent transgression. I guess we are becoming increasingly used to being told what we are and aren't allowed to do in "public" spaces. This guy definitely didn't work for the police or the parks, so where does he get the authority to decide what is allowed in this space? Anyway, Astor Place was ruined when that "Sculpture for Living" building went up, and the final nail in the coffin was that Death Star building. But now we have another CVS, so, you know, yay.

Pat said...

Every year the Flatiron BID has a temporary art installation in the plaza for the holidays. This year they are having LED lit steel arches with hammocks suspended from them for people to lay in and take in the scenery. Must remind them of their suburban backyards where they came here from. Nothing says holidays in NYC like a hammock!

demize! said...

A little late to the party here, but went to see the redone cube and it was behind some sort of barricade flooded by purple light. I have the feeling it was welded so as to no longer be an interactive sculture. Aside from the assault on 3 sides by aggressively bad post modern dreck architecture and chain stores, the actual plaza was enclosed by some sort of Game of Thrones theme park, with lines to seemingly wait to stand on more lines. I went to Veselka, lamented, and went back uptown.

Tom Sganga said...

Fuck this town.