Publication Date

December 1, 2008

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

New York City has a vibrant and diverse assortment of public spaces, many of which are conveniently accessible to the annual meeting headquarters hotels, including such world famous and historically noteworthy spots as Central Park, Rockefeller Center, Times Square, and Grand Central Terminal.

Central Park, just five blocks from the hotels, covers 843 acres and stretches two and a half miles north from 59th Street to 110th Street, flanked on the east by the sought-after apartment residences that line 5th Avenue and on the west by the similarly expensive and luxurious buildings of Central Park West. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, whose “greensward” design was selected in an 1857 contest. The southern end of the park, nearest to the meeting hotels, features beautifully landscaped walking paths that lead to the Pond, the Dairy, the Carousel, the Wollman Skating Rink (open to the public), and the Central Park Zoo. These last two attractions offer the added benefit of hot drinks and a respite from mid-winter cold weather

Rockefeller Center (48th–51st St., between 5th and 6th Ave.), a precedent-setting urban development project started in 1929 and opened in 1939, consists of numerous art deco office towers around a public square. John D. Rockefeller Jr. financed the expansive project in the midst of the Depression on land leased from Columbia University. The buildings—including the RCA building (now known as the GE building) on the western side of the central plaza and Radio City Music Hall, which is at 50th Street and 6th Avenue—are linked by underground pedestrian concourses lined with shops. This underground commercial streetscape, complete with easy access to multiple subway lines, is similar to the underground mall that was later built under the World Trade Center. The central plaza, festooned with the flags of the member nations of the United Nations and the 50 states, houses a public ice-skating rink surrounded by shops, cafes, and restaurants. Each December, the plaza is decorated with an enormous Christmas tree, a holiday season icon for the entire city.

Times Square, perhaps the most famous of New York’s public spaces, is a few blocks further south. Located at the intersection of 7th Avenue and Broadway, from 45th Street to 42nd Street, the square was named for the New York Times, which first moved its headquarters there at the turn of the century. The neighborhood surrounding the square quickly became a bustling hive of activity, the centerpiece of the city’s theater and entertainment districts. The square sits atop one of the biggest stations on the city’s original subway line, which opened in 1904. The constant flow of traffic—on the sidewalks as well as on the streets—made this an ideal location for billboard advertising, which grew more and more extravagant as entrepreneurs competed to attract attention. The flashy electric signs combined with the brightly lit marquees of the theaters to make Times Square a world famous spectacle. However, starting in the 1940s, the area began a long and steady decline. By the 1970s, 42nd Street and the square itself were home to numerous peep shows, adult bookstores, cheap hotels, widespread prostitution, and rampant petty street crime.

In the 1990s, as part of New York City’s reviving economic fortunes, Times Square was redeveloped and reinvigorated. The first steps in this process were an aggressive police crackdown on street crime, stricter regulation of the sex-related businesses, and the recruitment of the Disney Corporation and the Marriott hotel chain to invest in highly visible rehabilitation projects. Disney, in particular, is often credited as a leader of the revival of Times Square, because of its successful effort to buy, renovate, and reopen the New Amsterdam Theater and later the New Victory Theater (both on 42nd Street and 7th Ave.). Today the square is surrounded by new office towers (including a recently constructed headquarters for the New York Times) and a state-of-the-art collection of multistory high-tech billboards and advertising displays, bigger and brighter than ever, creating an impressive round-the-clock spectacle.

Grand Central Terminal sits a few blocks to the east along 42nd Street. Built in 1913, the station is one of the most striking public spaces in the city. The construction of the terminal was more than just a railway operation; it was also an elaborate and ingenious real estate development scheme and a complex urban planning project. The first terminal built on the site had been erected by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1869, soon after he had gained control of all of the rail lines into the city. At the turn of the century, in response to pressure from the city to electrify the urban portions of the line, engineer William Wilgus devised a plan to submerge the tracks under 4th Avenue, which would be covered by a lavishly landscaped tree-lined boulevard and renamed Park Avenue. It is now one of the most desirable residential addresses in the city. The railroad selected a design for the new terminal by the Reed and Stem architectural firm. This plan included an innovative system of ramps and tunnels that allowed train, subway, automotive, and pedestrian traffic to coexist. The impressive 42nd Street façade, facing south, was designed by Whitney Warren of the architectural firm Warren and Wetmore. The interior of the terminal, though, may be the most impressive part of the entire endeavor. The main concourse is almost 400 feet long, covered by an arched ceiling that is over 100 feet high, painted deep blue, and outfitted with embedded lights simulating the constellations of the night sky.

No discussion of the public spaces of New York would be complete without mention of the most interesting—the city sidewalks. The streets of Manhattan are shared by residents, commuters, and tourists alike; coming from countless different locales, representing all walks of life, sharing the same pavement, the largest and most widely used public space in the city.

Owen Gutfreund is associate professor of history and urban studies at Barnard College, where he directs the joint Barnard-Columbia Urban Studies Program. He is the author of 20th Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape (Oxford University Press, 2005). He is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.