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Cut-Rate Eden

The failed bid to remake public space in Lindsay’s New York

The Invention of Public Space: Designing for Inclusion in Lindsay’s New York by Mariana Mogilevich. University of Minnesota Press, 240 pages.

Passing by the Jacob Riis Houses of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the summer of 1966, an observer would have seen not the empty concrete plaza and fenced off patches of green lawn common to public housing projects, but a vibrant adventure playground populated with gaggles of children. A New York Times reporter visiting the project found children clambering over stepped timbers, digging in sand, leaping from rung to rung of curved steel climbing frames set in heaped mounds, and dipping their feet, arms, and even school uniform ties in wading pools and fountains that streamed over a nearby amphitheater’s steps. Students from a local Catholic school played alongside those from neighborhood public schools, and residents of the Riis Houses mixed with non-residents. A teacher remarked, “You know, children play differently here. It’s not just that they have less fights—they know it’s beautiful.” Puncturing this sentimental reading of the space, the Times reporter observed young boys playing “Hot Peas and Butter,” a game in which one child hid a belt in the sand, the others searched for it, and whoever found it first then hit another player with the belt before burying it again. This boisterous play took place alongside aesthetic appreciation, indicating the varied ways that people occupied the new public space.

Opened in May of that year, the playground was one of a series of experiments undertaken by recently elected Mayor John V. Lindsay’s administration to enrich and expand the city’s public space, with a particular eye to increasing access to places of recreation in working-class neighborhoods that were then becoming majority Black and Puerto Rican. Mariana Mogilevich’s meticulously researched book The Invention of Public Space: Designing for Inclusion in Lindsay’s New York explores how such spaces were seen as a vital way to stave off urban crisis. Using a number of case studies, Mogilevich uncovers a forgotten slice of history that complicates our understanding of the post-war urban crisis, showing how municipal officials and landscape architects tried to revitalize the city by renovating and expanding its public spaces during the 1960s and 1970s.

The specter of urban crisis shaped the mayoral campaign and tenure of Lindsay. Elected as a reform candidate whose Republican affiliation gave him distance from the Democratic track record, he nonetheless had shown that he supported Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs when he served in Congress, particularly civil rights legislation. Hailing from an upper middle-class family, Lindsay was well-connected, and he cannily used media outlets to position himself as a savior to an ailing city. In January 1965, the New York Herald Tribune—which was owned by one of Lindsay’s top financial backers, John Hay Whitney—began a four-month-long series of articles dedicated to New York’s urban crisis. Beginning with the line, “New York is the greatest city in the world—and everything is wrong with it,” the articles went on to detail how middle-class families were leaving the city in droves, how hospitals and schools were deteriorating, and how everything from air pollution to poverty was ruining the experience of city life. Lindsay was quoted approvingly throughout the series and framed as a potential balm to New York’s extensive troubles.

While the Herald Tribune’s reports were sensationalist in their assessments of the challenges of city life, they nonetheless identified many acute issues facing New York and other American cities in the postwar period. Single family homes in the suburbs had become much less expensive thanks to real estate development companies such as Levitt & Sons, which cut costs by applying assembly-line ideas to construction and employing non-union labor to build entire towns. At the same time, racially discriminatory lending practices characterized both private and federal mortgages, so while many white families moved to these newly affordable suburbs, people of color largely remained in the city and were prey to expensive rents and absentee landlords who barely maintained their buildings. Within the city itself, residential segregation had also become increasingly stark—often exacerbated by urban renewal projects—and non-white neighborhoods became particularly dilapidated.

Lindsay campaigned on his ability to stop New York from becoming “a second-class city,” and Mogilevich traces how he foregrounded the role that planners and designers would play in his administration. Always adept at political stunts, he chartered a helicopter and flew over the city with architect Philip Johnson and landscape architect Robert Zion, declaring that they were “depressed at what we saw, but excited by the potential.” His campaign released white papers that declared “cities are for people,” and as mayor he hired young urbanists who wanted to encourage citizen participation and create a city with well-distributed public goods. Crucially, these planners were disaffected with the Robert Moses model, as was much of the general public. Moses had become a metonym for top-down planning that purported to be rational and functional, but which was often deeply dysfunctional in practice. His plans prioritized cars over pedestrians (as in his infamous attempt to carve a road through Washington Square Park), took bulldozers to the city’s existing rich fabric of dense streets, frequently targeted the residences of communities of color for demolition, and disdained community input. Urban designers increasingly looked to alternate models of planning and envisaged cities that would nourish civic participation.

Sparks of Recreation

Lindsay’s administration focused attention on open spaces and sought to create a more equitable system of public spaces devoted to pleasure, play, and gathering that were meant to strengthen New Yorkers’ ties to their city. Though this was in part motivated by genuine concern for neglected communities, it also stemmed from political expediency: fearing racial uprisings, particularly following those in Harlem in the summer of 1964, politicians calculated that increasing access to recreation would “cool” the neighborhoods. The Invention of Public Space attends to public housing plazas, neighborhood playgrounds, pedestrian streets, and waterfront parks to assess how these aims played out in practice. It’s worth noting that Mogilevich is interested in a broad notion of public space, in part because she places herself in conversation with designers and urbanists who used the term expansively. Many of the spaces under discussion were not purely publicly funded, reflecting the straitened city budgets of the period, but all fit within “a broad category of urban space designed and maintained for the express purpose of democratic, inclusive sociability and the cultivation of individual freedom,” as Mogilevich puts it.

The renovation of Jacob Riis Houses Plaza typified how a younger generation of designers sought to remedy arid postwar urbanism and bring new ideas about childhood and play to bear on the built environment. Formed of nineteen austere brick towers, the Jacob Riis Houses, originally constructed in 1949, were characteristic New York City Housing Authority designs. Influenced by the French architect Le Corbusier’s model of “towers in the park,” NYCHA planned high-rise residential buildings surrounded by concrete plazas and lawns. These projects were sited on superblocks—areas that broke with the city’s grid, exceeded the standard block size, and didn’t allow through traffic—that separated them visually and physically from the surrounding neighborhood. Housing reformers who had identified density and lack of access to light and air as key flaws of working-class tenements proclaimed that the new public housing solved these issues. However, as residents and multiple critics—Jane Jacobs being one of the most well-known—pointed out, these new projects destroyed the dynamic street life of tenement districts and looked forbidding and austere when set against the surrounding urban fabric.

Mogilevich shows how municipal officials and landscape architects tried to revitalize the city by renovating public spaces during the 1960s and 1970s.

The NYCHA exacerbated these shortcomings in its authoritarian approach to open space in the projects. As Mogilevich notes, the organization purchased fifty thousand feet of chain link fencing annually to keep residents off the green lawns. Tenants, who were increasingly Black and Puerto Rican as the white immigrant populations who had first lived in public housing moved out of the city, lacked basic agency over their everyday environment. Pointing to increasing discontent, the housing reformer Ira S. Robbins, who served on the NYCHA board, convinced private foundations to pay to upgrade open spaces in the projects. The Vincent Astor Foundation funded a series of experiments in reviving the dead spaces, and the young landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg won multiple commissions, including at the Riis Houses, to redesign these areas.

Friedberg rejected functionalist urbanism and aimed to create “a playful, permissive, and participatory urban environment” in the Riis Houses Plaza, focusing particularly on how kids experienced the space. A key part of the plan was found in the northern end of the plaza, which housed the first adventure playground in New York. Though the design of a playground might seem straightforward, Mogilevich shows how Friedberg’s choices indicated broader ideological shifts surrounding childhood and play. Traditional playgrounds contain some configuration of the “four S’s”: swing, seesaw, sandbox, and slide set in isolation. But critics beginning in the 1930s began to suggest that such standardized layouts rationalized play and made it a predictable and repetitive task that didn’t engage children’s imagination. The Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen, who watched kids playing in junkyards and observed how they made their own landscapes for games out of scrap materials, began to advocate in the 1930s and 1940s for playgrounds that would encourage such non-directed play. English advocates, such as Lady Allen of Hurtwood, took up adventure playgrounds after seeing children find ways to play in bomb sites. Friedberg wrote that his experiments in playground design were inspired by watching his own and other children and noticing that they preferred to leap and climb at will. He dubbed this “linked play” and sought to design a landscape that would be conducive to their impulses.

At Riis Plaza, Friedberg provided a varied terrain of granite pyramids and mounds surrounded by sand, connected by a network of steel climbing frames and punctuated by timbers of different heights for children to climb over, so that kids could be in constant motion and chart their own path through the playground. As Mogilevich writes, “The play environment created physical space for human agency. As a microcosm of the larger urban environment, it offered a model for an ideal city that might be analogously participatory.” But, as she also notes, as with many of these projects, participation was metaphorically invoked without users being materially included in the planning process. Nonetheless, the playground was hugely successful; families came from around the city after reading about the experiment, and it led to adventure playgrounds across the city, including the enduring popular examples in Central Park.

Beyond the playground, Friedberg transformed the rest of the plaza into a series of spaces for residents of all ages that again were meant to encourage visitors’ agency. Friedberg remarked of previous NYCHA designs that “one was directed to a place to sit, a place to play, a place to walk, a place to run, and a place to congregate—places for automaton behavior. . . . In this atmosphere, trees, flowers, and lawn were properly manicured and cared for . . . only the people withered.” In the Riis Houses grounds, he removed the chain-link fences and sought to welcome residents by creating four “outdoor rooms” that alternated between quiet and active space. Elderly residents had shaded brick alcoves in which to sit and take their leisure, while children had a series of play areas. Friedberg carefully planned the landscape to rise and fall, and he replanted the London plane trees of the original project to emerge at varied heights throughout to create visual interest.

Anchoring the space in the center was a thousand-seat amphitheater that doubled as a spray pool in summer. The amphitheater was the site of plays and musical performances by local groups, including Latin and soul acts, which made space for different cultural tastes. But as Mogilevich points out, it was also “part of a broader municipal cultural and recreation strategy to keep problematic parts of the city ‘cool’ in the long, hot summer.” Thus, the vision of a permissive and participatory space was still circumscribed in the kinds of activities that it encouraged. Cultural appreciation and children’s play were envisaged as ideals: not protest or political rallies.

Diluted Remedies

In 1965 the city continued the open space experiments with a program that turned vacant lots in working-class Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods into “vest-pocket parks,” yet another part of the city’s “cooling” strategy toward racial strife. Neighborhoods such as Bedford Stuyvesant, the Lower East Side, Harlem, and the South Bronx had suffered disinvestment for years and were pockmarked with disused spaces and dilapidated abandoned buildings thanks to absentee landlords and municipal neglect. The city saw a cheap opportunity to improve these neighborhoods by creating temporary small parks in empty lots. Mogilevich points out that this was fueled in part by an enduring dislike on the part of middle-class professionals of children playing in the street.

John Lindsay’s campaign released white papers that declared “cities are for people,” and as mayor he hired young urbanists who wanted to encourage citizen participation.

Since the Progressive Era, reformers had carved out small parks in dense immigrant neighborhoods to provide a healthier urban landscape and a safe place for children to play. But by the 1960s, such concerns were overlaid with fears of racial uprisings. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—convened by Johnson in 1967 to assess the causes of urban rebellions—identified parks and playgrounds as the most visible part of the public scene and the quickest to (at least be seen to) improve. There was a real recreation deficit in poor, increasingly Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods, and the city sought to address this inequity, but vest-pocket parks were also a cut-rate means to avoid racial protests without addressing many of the root causes of social inequities. These parks also did little to mitigate some of the key markers of environmental racism, such as neighborhoods having sparse tree cover; because the parks were only temporary, the Parks Department did not plant new trees or shrubs.

Intended to function as visible signs that under Lindsay the municipal government cared for poor neighborhoods, these new parks again raised questions of what role city officials, designers, and residents ought to play in planning public space. Throughout The Invention of Public Space, Mogilevich traces the wave of self-questioning that rippled through the professions of urban planning and landscape architecture throughout the 1960s. Many were unsure of whether their expertise should take precedence over community knowledge. These new parks were an opportunity to experiment with community planning: as Mogilevich shows, they were meant to function not merely as beautification projects but had the potential to serve as “a testing ground for new forms of political organization that privileged community knowledge and action over municipal direction.” The first park to open, located across three vacant lots in Bedford Stuyvesant, was shaped by community participation. The Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council, a local organization, spearheaded the project; they chose the site and toured parks and playgrounds in the city before attending design meetings with the architect Friedberg. Friedberg had neighborhood children play on equipment as it was installed and give their feedback. Much like at Riis Park, he sought to provide a space where kids could clamber, jump, and run without having to line up for prescribed activities. Unemployed men from the neighborhood were paid to build the park, and they used reclaimed materials to construct timber clusters and a tree house.

But as the city extended the program to ten more locations, community participation became more limited. Friedberg created equipment that could be combined in various ways: each park opened with easily dismantled steel or wood pergolas with benches at entrances, then was strewn with timber or concrete modular play equipment, and often decorated with brightly colored murals. While Friedberg focused on innovative design, residents were more concerned with maintenance, security, and greenery. The Parks Department ignored their misgivings. Though many parks began well enough, the department didn’t have the budget for proper maintenance of this increasingly large and dispersed system, and many ended up in the same dilapidated condition they had been supposed to remedy. Some sites were surrendered by the city, while others were taken up by local community groups and turned into community gardens. Though the city had attempted to provide a space for civic engagement, limited funds and lack of communication with residents stymied these hopes.

Public Space, Privatized Good

Mogilevich astutely shows that while public space is often spoken about as a good in and of itself, this masks the power relations embedded in the design, construction, and use of public spaces. In an epilogue reflecting on the years since Lindsay’s administration, she points out that the often-specious conflation of public space with the public good has intensified in the intervening decades, most notably in the rise of privately owned public spaces and business improvement districts. This was particularly evident in New York during the Bloomberg years: though there were many public space initiatives, they predominantly benefited the upper middle class and tourists. As she puts it, “The persistence of that naturalized association between public space, diversity, inclusion, and participation would serve countless urban developments that made the city less and less democratic.”

Such associations sustain contemporary developments in public space, including the recently opened Little Island in the Hudson River, designed by Heatherwick Studio. Known for the critically reviled and physically perilous Vessel in Hudson Yards, and for squandering public funds on a since-cancelled “Garden Bridge” project in London enabled by then-mayor Boris Johnson’s cronyism, the Teflon-like firm worked with Barry Diller and the Hudson River Park Trust to create this new so-called public park. Sited on the affluent fringe of the gentrified Meatpacking District and nearby Chelsea Market, it adds another spectacular tourist attraction to the city rather than comprising a meaningful improvement to New York’s park system. As the architecture critic Alexandra Lange has noted, there are many more restrictions in this vanity project than in the city’s other public parks—no biking, skateboarding, scooting, rollerblading, or playing music—and while this park’s maintenance is sustained by Diller’s fortune, parks in poorer neighborhoods run off volunteer assistance.

Many other initiatives over the past decade also conform to the more conservative strands of Mogilevich’s account of New York’s public spaces. The most high-profile renovation of NYCHA’s open spaces during Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty has been the widely criticized installation of bright flood lights intended to reduce illegal activities. Typifying Oscar Newman’s theory of defensible space, rather than the hopes of landscape architects like Friedberg to provide a playful and permissive public realm for working-class New Yorkers, these lights have had little material effect on crime while implicitly criminalizing public housing residents, and have diminished the quality of life in NYCHA towers. Last October, the NYCHA released an Open Space Masterplan report outlining less punitive plans to improve public spaces across its projects and included participatory design as a key part of the process. The report found that many of the issues afflicting public housing in the postwar period remained, and it emphasized the need for better maintenance, less fenced-off space, and community gardens where tenants could decide what to plant. Yet the masterplan also notes that the ideal upgrades would require more money than current public budgets allow and forecasts that the agency will have to partner with nonprofit organizations and private foundations in order to be able to carry out such improvements—much like they had to for the Riis Plaza redesign—indicating the persistent underfunding of New York’s public realm.

The Invention of Public Space deftly denaturalizes associations between public space and the public good that continue to linger to this day. By assessing a rich array of case studies, Mogilevich prompts readers to consider who is invited to enjoy the city’s open spaces and on what terms. Her account of the problems of many Lindsay-era experiments in urban design highlights the limitations of improving access to recreation without substantively addressing housing or school inequalities, the need for decent maintenance budgets to sustain interventions in low-income areas, and the vital importance of community participation in design. Yet these flawed attempts also point toward paths forward. What emerges from the pages of this history is the enduring vitality of a political project that starts amid the public housing towers and tenement-lined streets of working-class New York neighborhoods and creates more equitable and more playful public spaces, taking as its motto that all city dwellers have a right to fun.