Eric Adams’ Fifth Avenue promenade shows promise — but it’s a long way from making Midtown Xmas-tourist-friendly
Ghost-town Midtown is a thing of the past. Christmas tourists are back, clogging up the streets and sidewalks. But New York has had years to make a more pleasant environment for our hordes of visitors on foot — and is still making only baby-step progress.
Baby-step progress is better than none. So Mayor Eric Adams gets two cheers — OK, even 2½ — for giving walkers more room in Midtown this holiday season.
He’s continued the de Blasio-era policy of closing 49th and 50th Streets around Rockefeller Center to car and truck traffic through early January. And he’s added his own new protocol: closing Fifth Avenue to traffic altogether on three December Sundays, to create a pedestrian promenade.
A walk around this past Sunday afternoon during the first street closure showed how critical this extra space is.
Rockefeller Center itself — that is, the privately owned plaza surrounding the tree — is jam-packed, so crowded it’s difficult to walk. It doesn’t help that Rockefeller Center has closed off much of what used to be pedestrian space in favor of private dining huts and a commercial gift shop.
So keeping the side streets and 11 blocks of Fifth Avenue open to pedestrians is an important safety valve for the crowds, as was on full display this weekend.
With the streets closed, pedestrians can take good photos of “the tree” from further away, without obstructing sidewalks for people just passing through the area and without having to brave the dangerous mosh-pit scrum right on the plazas if they’re not in tip-top battle shape.
People can also fan out and watch the competing Saks Fifth Avenue light show across the street without being shoulder-to-shoulder stock-still with strangers.
But closing off a few blocks can’t distract from Midtown’s increasing shabbiness and disorder.
Standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue should be a great vantage point for looking at architecture, but a good half of the building façades are obscured by “temporary” sidewalk-shed scaffolding.
Metal pedestrian barriers, crash-preventing garbage trucks and “sugar cubes” — those white cement blocks stamped “NYPD” — are strewn everywhere, sometimes several deep, where they impede foot traffic despite the closed streets.
If one point of closing the avenue is to encourage window shopping, placing metal barriers along the outside of sidewalks to impede people from flowing from the street to the sidewalk and back makes no sense.
And the few food trucks selling tacos and hot chocolate were fine enough, but they were sparse and haphazard.
Likewise, though the official entertainment — a marching band and a choir singer — was nice, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have official programming for kids, like games or chalk drawings (or a background-checked Santa). Without such activities, fake Elmo will show up.
Indeed, disorder lurked on the perimeter.
At 44th and 5th, a three-card-monte scammer openly hawked his illegal “game” to the spillover crowd, months after a dispute over a similar game led to an afternoon shooting near St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Dozens of counterfeit Louis Vuitton and Chanel pocketbook vendors laid their wares on the sidewalks south and west of the pedestrian promenade, Canal Street-style.
This is not to say Adams’ pedestrian Fifth Avenue wasn’t a worthy first effort. The demand for the car-free space — and the relaxed time strollers were having — is a signal to Adams to plan some permanent improvements.
Why not invest in retractable crash barriers — pop-up bollards — to separate cars from people, like European cities have done, to finally get rid of the “sugar cubes” and metal gates? They’d be useful for parades, as well.
Then permanently widen Midtown’s Fifth Avenue sidewalks, taking one of the three car lanes away and leaving the two bus lanes, just as the city has done on Eighth Avenue near Times Square. More pedestrian space would make for a more pleasant environment year-round.
Rethinking 50th Street, too, would make room for outdoor dining during the warmer months on this little-trafficked side street. Retractable barriers would allow room for a bus lane, quick drop-offs of cab passengers and truck trips into and out of the Rockefeller Center loading docks.
And: Get rid of all the scaffolding and illegal card tricks.
Sunday felt slap-dash thrown together because it was. But the crowds show a real demand to beautify (or at least de-uglify) Midtown.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.