EDITORIAL: What would Jane do on 14th St. busway?

What would Jane do? Jane Jacobs, the preservationist and planning guru, speaking at Village Community School on a book tour in 2004. (Villager file photo)

The debate over the embattled 14th St. busway — and, to a lesser extent, the new bike lanes on 12th and 13th Sts. — continues to rage on.

A quick look at the reader comments on thevillager.com over the past few months and weeks shows how extraordinarily passionate people are, on both sides of the issue. On the one hand, Village and Chelsea residents are fighting for their quality of life. On the other, transit advocates say they are battling for better bus service for commuters, which outweighs locals’ needs.

Many of the comments are very informative, which is great and is adding to the ongoing dialogue. However, other comments do clearly have an angry tone. We moderate inappropriate and offensive comments, such as one addressed to Arthur Schwartz — the attorney whose lawsuit is currently blocking the busway — telling him, in short, “Get out of the way, old man.” Obviously, that’s ageist — and also rather ignorant and disrespectful of the need for public process.

Some other posts by busway advocates tell longtime and native New Yorkers that they should “get out of town” and/or “go to Boca Raton” if they don’t endorse banning cars on 14th St. We do run those comments, even though they are admittedly pretty nasty.

Many commenters repeatedly bash local residents as “rich,” when, in fact, many of these folks simply have been living here for decades, in rent-regulated apartments. Yes, some have managed to do well for themselves, but that is not a crime, even in Bill de Blasio’s New York.

Meanwhile, irking the earnest transit advocates, Village and Chelsea residents never miss a chance to slam them as tin-eared “zealots” and “extremists.”

And, of course, Transportation Alternatives recently protested outside Schwartz’s W. 12th St. townhouse, demanding he “Drop the lawsuit!”

In short, this fight, at times, has gotten more over-the-top than the Bagel Boss guy versus Lenny Dykstra.

In addition, Schwartz and David Marcus, another outspoken busway opponent, have both claimed their position is in line with the spirit of Jane Jacobs — in that, they say, Jacobs supported the community’s position. Transit advocates are outraged over the audacity of this claim; they argue Jacobs was a cycling advocate and would have endorsed improving mass transit for New Yorkers. The subext, of course, is that the busway backers want to “break car culture” by making it more difficult for drivers to get around. As Council Speaker Corey Johnson told us shortly after winning the speakership, the only way to control traffic in Manhattan is to reduce the number of cars. Umm…actually, a good start would have been not letting the number of for-hire vehicles explode!

At any rate, we admit we have not scoured Jacobs’s entire oeuvre to see where she stood on cars and bikes. What we did do this week is call Doris Diether, who was one of Jacobs’s top lieutenants when they fought against Robert Moses’s misguided “slum clearance” and highway projects that would have destroyed the Village area. Diether, 90, who is on Community Board 2, is the city’s longest-serving community board member.

So, first question: Was Jane Jacobs, who lived in the Village, a cyclist? Yes, she rode bikes quite a bit, Diether said, even in those pre-bike lane days, adding, “She was spunky.” Diether, on the other, hand, preferred walking, not wanting to ride “in New York City traffic.” But the veteran activist doesn’t recall Jacobs making strong statements on either bikes or cars. She also doesn’t remember Jacobs saying anything about generational conflicts — such as we seem to be seeing on the busway issue.

Asked if Jacobs believed in compromise, Diether said, no, not really.

“I couldn’t say which way she would have gone,” Diether said, of the busway issue. “Oh, she listened to everybody. She wasn’t a compromiser. She wasn’t somebody to cater to somebody just because they came up with an idea. She would have her own ideas.”

Civil-rights attorney Norman Siegel told us last week that TransAlt certainly had the right to protest outside Schwartz’s home. In our view, protesting outside a person’s residence, at least in a case like this, was a bit much. Let the process play out in court, we say. After all, Schwartz and the residents are not going to back down.

So, the debate will rage on, at least for a while longer, in articles, op-eds and online reader comments. It’s not clear if anyone’s mind is being changed, but that’s not always the point. Everyone should continue to air their views, and eventually we will come to a solution. But, please, ad hominem attacks will get us nowhere. And we have more than enough of that on social media — and coming from the White House — these days.

12 Responses to EDITORIAL: What would Jane do on 14th St. busway?

  1. Lincoln: we are Village residents who are fighting for our quality of lives: that distinction between residents and advocates is false. It is just that most residents don’t engage in lawsuits against the city when we are disappointed by the policy of our city.
    The fight for the quality of life has a still long way to go till the day the city will prioritize clean air, noise free streets and especially life safety over the ability of a tiny minority of people to store their private vehicles for free on land that belongs to the public.
    Another false distinction is between local people and bus users as if the buses are populated by Martians. Who in their right mind will use the buses at their current terrible service other than local people who have no other choices?

  2. Choresh

    You continue to postulate a false and jaded narrative.

    How can you speak to what most residents would do if their homes and neighborhoods were being threatened; largely, not exclusively by outside interests unconnected to the communities they seek to burden with their agenda? We are not a tiny minority and count our numbers in the tens of thousands.

    A democratic society allows for debate, discussion and if need be litigation. Those that think otherwise are taking their cues from Washington where it’s OK for the government and electeds to celebrate court victories but eviscerate any group that gets legal protection thru due process.

    Quality of life is in the eye of the beholder and we know what that means to us. Pushing cars off 14th Street, a street that was designed and then reinforced to support heavy traffic, onto narrow historic side streets betrays your disingenuous advocacy of reductions in noise and air pollution or if not is clearly uninformed. 14th Street is wide and allows for rapid disbursement of exhaust fumes. Recently enacted traffic changes have largely improved bus speed. To further argue to restrict cars is merely a blind advocacy of a desired objective without any demonstrably evidence or study that would support the false argument that it would materially further improve bus speed. On the other hand, redirects cars onto narrow side streets will clearly increase noise and air pollution; not to mention traffic congestion that will impede emergency and service vehicles creating unsafe and dangerous conditions.

    You also continue to promote the obvious lie that we are fighting for our parking spots and ignore the fact that many of our blocks successfully petitioned DOT years ago to restrict parking on our streets to ensure the free flow of traffic. It’s time you stop that false narrative unless you can point to anything in the lawsuit that asks to protect parking.

    I have observed that bicycling is a important part of your family culture and say that is great for you. However, given that the bicycle riding culture and those that advocate for it are able bodied people, how dare you presume to tell those that can’t or won’t ride to restrict our commuting solely to public transportation. We do ride buses, we do ride subways and many of us walk. Nevertheless, we are entitled to the full gamut of choices and it is not for you or your brethren to dictate to us what those might be.

    • David:

      Quoting from the lawsuit :

      “4. This suit is brought in order to stop the implementation of the 14th Street Plan, and to bring about the restoration of the 12th and 13th Street streetscapes to their former condition”

      Restoring the former condition means restoring 550 parking spots that were eliminated.

  3. To the Editor: You admit you’re not clear on where Jane Jacobs stood on cars. I think the following makes it quite clear:

    “Erosion of cities by automobiles…proceeds as a kind of nibbling, small nibbles at first,but eventually hefty bites…A street is widened here, another is straightened there, a wide avenue is converted to one-way flow…more land goes into parking…No one step in this process is, in itself, crucial. But cumulatively the effect is enormous…City character is blurred until every place becomes more like every other place, all adding up to No place.”
    Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

    Shirley Secunda

  4. perry rothenberg

    The Busway creates Bottlenecks at places like 9th Avenue and 14th Street

    which slows all traffic including eastbound 14D Bus which has to head South on

    Ninth Avenue on way to 14th Street. Also half of Ninth Avenue is dug up.

    Busway is Not planned intelligently.

  5. Let me reiterate, you’re all barking up the wrong tree.

  6. Shirley

    Last I looked we were not expanding roadways in NYC. This is about preserving side streets and to continue using the wide crosstown thoroughfares as they had been intended and designed in the original NYC street grid. Our objective is a far cry different than Trottenberg’s predecessor Moses who sought to level the Village in favor of a superhighway for cars. She fought to preserve our streetscapes and with the help of Arthur Schwartz we in the community are continuing that fight.

    And as for more parking, you should know better than most that be it by neighborhood request to DOT or on their own initiative, parking has been significantly reduced or restricted.

    And when you quote Jane Jacobs about city character being eroded, what do you say about the perversion of our streetscapes and the assault on our community aesthetic with painted roadways, red for busses and green for bicycles and white lines beyond comprehension, hideously ugly plastic pylons, unintelligible traffic signals and other changes to the city roadways that create a shameful city eyesore?

    As Transportation Chair, show us the city data, assuming it has been shared with you, that supports the need to restrict vehicles on 14th Street and the data that proves diverted traffic onto side streets will not create intolerable and dangerous street congestion, damage to the infrastructure and unacceptable levels of noise and air pollution; not to mention serious delays of emergency, sanitation, delivery and other essential vehicles by virtue of forcing traffic onto our narrow historic side streets.

  7. People, this is a TEMPORARY situation. Both sides should stop acting like anyone’s life will be irreparably changed forever. We are all making sacrifices for the sake of fixing the tunnel in a way that could have been a lot worse, but there’s no reason why people who live near 14th St. should not make sacrifices, like everyone else. So buck up and be proud that you’re able to take it… for the sake of the greater good.

    As for Jane, I’m sure that there were times in her life when she’d have come down on one side, and other times in her life when she’d have come down on the other side. It’s all in one book that’s a cross-section of her opinions throughout the years, so check it out

    https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/546445/vital-little-plans-by-jane-jacobs/9780399589607/

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/nov/10/vital-little-plans-review-why-the-ideas-of-jan-jacobs-are-still-vital

  8. Lincoln, as a casual observer (former M14D rider) and only more recent commenter, I appreciate your equanimity in this storm and thank you for attempting the thankless task of moderating here.

    With that said, I have some observations to make because I believe your blog has been biased despite recent improvements as the busway inexorably nears implementation.

    1. The Villager has used misleading language in describing the busway. Many headlines have referred to it incorrectly as a car ban and adopted the derisive language used by opponents, giving them legitimacy they could only hope to find in the editorial section of the New York Post. It’s not fit to print there either.

    2. The Villager also gives too much credence to busway opponents by referring to them as a broad coalition of Village and Chelsea block associations and coop boards. Most of us live on blocks with block associations and they do not speak for all residents (most of whom do not know they exist). Many of us live in large residential buildings and know full well that the boards do not speak for all tenants. The attempt to use boards or block associations to represent a plurality is a ruse, and it should be reported and exposed as such.

    3. The Villager’s jokey headline and sensational picture in the preview story about the perfectly appropriate protest in front of Arthur Schwartz’ residence was also problematic. The protestors are, after all, on the right side of this issue, which does not belong on Arthur’s street, but should not be in court either. There should simply be a functioning busway.

    4. The recent developments of Schwartz correctly being called out for shamefully trying to tie himself to the legacy of Jane Jacobs have been amusing, but also border on farce, as does the lawsuit.

    I think we should be clear about what happened here. A small group of neighborhood insiders and politically connected residents saw a change coming that they did not like. They started meeting regularly and tried to form a “coalition” to present a unified opposition to this change. They started a crude marketing effort to scare people about decreased quality of life if said changes went into effect. They tried to use this to influence the city publicly and behind closed doors. It did not work because the city saw it for what it was: a bad faith effort to torpedo a transit project. So they used the oldest trick in the book, they got a lawyer to sue the city to have it back down. It has not and it will prevail and implement the change as-of-right.

    All of what I just detailed could not be further from Jane Jacobs. Ms. Jacobs had a decades long career as a public intellectual critical of Robert Moses and the prevailing car culture. This NIMBY effort has no intellectual backbone besides “I don’t want this on my block, so don’t make changes on another block.” This may be why busway opponents, ideologically and legally cornered, are lashing out this way? I couldn’t say.

    But the house of cards is teetering, indeed. The winds of change are blowing in the Village, and it’s time to embrace the next generation of civically minded activists like Choresh and friends. Keep up the good work!

  9. Lincoln,

    This is one of your best editorials. The issues you raise go beyond the particular dispute about bike lanes.

    People can be passionate advocates and still be civil and decent.

  10. I’m probably about the same age as Schwartz, and I also want him to get out of the way. (Although I may be in better shape due to daily bicycling, *cough*.) I’m not sure there is really a “generational conflict” here. And while it’s good to hear from Doris Diether, the “what would Jane do?” approach is an academic exercise in the end. Certainly, some guys who are fighting AGAINST car-free zones invoking the legacy of someone who fought against expressways is perverse on the face of it.

  11. Demonstrating in front of lawyer Schwarz’s house is fine although he said he didn’t care to have his address publicized. Picketing in front of homes occurs. During the Vietnam War, we picketed in front of draft board members residences (with “Know Your Neighbor” flyers). Objecting to one State Supreme Court justice’s anti-tenant ruling, picketers at the judge’s home were restrained as to hours in order not to disturb people’s sleep. And likewise with more recent Occupy Wall Street demonstrators. Upper West Side State Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell took a bus load of tenant demonstrators to picket at a landlord’s palatial home in Westchester. And so it goes. However, leave the legal technician alone–everyone is entitled to have a lawyer.

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