OPINION: On 14th St., we continue the fight of Jane Jacobs

BY ARTHUR SCHWARTZ | The fight over the 14th St. busway is a fight of our community. A community of people who live here, including residents of Fulton Houses (a New York City Housing Authority development), people who have disabilities and who are elderly, and who are bus users.

Legendary urban planner and community activist Jane Jacobs held up a petition in 1961 at the Lion’s Head bar in the Village. Jacobs was not afraid to fight large-scale neighborhood plans that the government portrayed as already being a fait accompli. (Courtesy N.Y. World-Telegram / Sun Newspaper Photo Collection, Library of Congress)

Our communities, Greenwich Village and Chelsea, are the great places they are because, 60 years ago, Jane Jacobs led a fight against another Department of Transportation commissioner, Robert Moses, who wanted to run a highway down Fifth Ave. Jane believed in community-based planning. In her classic book about city planning, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” she said: “We shall have something solid to chew on if we think of city neighborhoods as mundane organs of self-government. Our failures with city neighborhoods are, ultimately, failures in localized self-government. And our successes are successes at localized self-government …There exists no inconceivably energetic and all wise ‘They’ to take over and substitute for localized self-management.” Then she addressed the difficulty in standing up to City Hall: “It is not easy for uncredentialed people to stand up to the credentialed, even when the so-called expertise is grounded in ignorance and folly.”

She continues: “Sometimes the city is not the potential helper, but the antagonist of a street, and again, unless the street contains extraordinarily influential citizens, it is usually helpless alone… By ourselves we would hardly have a chance. We were told at first that the plans would not be changed. We needed power to back up our pipsqueak protest. The power came from our district — Greenwich Village. Without the possibility of such support, most city streets hardly try to fight back.

This fight today is about our millennial version of Robert Moses, a hopeless incompetent named Polly Trottenberg, who has allowed 100,000 for-hire vehicles to clog our streets. We stand here today, six weeks after Polly’s aborted launch date, and 14th St. seems to be moving quite rapidly, and side streets, from 12th to 20th, have bad traffic, but are not overrun with cars, as Polly would have it.

We have not gotten to where we have because of me, although I appreciate the accolades. We are here because of an extraordinary coalition of local residents, working through democratic, street-level organizations called block associations, whose activists are generally longtime residents, who generally live in rent-regulated apartments, or who bought a co-op in the 1970s when a two-bedroom cost $25,000. The block associations have turned out hundreds of residents to meeting after meeting, town hall after town hall, where Commissioner Trottenberg has sat rolling her eyes. And it is to protect these residents’ communities that the courts have recognized our use of the environmental laws as appropriate.

This fight is no longer about how to make buses faster. D.O.T. and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have made numerous changes to 14th St., which have eliminated most, if not all, bottlenecks that slowed down traffic and buses. There are no left turns allowed. There is no turn onto 14th St. from Fourth Ave. There are no turns allowed onto Broadway. University Place has been reversed. Union Square West has been closed to traffic. Bus lanes have been painted. Select Bus Service has been instituted, allowing off-bus ticketing.

The fight now is about an unneeded car ban that would have thrown 500 extra cars an hour (D.O.T.’s number), and untold numbers of vans and trucks down residential streets, not designed to be traffic thoroughfares. These cars would ruin the residential character of our historic districts. They would spew exhaust, make noise, send vibrations through historic structures and fragile streets — which have more than their share of water-main breaks and steam-pipe ruptures — and make crossing, for the elderly and people with children, far more dangerous.

Trottenberg, and the mayor now want this to happen simply because they want to show that they can impose their will on communities. For the mayor, winning this fight is one more sound bite he can grab before his senseless presidential campaign ends, and he loses relevance to our city.

In their quest for speed, the M.T.A. and New York City Transit, in its usual manner, has once again forgotten the needs of people with disabilities, and the elderly. They cut out 12 bus stops when they launched SBS service. And they have ripped down most bus shelters along the route. Those 12 stops were a critical part of the transportation activities of people with disabilities, and older people who use the bus. Their needs are supposed to be accommodated under the city’s Human Rights Law.

But like they have with the subways, the M.T.A. and NYC Transit have forgotten the disabled. Accommodation can be done easily, as is done on all other SBS lines, by overlaying SBS service on top of local service. The elderly and the disabled are the real users of the M14 bus — not some zealots who live in other communities, and who claim to speak for local bus users.

Over the last week, critiques of my work have been published in The Villager and elsewhere. One Brooklyn commentator called me a “racist” because my work is allegedly hurting black and Hispanic Lower East Side commuters who would save two minutes in a commute to Union Square if the busway is effectuated. But NYCHA tenants, who have learned to abhor de Blasio’s largesse, are on our side. They, too, believe in community self-government. And they know that I have been in the trenches with them in the fight to maintain hospital service in our community.

There is one commentator who says that because of our success fighting the busway plan, environmental laws should now be weakened. The proposals of “well intentioned” bureaucrats should not have to jump through the hoops of SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act) and ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), he declares. This tripe actually sounds a lot like Trump, who says that environmental regulations stand in the way of working-class jobs.

However, those environmental-review laws require that all government actors, no matter how well intentioned, must engage in public, transparent environmental evaluation of their proposals. Without these laws, we would have a highway running where Hudson River Park now stands, without ballfields at Pier 40. We would have a Costco at 14th St. and Sixth Ave., and a pro football stadium at Hudson Yards.

No one has a monopoly on wisdom, not Trump (who has no wisdom), and not some Transportation Alternatives staffer with a six-figure salary. And certainly not those who sit in armchairs and critique.

Schwartz is Democratic district leader for Greenwich Village, president of Advocates for Justice, and the attorney on the 14th St. lawsuits on the busway and removed bus stops.

27 Responses to OPINION: On 14th St., we continue the fight of Jane Jacobs

  1. So sad to read Jane Jacobs being appropriated this way. I’m pretty sure she’d say that if you can’t stand on your own 2 feet, don’t be standing on hers. This article is just disgusting self-comparison. As the saying goes, it’s not a compliment if you’re saying it about yourself. ugh.

  2. I love the way both sides in this battle are cloaking themselves in the legacy of Jane Jacobs and portraying the other as the heirs to Robert Moses. But it is particularly Orwellian in the case of Schwartz, with his automobile-serving agenda. Poor Jane must be rolling in her grave, as the saying goes.

    • Bill Weinberg,
      I don’t know who you are or where you live, but I know you don’t know sh-t from shinola.
      Where in the world do you come to the conclusion that Arthur Schwartz has ” an automobile-serving agenda”?
      For your information, Arthur has done more to preserve the character of our neighborhood than you have, or will do in 3 life times.
      What community groups or block associations have you started, headed or even served on?
      You creeps who think you know what Jane Jacobs stood for would today be calling her a nimby, just as you call all of us who are fighting to preserve the cultural and architectural integrity of our beautiful Greenwich Village for posterity.
      Continue to sit on the sidelines pontificating while others do the heavy lifting.
      We don’t need your ilk to try save GV for future generations !!!

      • I’m a native New Yorker, I write freelance for The Villager and several other publications, and work with the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space. I have been involved in countless community and activist campaigns—including for bicyclist rights. Schwartz’s agenda is objectively automobile-serving, and if I have to explain that to you, you are beyond my hope. Zip it with your BS slacker-baiting, to.

        • Bill Weinberg,
          You should be reading some interesting articles lately that highlight the increasing number of accidents involving bicyclists who have injured pedestrians. Perhaps, we should stop walking the streets in our area, so bike riders can exercise their constitutional rights to ride any which way they want.

  3. We love you Arthur.
    Keep fighting the good fight against the DOT’s Polly’anna’ Trottenberg and the elitist wackos that purport to speak for the rest of us locals.

  4. All locals had a say during the countless public workshops and meetings about this. Plenty of locals supported the plan. Now you’re throwing a hissy fit because people like you didn’t get your way, costing transit riders wasted time and taxpayers money in legal fees fighting your baseless lawsuit. Please take a slow bus ride out of town.

  5. I don’t have a horse in this race.
    I don’t live near 14th Street and I walk, owning neither bike nor car. I use mass transit.

    But everyone knows that Jane Jacobs was for local community power, not ideology power – and certainly not bureaucracy power.

    This proposal came forth from a bureaucracy, many of whose employees of late are driven by a certain ideology.

    Ipso facto, Jacobs would support Village and Chelsea residents over entrenched DOT bureaucrats and overzealous Brooklyn ideologues.

    Q.E.D.

    • You are correct, Downtowner.

    • This approval was brought to and supported by the community. If you think Jane Jacobs would love to see a handful of super rich townhouse owners block improvements for the rest of NYC, well, you MIGHT be right, but that doesn’t mean she is!

  6. Enough name calling already

    Well said. After so decisively getting flack for trying to associate with Jacobs, the answer is certainly not to double down and post what reads as a thinking-out-loud rationalization. And no apologies for invoking civil rights and calling transit advocates white-hooded zealots?

    Repeating such atrocious language and the ad-hominem on Trottenberg reveal this to be exactly what it is, and it could not be further from what the headline claims it to be.

  7. If they cared about traffic they would not let the Mayors Tech Hub on 14th -being built by donors RAL and Suffolk to his many campaigns over the years and the current one for president- block a whole lane when they do not need to and make everyone walk off the curb and into the street.

  8. Fascinating that you acknowledge :”D.O.T. and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have made numerous changes to 14th St., which have eliminated most, if not all, bottlenecks that slowed down traffic and buses. There are no left turns allowed. There is no turn onto 14th St. from Fourth Ave. There are no turns allowed onto Broadway. University Place has been reversed. Union Square West has been closed to traffic. Bus lanes have been painted. Select Bus Service has been instituted, allowing off-bus ticketing.”

    Is this a different DOT not headed by “millennial” Polly Trottenberg ?
    Has these changes not been made by “some zealots who live in other communities” ? As if the 14 street coalition people showed up to public meetings and demanded turn restrictions for motor vehicles on 14 st…

    Does the city has 2 different DOTs ? One which put changes that you approve and one who has a totally different set of ideas that you oppose ?

    Traffic is moving better on 14 st also because of the repurpose of 500 free parking spots on 12 and 13 streets as bike lanes, contributing to reduced demand for private motor vehicle owners. The SBS is moving faster because of the elimination of bus stops together with all other improvements. The same set of improvements that has the limited access for private motor vehicles on 14 streets which you are delaying.

  9. Key word: sometimes

    There is a key word in the Jacobs quote about the city. “SOMETIMES the city is not the potential helper, but the antagonist of a street…”

    This is quite clearly a case of exactly the opposite. Here, the city has come up with a monumentally helpful plan for tens of thousands of bus riders and the antagonist of the street is an inconsequential NIMBY who lives two blocks away and does not want 60-90 more cars per HOUR on his block.

    It’s delightfully humorous to see him pull out Jacobs quotes that distance him ever more from that which he aspires to be. I really hope the city is recording all of these words, including his comments, as they inevitably get this whole charade thrown out in court.

  10. What a self-aggrandizing buffoon. Arthur is weaponizing environmental review laws because he doesn’t like change, using his money and influence to make life worse for the vast majority of everyone else while painting himself as some kind of savior. I can only hope the courts strongly rebuke him, setting a precedent that keeps future rich people tantrums from stalling progress in reclaiming our streets for people, bikes, and transit. In the meantime, I welcome him to write more rambling ego pieces like this. They make it abundantly clear what he’s all about.

  11. ItsEasyBeingGreen

    The changes Jacobs opposed in the 1950s and 60s, such as narrowing sidewalks and widening the roadway for more driving and parking along every curb, is the status quo that Arthur is now defending.

    Bizarre to call Trottenberg a “millennial” as she’s clearly older than that (graduated Barnard in 1986 according to the Washington Post), but it goes to show how fear of change is really driving this rather than any real concern about transportation.

    Some “progressive” Arthur is – pretending that driving has no consequences and that the city should encourage as much of it as possible. What’s more Trumpian than that?

  12. Very disappointing to have so many claim the Jacob’s mantel when many of her positions changed over the decades, esp’ after moving to Canada, so people need to be specific as to which Jane they’re owning.

  13. Somewhere in District Leader Schwartz’s litany of non sequitur is an argument: that the interests of his block outweigh the needs of the rest of us New Yorkers.

    This provincial notion is common, and absolutely toxic to the public good.

    He’s entitled to making this argument, and to the rest of his “local activism”. But he’s not immune from criticism. His feigned injury is as insincere as his co-opting of elderly Lower East Side riders, who he uses as a shield to bait and switch his regressive position.

    If Schwartz had bothered to read the rest of the Jacobs book he’s selectively quoting, he might be surprised. Of course, as with scripture, we can selectively quote to make any argument we like.

    But for those who are revisiting the text after a while, I recommend reading chapter 6, “The uses of city neighborhoods”:

    “This ‘ideal’ of the city neighborhood as an island, turned inward on itself, is an important factor in our lives nowadays. To see why it is a silly and even harmful “ideal” for cities, we must recognize a basic difference between these concoctions grafted into cities, and town life…

    Whatever city neighborhoods may be, or may not be, and whatever usefulness the may have, or may be coaxed into having, their qualities cannot work at cross-purposes to thoroughgoing city mobility and fluidity of USE, without economically weakening the city of which they are a part.”

  14. I can’t believe this guy is still spouting this nonsense. If he wants the DoT to limit traffic on his street that’s an easy fix, but don’t keep delaying our buses while claiming a progressive mantle. This clown is a Koch brother, not a Jane Jacobs.

  15. Stephen H Graham

    Enough with the cars already. This is the Village.

  16. Arthur Zachary Schwartz

    Just remember, the City is not proposing to eliminate cars. They want to move them from 14th Street to 12th, 13th, 15th and 16th Streets. This would mean, using their numbers, that my street, 12th Street, would have 350 cars per hour going down the street. To say “no big deal” means you are an apologist for the plague of For Hire Vehicles which congest our City streets, and that you think that 5-6 cars a minute riding under one’s window will have no health impact on residents. Sweeping the cars from 14th Street to residential streets to shorten the bus ride from 3rd Avenue to Abingdon Square by 1.5 minutes is not a good trade off. If the cars were kicked off of 14th Street and forced to use 23rd Street or Houston Street, or forced off the streets altogether, local residents would cheer. I have no hesitation in claiming Jane Jacob’s inspiration on this issue. She would never have supported a plan to send 350 cars an hour down her beloved streets!

  17. Your 350 vehicles an hour is not based on any facts, just assumptions.

    Reduced demand leads to less vehicles .

    Can’t wait for your call to ban vehicles from residential streets.

  18. Adam, Where do you or others get the gall to call anyone who opposes the flawed City plan for 14th street, “the super rich”.

    If you prefer grid lock, noise pollution and air pollution on your block please volunteer for all traffic from 14th street be routed to your street.

    BTW: Stop with the class warfare attack on those who disagree with you.

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