In 1966, New York's new mayor, John Lindsay, launched a series of far-reaching plans to transform the city, most of which were never realized. The authors recover that vision and its lessons for the present day.
The first part of this article outlined the ambitious urbanism program of John Lindsay, New York's 103rd mayor. Here, the authors discuss what they see as the four spheres of Lindsay-era planning, describing in detail numerous built and unrealized projects.
1. Uptown Public Housing
The crusade of Woody Klein began and ended with a single address in East Harlem. The dire conditions at 311 East 100th Street inspired Klein’s 1964 book on housing reform, Let in the Sun
, and moved him to join the Lindsay mayoral campaign. It also strengthened his conviction that government had a responsibility to provide adequate housing for the poor: No wealthy metropolis should have a 311 East 100th Street on its conscience.
With its leaky ceilings, broken windows, and inadequate heating, that infamous tenement became an emblem of the urban decay that had struck New York’s northern neighborhoods in the 1950s. By 1966, a band of blight stretched from 96th Street in Manhattan as far uptown as Inwood, hopped the University Heights Bridge at 207th Street, and followed the Grand Concourse south again, through the Bronx and all the way to Hunts Point. The causes for decay in these once-thriving neighborhoods were wearying in their familiarity: eminent-domain demolitions, freeway construction, white flight, official neglect, arson, and an influx of black and Puerto Rican families seeking low-skill industrial jobs that were no longer available in the postwar city.
Both northern Manhattan and the South Bronx (a designation often applied to much of the borough’s southwestern segment) were identified by the Lindsay administration as areas in need of major rehabilitation. Many housing projects for the area were proposed, and, despite funding difficulties, a number were constructed, among them the best representatives of the Lindsay administration’s revisionist take on urban renewal.
The most significant uptown housing proposal was also the most far-fetched, though perhaps the most promising. In 1967, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art called “The New City” featured work from the architecture graduate programs of Cornell, MIT, Columbia, and Princeton. All took as their theme the urban crisis as it affected Harlem and the South Bronx, and each proposed a visionary solution: Cornell called for extensive demolitions along the spine of central Harlem to create housing blocks set in vast, interconnected parks stretching from Central Park to Washington Heights; Princeton imagined a massive public facility in the form of a pier jutting out from the Hudson waterfront, connected to Harlem by a string of new parks; MIT exhibited a plan for a series of land bridges and pedestrian walkways that would span Hell Gate, the strait on the East River separating Queens and Randall’s Island off Manhattan—the project would resemble a Triborough Bridge made out of landfill, connecting new housing and recreational facilities across the three land masses. Given their scope and extravagant cost, none of these plans were ever seriously considered, save for one: Columbia’s proposal to construct a two-mile-long housing, retail, and transit corridor along northern Park Avenue via a concrete vault placed over the Harlem Rail Viaduct between 97th and 135th streets.
That this extraordinary proposal got as far as structural soundings on the Metro-North elevated track owes as much to its design as to its designers: The Columbia team was led by the architects who were to become the core membership of the Urban Design Group, Jacquelin Robertson, Richard Weinsten, Jonathan Barnett, and Myles Weintraub. After serving as informal advisers on Lindsay’s campaign, the team had received a grant to research ideas for housing and commercial development in New York City.
The Columbia plan signaled the nascent UDG’s intentions. In the exhibition catalogue, the team described the challenge they faced as one of providing “housing and other kinds of renewal without relocating the people for whom such improvements are intended.” The solution was to build on the urban margin, making habitable the otherwise-empty transit corridor. The vault was to deploy a concrete truss system that could be laid in sections: Within it, new roadways for city buses would be laid over the existing Park Avenue roadway and the Harlem and New Haven rail lines; outside, residential towers and parks would be built beside and above the vault. Park Avenue North, as its designers called it, was a breakthrough, applying a largely untried megastructural conceit—an enormous, multifunctional aggregate of modular elements—to the very local problems that had thwarted New York planners in the past. Transit would complement rather than disrupt housing. “Planner’s blight,” in which the announcement of renewal demolitions actually hastens a neighborhood’s decline, would be avoided by doing away with demolitions altogether.
Unfortunately, early feasibility studies revealed Park Avenue North to be prohibitively expensive. Elsewhere uptown, however, some of its principles would be put into practice. The Twin Parks neighborhood in the North Bronx was to see the first and most competently executed example of the “vest-pocket housing” approach. Twin Parks was an area dotted with abandoned buildings, some of which had already been cleared, either by the city or by fire. It was an ideal area to build housing that would fill empty lots in an otherwise still-functional neighborhood.
In consultation with the UDG, architect Giovanni Pasanella began designing one of the sites, Twin Parks West, in 1967; construction was completed in 1973. The project consisted of five buildings ranging from ten to eighteen stories, their profiles reflecting the scale of the neighborhood without sacrificing the objective of a high-rise, high-density development. Other designers of note who participated in the scatter-site developments in Twin Parks, among them Richard Meier and James Polshek, took great care that the projects would disrupt neighborhood life as little as possible.
As with many uptown projects of the period, Twin Parks was executed under the authority of the the Urban Development Corporation, a public-private corporation created by Governor Rockefeller to issue bonds for housing construction in the city that was at the time under the direction of former Lindsay adviser Ed Logue. The design approach shared by Logue and the UDG planners was borne out by another project in the Bronx that bears a remarkable resemblance to the unexecuted Park Avenue North. In 1970, Logue’s UDC commissioned an ambitious plan from M. Paul Friedberg & Associates for rehabilitating the marginal Harlem River waterfront in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx, just west of the Major Deegan Expressway and Metro-North Harlem Line railroad. The firm proposed connecting the neighborhood to the east with a state park on the river, via planks laid over the road and rail. The project was christened Harlem River Park Towers and completed in 1975.
River Park Towers was the plan’s residential component, and it presented an opportunity to realize in miniature what the UDG had envisioned for Park Avenue North: a major piece of housing placed over working infrastructure, with parking facilities, a school, stores, and Roberto Clemente State Park all attached. Visitors strolling along the complex’s central walkway, which is beside the train tracks, are flanked on one side by textured stone storefronts, which evoke a typical city street, and on the other side by a sheer wall of forty-four-floor towers with no setbacks, their cutaway corners giving way to protruding blocks on the uppermost levels.
River Park's sculptural qualities and rough-hewn look are clear nods to the rocky monumentality of Louis Kahn’s work, especially the massed, looming towers at the heart of his unrealized proposal for Philadelphia’s Civic Center; though Kahn would never design a building for New York, one of his intellectual heirs, Paul Rudolph, would have an opportunity to build for the UDC on another marginal site uptown.
At Yale, Rudolph had been a mentor to the future UDG members, and in 1967 he was commissioned to design a tower to be placed on top of preexisting infrastructure: Tracey Towers was completed in 1972, built over the MTA rail yards in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx. Its two thirty-eight-story high-rises demonstrate Rudolph’s ability to achieve monumental effects within a revised modernist idiom—even if the apartments themselves, with their views blocked by the building’s thick peripteral turrets, leave much to be desired.
Another UDC signal project, Arthur A. Schomburg Plaza, can be found only a few blocks west of the unrealized Park Avenue North, at the corner of Central Park North and Fifth Avenue. The Gruzen & Partners design features a midblock play area constructed over a low-rise parking structure, slung between two thirty-five-story towers. In accordance with the Lindsay mission of community-led renewal, the UDC entered into protracted and at times heated negotiations with Harlem residents, which resulted in an anodyne design, but one that included retail space, day-care facilities, and a child-development center (and delayed its completion until 1975).
Schomburg Plaza is a mere ten blocks from 311 East 100th Street. In 1968, as Woody Klein was preparing to leave the mayor’s office, he paid one last visit to the address. Despite the administration’s efforts to turn the neighborhood around, 311 East 100th still stood in very much the same condition as Klein had found it seven years before. What had been a signpost for urban decline had become a measuring stick for the shortcomings of urban policy.
2. The Developer Fix: Midtown and Downtown
Against the general impression of a city in peril, with a shrinking population and a deteriorating economy, stands the glaring fact of commercial development in Manhattan during the Lindsay years, during which some fifty million square feet of office space were built. The city’s well-publicized woes masked a regional economic vitality that sustained demand for new corporate high-rises. That demand was channeled, and to a large degree intensified, by the administration’s encouragement of and collaboration with private developers.
Lindsay inherited a city in which major corporate construction operated in two distinct spheres, Lower Manhattan and midtown, each with its own peculiar problems. Lower Manhattan had long since been eclipsed by midtown as the preeminent business district, even as it remained home to the New York Stock Exchange and its attendant financial institutions. New construction had stood at roughly nil for nearly a generation; at night, workers fled the area, which had hardly any bars established after 1800, fewer restaurants, and no residential buildings. The Rockefeller family, which still had considerable real estate holdings in the area, was naturally interested in seeing it revitalized, and combined forces with local business leaders to push for the construction of the World Trade Center, which was shovel-ready by the time of Lindsay’s election.
Midtown, meanwhile, had seen steady growth since the end of the war, but the buildings constructed since then, and the urban texture they created, were widely disparaged as uninviting, bland, boring, and oftentimes downright ugly. The city’s 1961 zoning revision encouraged the tower-in-a-park model of corporate architecture, first seen in Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, built at 53rd Street and Park Avenue in 1958. The tax-incentive structure of the zoning law allowed developers to build taller skyscrapers so long as they provided plazas at the ground level. But soon Park Avenue was lined with these corporate towers; drab expanses of marble separated their anonymous facades from the street, creating nominally public spaces that would later become the domains of concrete planters and security men.
In Lower Manhattan, the UDG negotiated with developers to integrate the new construction spurred by the World Trade Center into the existing system of streets, public transit, and public spaces. The instrument of choice was “creative zoning.” In exchange for including such amenities as porticoes, overhead pedestrian walkways, and subway entrances, developers were allowed to boost their overall floor area not only by building higher but also by increasing their lot coverage above the previously allowable 40 percent. The UDG also instituted mandatory building envelopes requiring that towers reach their lot lines, creating consistent street walls that framed long, unbroken sight lines. The strategy was intended to turn the Financial District into an area where workers could lunch in the sun, cross the street without braving the traffic, and descend into the subway without stepping outside.
Too often that strategy produced a warren of concrete precinct walls and unsightly marble planters. But the increase in public space has had a hand in Lower Manhattan’s transformation into a hub of residential development, and the wider building envelopes helped restore the visual effect of the skyline, now a thick forest of skyscrapers rather than a sparse patch of towers. One can glimpse that effect today on the western perimeter of the Financial District, where some half dozen major Lindsay-era commercial projects were executed.
But while Lindsay’s planners worked to regulate development downtown, they lavished attention on midtown. Times Square, Lincoln Square, and Fifth Avenue were designated Special Zoning Districts in an effort to maintain their neighborhoods’ physical and functional integrity: theaters for Times Square, residential towers with contiguous facades in Lincoln Square, retail and mixed use for Fifth Avenue.
In the heart of midtown, the UDG’s proposed intervention was more ambitious still. Following an analysis of foot- and car-traffic patterns, the UDG put forward a plan to totally reconfigure street uses in Manhattan’s highest-density commercial area. It called for widening select crosstown routes to accommodate a higher volume of automobiles, restricting automobiles on other streets by expanding sidewalks, and closing Madison Avenue to cars altogether, creating a pedestrian-shopping promenade. This radical traffic retooling never happened. Nevertheless, the efficacy of Lindsay's planners in both encouraging and controlling private development can be seen in the thriving theater district and on Fifth Avenue, where commercial towers were induced to include theaters and shopping; in the porticoes around Lincoln Square (pale imitations of the porticoes at Lincoln Plaza); and in the bridges spanning lower West Street, which connect the skyscrapers to the east and Battery Park City to the west.
One component of the UDG’s ambitious traffic fix was in fact realized: North-south pedestrian arcades, appearing midblock and cutting through office buildings, were made possible by the same trade-offs with developers that were employed by the city in Lower Manhattan. The main sequence of these arcades is located between Sixth and Fifth avenues, allowing one to walk from 51st Street to 57th Street without recourse to the main thoroughfares. The arcades are a mixed bag, attesting to the advantages gained by developers without offering evidence of any meaningful public amenities created in return. Without the proposed comprehensive changes to car and pedestrian traffic in the area, these dwarfed arcades, suffocated by packed crosstown thoroughfares, are more symptom than reprieve. Those anonymous towers pierced by dimly lit passages lined with cookie-cutter minicafés and traversed by hurrying office workers are hardly inspiring works of architecture, and the district only hints at the dynamism and livability envisioned by the Lindsay planners.
3. Lindsay’s Lower Manhattan Expressway
In Robert Moses’s first sweeping schemes for new automobile freeways, devised before the Second World War, the mile-and-a-half-long roadway stretching from the Holland Tunnel to the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges stood out as a potential link between land masses. Connecting the proposed East Side and West Side highways, the Lower Manhattan Expressway, or LOMEX, as it came to be called, would obviate the need for traffic between New Jersey and Long Island to circumnavigate the southern tip of the Financial District. But mounting political opposition, with Jane Jacobs beating the drum, was to make it one of the most contentious of Moses’s inventions.
Moses originally envisioned LOMEX as an elevated highway traveling eastward along the Broome Street corridor and forking at Mott Street, with one segment headed straight to the Williamsburg Bridge and another proceeding south along the Bowery to Canal Street and the Manhattan Bridge. By Moses’s estimate, its construction would have entailed the displacement of some 1,972 households and 804 businesses, and opposition from residents and elected officials stalled LOMEX throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Moses produced several revamped plans, including one in the late ’50s in which the highway would be sandwiched between mid-rise buildings, but by 1965, LOMEX had very few friends and quite a few enemies, despite having the support of Governor Rockefeller.
John Lindsay was one of the latter—at first. During his campaign, Congressman Lindsay declared himself “anti-LOMEX” and came out for what the press termed the “Lindsay Loop,” a belt highway tracing the perimeter of Lower Manhattan. After he was elected, however, the mayor took a second look at LOMEX, and by May 1966 he had retreated. He now disapproved of the “route” of the expressway as agreed on by Mayor Wagner and Moses but found no fault with the project in toto. Over the next two years, two competing LOMEX proposals were circulated in the planning community and the press. The first called for a strip-and-cover tunnel, roughly on the model of the 1963 Trans-Manhattan Expressway in Upper Manhattan, with residential and commercial buildings constructed on top of the buried roadway. Another imagined an eighty-foot-high skyway that would clear the tops of the adjacent buildings, reducing the need for demolition.
Feasibility studies showed that a version of the former, a partially covered, partially tunneled route, would cause the least disruption and cost the least money. (The UDG’s Myles Weintraub advised the Lindsay team on the development of a new scheme for LOMEX, in partnership with Shadrach Woods, who was a disciple of Le Corbusier and a founding member of Team X, the influential avant-garde group that splintered from Corbusier's International Congress of Modern Architecture. Sadly, no archival evidence of their collaboration has survived.) But Woods and Weintraub’s attempt to build a sensitive expressway, one that took into account the sensibilities of local communities and the scale of their neighborhoods, was thwarted by political momentum; by the late ’60s, citizens were dead set against the project. In April 1968, Jacobs, by then a minor celebrity, was arrested for disrupting a hearing on LOMEX . Jacobs and her supporters tore up a stenographer’s record of the hearing, crying, “There’s no tape! There’s been no meeting!” A state highway official responded by shouting, “Arrest this woman!” and Jacobs was soon cuffed; though she eventually pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, her arrest provoked a public outcry and galvanized the movement against LOMEX. The locus of the opposition was the neighborhood that would soon be branded SoHo, which was densely populated with artists and other white, educated, middle-class residents whose political orientations and preservationist instincts could not brook an expressway, however sensitive, running by their homes. Facing a tough reelection in 1970, Lindsay quietly dropped the project, against the wishes of Governor Rockefeller; the mayor could only silence his protestations by hanging up on him.
But some signs of LOMEX remain. Moses’s planned expansion of West Broadway (now LaGuardia Place) into a proposed Fifth Avenue South, a six-lane route that would have thinned southbound traffic headed toward LOMEX, is still evident in the deep setbacks of the Washington Square Village and South Village apartment complexes at West Third Street and at Houston. The uptown lanes of the avenue would have occupied the margin now taken up by a broad sidewalk.
The Confucius Plaza Apartments, a looming, elaborate ensemble containing a tower and smaller outlying structures, is a far more impressive remnant of LOMEX. Completed in 1975 by Horowitz & Chun, Confucius was another project of the Urban Development Corporation. The Chinatown complex is bounded by the Bowery, Division Street, and the Manhattan Bridge at what would have been the eastern terminus of LOMEX. With its facade gracefully sweeping around a U-shaped plan, the tower marks a conspicuous break with the boxy, high-rise housing projects built in previous decades on the Lower East Side. Though Confucius Plaza’s bulk threatened to obliterate neighborhood street life, planners compensated for the intrusion by building a shop-lined portico along the western side of the building and a school along the street. They also included an arcade that allowed pedestrian access from the Bowery clear through to Divison Street, by way of an ample courtyard tucked into the crook of the building’s horseshoe-shaped footprint. The tower steps up from the roofline of its neighbors, climbing from a low-rise building containing the school to a full height of forty-four stories; it is as if the building pauses to take in its immediate surroundings before soaring skyward to take in its broader metropolitan environs.
This last maneuver is best appreciated at a distance: Confucius Plaza can be seen rearing up at the far end of Canal Street, a stark visual endpoint punctuating the long urban prospect (an effect diminished by the absence of LOMEX). The tower’s sheer size would have set up a remarkable approach for cars moving eastward along LOMEX from the West Side Highway—an obelisk marking the route to Brooklyn—while its curvature would have perfectly accommodated the sweep of LOMEX’s entry ramps.
This original plan for the building echoes Paul Rudolph’s wildly ambitious scheme of 1967 for housing to be planted directly on top of the expressway. Looking at Rudolph’s renderings, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, we can see how their massed, towering forms respond to the scale and shape of the East River bridges beyond, as well as to the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. Confucius Plaza, albeit on a much more modest scale, attempts to achieve the same effect.
4. The Mid-Brooklyn Expressway and Linear City
In 1966, education and transit, two aspects of the city essential to Lindsay’s vision of its future, collided—and for a brief moment, seemed to align—over a fault line in Brooklyn’s division between blacks and whites, the poor and the middle class.
As early as 1941, Moses had called for two major east-west thoroughfares in Brooklyn. The Bushwick Expressway would track the present route of Bushwick Avenue from the Williamsburg Bridge to East New York. The Cross-Brooklyn Expressway would connect the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the Nassau County line by building a road atop an underused section of the Long Island Rail Road.
Work on the two projects began in earnest in the mid-’50s, with Moses contending that the Bushwick Expressway should be completed first, as it would provide a critical link between Lower Manhattan and Idlewild (later JFK) Airport. Lindsay felt differently. Though he didn’t take an explicit position on the Brooklyn freeways during the campaign, his motto, “Cities are for people, not for automobiles,” revealed his preference for the Cross-Brooklyn Expressway. (Jacobs might have agreed with the motto, while still disdaining the expressway.) Unlike the Bushwick Expressway, it could be built over an existing right-of-way, without extensive demolition and relocation of the area’s population. Accordingly, in his first year in office Lindsay rejected Moses’s proposal and asked the state legislature to redirect funds from the Bushwick to the Cross-Brooklyn.
As Lindsay was battling the conventional model of freeway construction in Brooklyn, another issue that had long divided the borough came to a head. The problem of school integration in New York had been a cause for controversy since the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education
ruling of 1954. The city’s Board of Education had stumbled time and time again in its integration efforts and by the mid-’60s had managed to earn both the mistrust of black parents and the contempt of the white-ethnic antibusing contingent. In Brooklyn, the debate centered on Brownsville, a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood directly adjacent to the white enclaves of Canarsie and East Flatbush. Within months of Lindsay’s election, Brownsville parents were complaining to the Board of Education that the city’s plan to build four elementary and three intermediate schools to serve these discrete communities would effectively segregate the area’s children. As an alternative, they proposed an “educational park” consisting of several schools housed in a central campus, which would draw a diverse mix of students from the area.
Lindsay and Elliot became increasingly determined to scrap the Bushwick Expressway in favor of the Cross-Brooklyn, but they could hardly fail to recognize that the LIRR line on Brownsville’s southern perimeter sat precisely on the neighborhood’s racial divide. Building the Cross-Brooklyn would install a de facto border wall between Brownsville’s white and black populations—unless, as Elliot put it in a meeting with community leaders, the educational park could be placed “in such a way as to knit together rather than separate the communities on either side of the roadway.”
In late 1966, the Planning Commission undertook a series of studies to explore the possibility of combining the educational park and the freeway. On February 25, 1967, Lindsay announced that Linear City, a five-and-a-half-mile-long city-within-a-city, would be erected atop a central segment of the Cross-Brooklyn Expressway. The structure, like the unrealized Park Avenue North, was to be part of a platform covering the rail line and highway; besides the educational park, it would include housing and industrial facilities. Linear City would run in an L-shape from the beginning of Flatbush Avenue near the Manhattan Bridge, east to Canarsie, and then north to East New York along the rerouted Cross-Brooklyn’s Queens-bound spur. Its planned terminus would have produced a soaring, swooping cloverleaf interchange near the present juncture of the Interboro Expressway and Atlantic Avenue.
One can imagine what central Brooklyn might have been like had the Linear City been built. For a driver cruising northeast along the Cross-Brooklyn from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the landscape would unfold like something out of one of Antonio Sant’Elia’s Futurist sketches: The platform would suddenly hover into the driver’s frame, and then a great torrent of automobile traffic would pass under it, disappearing from the view of anyone standing atop the plinth. Meanwhile, the students and residents of the Linear City would emerge from their homes, take an elevator to the public-transit express corridor just beneath their houses, and be conducted swiftly by bus or tram to the educational facilities. The surrounding neighborhood would be enriched by the low structures of the new development, with its shops and aboveground parks. Such, at any rate, was the dream of its planners, a vision of a synchronous and seamless city-within-a-city, an architectural fantasy drawing from the Japanese Metabolists and English neo-Futurists but adapted to the very real problems of race and class in New York.
In early 1968, the Linear City was projected to be completed in four years’ time. But the state government began to have second thoughts: State highway officials left Lindsay out to dry, suddenly refusing to allow federal highway money to be used for urban renewal (rather than to repair upstate highways), despite having previously approved the project. The subsequent delay impelled the city to go ahead with planned new school construction, eliminating half the Linear City’s raison d’être. In the meantime, local opposition to a highway-only project intensified, and the Cross-Brooklyn Expressway was abandoned altogether in 1969.
The Linear City, though it left no lasting residue, may be regarded as the Lindsay project par excellence, exhibiting every major feature that distinguished the administration’s planning ethos, its architectural sensibility, and its political scruples. It was a minimally invasive, multi-use project sensitive to the character of the neighborhood and the concerns of the community; nonetheless, it deployed the structural innovations that had allowed modernist architects and planners from Le Corbusier to Moses to carve their names in concrete across vast swaths of a metropolis while still respecting its form and function.
The legacy of this approach is unquestionably a mixed one, including qualified successes like Twin Parks, noble failures like the midtown arcades, and many tantalizing might-have-beens, such as Park Avenue North and Linear City. It is impossible to ascertain what effect Lindsay’s vision might have had on the life of the city had it been fully realized. The major urban interventions of today—the myriad mini-projects of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC2030, the Hudson Yards redevelopment, the Atlantic Yards project—certainly evidence a more pragmatic, if more cynical, approach to urban design, one lacking in idealism and rooted in profit motive. Perhaps a wariness of idealism is a worthwhile lesson of the Lindsay years, especially for our times. But one can’t help but wonder: Do we still have the imagination, as Lindsay’s planners did, to conceive a comprehensive urban vision in which every part of the city is the proper domain of every one of its citizens?
On the following page is a Google Map that marks many of the aforementioned locations.