John Updike Would Have Loved 6½th Avenue Even If the Dailies Don’t

Not one but TWO Midtown stop signs. (Google Maps)

“Fifth and Sixth Avenues teem these days; the thronging pedestrians maneuver under rules skimpier than those of a bagataway.” Most every New Yorker would agree with this assessment, which could extend from Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side to Lower Broadway in Soho, and nowhere moreso then that bastard child of show business and commerce, Times Square.

Yet these words were written not by a New Yorker, but The New Yorker, in 1956, when none other than John Updike endeavored to plot a safer course through Midtown. “As a service to readers who are too frail or shy for good-natured hurly-burly, we decided to plot a course from the Empire State Building to Rockefeller Center that would involve no contact with either Fifth or Sixth Avenue,” he wrote in an unsigned Talk piece.

Among the challenges to contend with were a chain-link fence to be shimmied under and the tight quarters of Orbach’s department store to be navigated. Tad Friend charted the same course in a similar story two years ago and encountered far worse: “The last half century has stripped midtown of spacious department stores such as Ohrbach’s and Stern’s, and fortified it with guards, visitors’ logs, and electronic-card-access gates.”

Both pieces were very much on The Observer’s mind while working on last week’s stories about the city’s new plans to create 6½ Avenue, a series of crosswalks connecting a chain of public plazas between Sixth and Seventh avenues spanning the West 50s. If Updike’s experience is any  indication, this pedestrian shortcut is much in need. And yet to read reports of the pathway in the city’s dailies, you would think a heinous crime were being committed.

The Post naturally took the lead in this regard, as it hates all things proposed by Transportation Commish Janette Sadik-Khan. And so the tab declared shock at the notion that stop signs might manifest themselves in Midtown. “Stop signs, speed bumps and midblock cross walks are coming to the unlikeliest spot in the Big Apple this summer—the congested heart of Midtown Manhattan.” Next thing you know, cyclists will begin mating with motorists.

And for the record, there actually are a handful of stop signs in Midtown, mostly around Grand Central Terminal—a high traffic spot if ever there was one—along Vanderbilt Avenue.

The Journal, meanwhile called the scheme Mayberry Comes to Midtown, and quotes some anxious cabbies. Ditto the Daily News. Never mind that the vast majority of DOT’s pedestrian projects, like the reengineering of Broadway, have not only increased street safety but also generally improved traffic speeds. Still, the taxi drivers moan.

And then there is The Times, which has become notorious for its transportation intransigence. Simply consider the opening salvo in its piece on 6½th Avenue:

First came the bike lanes, creeping like overgrown ivy across the city streetscape.

Then there were the open-air pedestrian plazas, sprouting from the concrete in hubs like Times Square and Union Square to make the insufferable clamor of crosstown traffic a little less so.

Now, by summer, New Yorkers may find themselves in the throes of the Bloomberg administration’s latest roadside intervention: between-avenue stop signs, speed humps and pedestrian crossings along six blocks in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, forging what some have called Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue.

It almost sounds like Martin Niemöller’s famous litany—”And then, when they came for our cars and our babies, there was no one left to protect us!” And such a hysterical response to a series of programs—bike lanes, Times Square, now this program—that locals and New Yorkers at large have wholeheartedly embraced in poll after poll. You would think people were dying in the streets.

mchaban [at] | @MC_NYC

John Updike Would Have Loved 6½th Avenue Even If the Dailies Don’t