City by William Whyte
Whyte brings humor, science, and a sense of play to understanding how people use urban space. Which makes City one of the best books I've read in a while.
One result is an effect akin to Gresham's Law: to make their substitute streets more competitive, cities have been making what is left of their real streets duller yet. One instrument is the blank wall. According to my rough computations, the proportion of downtown blockfronts that are blank at street level has been growing rapidly -- most of all, in small cities, which are the ones most immediately hurt by suburban shopping malls and most tempted to fight their tormentors by copying them.
Girl watchers put on a show of girl watchers looking at girls. But it is all machismo. We have never seen a girl watcher make a real pass at a girl.
The underlife of the street has a rich cast too. There are the beggars, the phony pitchmen for causes, the three-card-monte players and their shills, the whores and their pimps, the male prostitutes and the Murphy men, the dope dealers, and worst of all, the muggers in their white sneakers.
Vendors can do very well. A good one with a good location can make as much as $40,000 (1988 USD) a year. Consistency is important. The ones with the best clientele are the ones who are always in the same spot. One buys from them not just for the food, but to check in. ...
Food vendors are clearly functional and people appreciate this. Dealings with merchandise vendors tend to be adversary; with food vendors, agreeable.
The prop that he (Philippe Petit, street performer) was to use best was a policeman. for the climax of his act, Petit got up on a the tightrope, lit three batons, and proceeded to juggle them as he went across. The crowd appluded vigorously. Petit dismounted and made the rounds of the crowd with outstretched hat. At this point a friendly black cop who had been enjoying the show from the rear came foward. Petit looked stricken. He recoiled as if hit. "Don't hit him," someone shouted. The crowd was angry. Outraged at this display of police brutality, people pressed additional contributions on Petit, who had sufficiently recovered from his terror to make another round. As the bemused cop looked on, Petit mounted his unicycle, doffed his hat, and made his getaway.
Frank ( a handbill passer ) seeks to dominate the encounter, and like most who do, he is responsive to the reception given him. At midday one August I filmed him at work from a fifth-floor window at Bloomingdale's. It was hot and muggy and people were moving more sluggishly than usual. Frank was doing all right, but there were some lulls. After two or three turndowns in a row, Frank would just stop and not offer handbills to anyone. In a minute or so, however, he would be at it again. In the half hour he spent, he averaged 50 percent completion to handbills offered.
There is plenty of sin, in short, but not so much danger. Perceptions, however, are otherwise. In many cities the perception of crime in the center is considerably greater than the actuality.
On the 36 miles of street in midtown, we logged 4031 parked vehicles; 2000 were parked illegally; only 22 were ticketed. In every single block of midtown (NYC), we found at least one lane interdicted to traffic -- whether by cars parked legally or illegally, double parked, or standing.
Anti-litter public service ads tell people to stop being such slobs. But they are not, usually. They are good about disposing litter if there is something to dispose it in. But there are too few receptacles and they are rarely sited in relation to the trash load.
Most ledges are inherently sittable. With ingenuity and additional work, they can be made unsittable. ( insert picture of ledge with scary medieval spikes )
People like to move moveable chairs. Even though there appears to be no logical reason, they may move a chair a foot or more before sitting on it.
It's not right to put water in front of people and then keep them away from it. But this is what has been happening across the country. Pools and fountains are installed, then immmediately posted with signs admonishing people not to touch. Equally egregious is the excessive zeal with which many pools are continually being emptied, vacuumed, and refilled, as though their function wer eto be emptied, vacuumed, and refilled. Maintenance, not use, is the first priority. The grand old Buckingham Fountain in Chicago's Grant Park, for example, was put off limits for repairs with a girdling fence "electrically protected". Safety is the usual reason given for keeping people away. This is a legitimate concern but there are ways short of electrocution for handling it.
Most well-used places have a "mayor" of sorts. He may be a building guard, a newsstand operator, or a food vendor...
One of the best mayors I've ever seen is Joe Hardy of the Exxon Building of Rockefeller Center. He is an actor as well as a guard and was originally hired to play Santa Claus, whom he resembles. Ordinarily, guards are not supposed to initiate conversations, but Joe is gregarious and curious and has a nice sense of situations...
There are antimayors. At one of our largest civic institutions, the head of the militia is a mean-looking fat man in a black uniform who cruises about in a golf cart. I have never seen him actually hit anybody, but he comes so close and at such speed you feel he really wants to.
In its earliest form, zoning was for the provision of light. In eighteenth-century Paris the height of buildings was limited to a multiple of the width of the streets...
When New York City instituted zoning in 1916, the same principle was applied. The recently built Equitable Building, which rose straight up from the street, was the symbol of what was to be avoided...
If a building had enough setbacks in its lower portions, the tower could go straight up quite a ways. So a number of buildings did, most spectacularly the Empire State and the Chrysler Building. But the more customary result was the "ziggurat" -- a building that looked like a series of successively smaller boxes put on top of one another.
How to dullify downtown (more yeas = less interesting):
Was much of downtown successfully razed under urban renewal?
Is at least half of downtown devoted to parking?
Have municipal and county offices been relocated to a campus?
Have streets been de-mapped for superblock developments?
Have the developments included an enclosed shopping mall?
Have they been linked together with skyways?
Have they been linked together with underground concourses?
Is an automated people-mover system being planned?