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Paying For An Old Mistake

That’s a 1910 Sanborn Map of a piece of the Flatiron district. Yesterday’s poster-child for weirdness, the Hotel Victoria, is on the small lower center block, running from Broadway to Fifth Avenue on the south side of 27th Street. The lines dividing it into vertical strips tell everything we might want to know about its structure: those are internal bearing walls for the wood-joist floors. This map was made as steel-frame fire-rated buildings (tan) were displacing wood-joist buildings for everything larger than a tenement, leading to the patchwork of fire-rated and unrated (pink). The building listed as Trinity Chapel is now the Cathedral of St Sava, and is in blue because its exterior walls are stone.

There’s a conspicuous absence in that map: alleys. Contrary to the Gotham City stereotype, Manhattan is almost entirely without alleys, although we have (downtown, pre grid) some narrow streets. This is not an accident. The men who laid out the grid – the commissioners of the Commissioners’ Plan – made some large and unsupported assumptions in their work. The most famous bad assumption was that the “large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan Island” meant the extensive parkland was not needed. This piece of idiocy was partially fixed by removing from the grid the land that became Central Park. A lesser-known but worse bad assumption was that the narrow blocks – only 200 feet north to south – meant that alleys were not needed. In terms of ordinary traffic that’s not true, since it would be nice to separate the service entrances and public entrances of buildings. In terms of one specific reality of daily life, garbage, it’s a nightmare.

Every human and every city produces garbage. I don’t know that New Yorkers produce any more than the American average, although that average is by international standards quite high. However, we have a problem getting rid of it. Even if it’s kept inside the buildings until the day of collection, it can’t be brought out just in time for the truck. It has to be brought out early enough to allow for variations in the truck’s speed and route on any given day. And since we don’t have alleys, it’s brought out on the street directly in front of each building. It doesn’t matter how fancy the address is in Manhattan, several times a week the sidewalk in front will be piled with garbage bags.

A potential solution is at hand: Citibins. (Click the link for a photo.) They are basically big boxes to hide the piles of garbage bags, which is an improvement of a sort. The big debate is whether they go on the sidewalk or in the parking lane. The latter is the obvious good choice for many reasons, but is politically more difficult and is the cause of delay in installing the big boxes. Garbage only partially blocks the sidewalk for a limited number of hours per week, while the boxes would be a series of permanent partial obstructions. Since the city should be discouraging people from driving in Manhattan – which is the intent behind the yet-again-delayed congestion-pricing plan – there’s no reason to be favoring parking over pedestrians. And finally, it’s a lot easier for the trash haulers to reach a bin in the parking lane than one on the sidewalk.

I expect this will all be sorted out by 2050 or so. Meanwhile, there is no clean engineering solution to a problem handed to us by a group of politicians 210 years ago.