Politics and Artistic Expression: Paul Strand | Anne McCauley | Wednesday, 18.02.2015

The Politics of Urban Planning: Strand at Midtown

The same year that Strand shot City Hall Park he took another, somewhat similar picture in a second prominent location, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, New York. Still perched above his subject but physically closer than he was in the courthouse north of City Hall Park, Strand was shooting from the second-floor window of Marius de Zayas’s Modern Gallery at 500 Fifth Avenue. The building is now gone, but from photographs it seems that he had to be behind a window (was it opened?) using a lens that radically compressed the width of Fifth Avenue and brought him nearer street traffic while catching a bit of a unfocused cornice in the lower left. Probably taken shortly after the opening of the gallery on October 7, this image, like City Hall Park, is marked by Strand’s ruthless exclusion of architectural monuments, specifically the New York Public Library off to the right (opened to the public in 1911) and the 7-8 story office buildings and retail stores across the street.
This corner, with the trolley tracks running down 42nd street to the opulent Grand Central Terminal (completed in 1913), symbolized the problems caused by the shift of traffic and shopping further up Fifth Avenue. The city, heavily lobbied by a group of merchants organized in 1907 as the Fifth Avenue Association, had already passed an ordinance to widen the Avenue’s forty-foot traffic area by fifteen feet by narrowing each of the thirty-foot sidewalks by 7 1/2 feet.
From The New York Times, July 26, 1909
“The New Fifth Avenue,” featured here in a 1909 newspaper story, now had room for two lanes of vehicular traffic on each side at the expense of steps, awnings, gardens, and stoops that property owners begrudgingly had to remove to allow adequate sidewalk space. Thus, the curbs, manhole covers that Strand has retouched (visible on the right), street signs such as the one almost excised on the upper left, and paving were recent improvements that gave more room for gas-fueled taxis and private cars, but didn’t help the pile-up of shoppers, businessmen, and newsies we see in the foreground.
If we look closely at what Strand chose to include in this picture, the details of which he could not have seen until after he developed the plate, we note at its center a horse-drawn cab, pushed toward the curb by two rows of newer gas taxis. Heading north is a flashy, low-slung, convertible speedster, with a second horse-drawn vehicle cut off at the top right. The ongoing viability of cumbersome horse traffic on Fifth Avenue had come under attack in 1913, when a public ordinance limited the ability of underemployed hacks to pick up fares by cruising the avenue and running without meters. After a series of lawsuits challenged the ordinance in 1915, Police Chief Arthur Woods proposed a new ordinance that restricted horse cabs on Fifth Avenue between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. A sarcastic notice in the N.Y. Times on June 18, 1915 saw the issue in class terms, with the “proletariat in its taxicabs” (meaning the horse vehicles) no longer “riding on our most admired avenue abreast with the haughty limousines.” The writer concluded that such a ban merely shifted the traffic to already congested streets nearby and wryly observed that there is “no large social distinction to be derived from doing the avenue in a wheezing motor cab.”
The ostensible “progress” of replacing equine with noisy, mechanical modes of transport was matched by ambitious construction projects along the street. Strand undoubtedly would have read about the plan to tear down the six-year-old, seven-story building behind the crowd at the top of his photo to make place for a 20-story office tower, courtesy of the Astor family and intended to house the Astor Trust Company as its main tenant (today called the Banker’s Trust Building).
From The New York Times, August 29, 1915
This sort of conspicuous march of commercial construction and high-rise buildings up Fifth Avenue encouraged an alliance of architects, progressive reformers, publishers, the Fifth Avenue Association, and even some real estate developers who stood to benefit from the increase in property values derived from the limitation on cheap construction to get behind the passage of the nation’s first zoning law in 1916.
Already under discussion at the time Strand took this picture, the Building Zone Resolution created industrial, residential and commercial zones in the city and limited the height of buildings and surrounding courtyards based on the lot size (the famous setback rulings that would influence the shape of subsequent skyscrapers). Even though the motivation of groups like the Fifth Avenue Association were often exclusionary rather than democratic (the Association was formed to regulate the incursion of what were deemed cheap commercial displays, garish electric light and obtrusive billboards, and the destruction of historic buildings, while excluding beggars and garment workers who accompanied the migration of loft spaces northward), the left press welcomed the limitations on construction that did nothing to solve the housing needs of the poor and cast lower-profile buildings into shadow.
Strand left us few hints of what he thought about skyscrapers at this time, but during 1917-18 he began writing poems, one of which he entitled “The Avenue.” The narrator, perched above the “wet and mudded” street “with the meltings of first snow,” invoked a melancholy spectacle: “The heavy massed forms/ Of tall buildings tower/ Into the grey nothingness,/ Like giant specters,/ Whose myriad eyes,/ With sinister light/ Gleam dimly yellow/ through the thick damp./ And the people swarm/ Ant-like,/ And the machines/ Stream endlessly by.” This sunny photograph of Fifth Avenue is, of course, not the wintry, twilight scene Strand invokes (he tellingly does not attempt the nocturnal photographs that intermittently occupied Alfred Stieglitz), but the mood of ominous towers glaring down on worker ants says much about the dehumanization of big buildings (and, I would argue, the rapacious magnates who built them).
How tall buildings affected people on the streets, was a subject that occupied many people whom Strand encountered in the years after he took this picture. Harry Stern Churchill, who had graduated from Cornell with an M.A. in architecture in 1916 and was married to a staff writer for the social reform journal The Survey, had just started his architectural career and was photographed by Strand (along with his wife) in 1922. How he met Strand is not known, but it may have been through the circle that gathered at the Weyhe Bookstore and Gallery on Lexington Avenue, whose façade Churchill rebuilt in 1923. About this time Churchill began publishing articles in The Nation and The New Republic on the importance of honesty to materials in the new high-rise buildings and the need for better architectural criticism to help educate the public. By the 1930s, his interest had shifted to urban planning and the necessary integration of leisure with working spaces, something he found missing in the new Greenbelt cities. Looking back to the 1916 zoning laws and the spread of steel-framed skyscrapers that “made unheard of congestion possible,” Churchill in 1944 emphasized the importance of leisurely walking through the city: “If you are rushed mentally by the pressure of affairs or physically by transportation, little is seen, and nothing registers, nothing matters ... Today we neither walk nor see nor care.”
Strand’s entire career is marked by a struggle to reconcile his drive to make art and his moral obligation to improve the human condition. What and how he shoots represent telling choices, but, in light of Churchill’s comments, we might even read the very act of creating a still image as a response to the speed-up of New York life. By forcing us to stop and look at the literally “pedestrian”—commonplace men and women in public places—Strand’s panoptic lens makes visible the anomie that can entrap those of us who don’t pause to consider why we lead our lives on the run. And that, I would posit, becomes a political message that we today can still appreciate.