Over the past few years, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing this unusual sidewalk on the north side of West 97th Street with all kinds of people. We’ve talked to government officials, local businesses and community groups, and residents old and new. One of the most frequent questions we hear is, “How did it get to be this way?” (Fig. 1)
Was it part of some grand plan by the original designers of Park West Village? Or did that original plan include diagonal parking that was later removed and filled in with a sidewalk extension? Did it have anything to do with proper access to the neighborhood elementary school, PS 163, or the adjacent Happy Warrior Playground?
Figure 1: The 50-foot wide sidewalk today.
As it turns out, the answer to all these questions is “no,” or at least “not exactly.” The truth is that the sidewalk we see today came about largely by accident.
It all began in 1951, when Robert Moses’ Committee on Slum Clearance announced its Manhattantown urban renewal proposal to clear six city blocks of the Upper West Side and create two new superblocks between Central Park West and Amsterdam Avenue. From the start, plans called for widening West 97th and 100th Streets so that they could handle the additional traffic loads that were anticipated as a result of the elimination of West 98th and 99th Streets. This was common practice at the time. (Fig. 2)
Figure 2: A 1954 aerial photo showing the site beginning to be cleared.
Because the south side of West 97th Street was not part of the development, the buildings of Park West Village were laid out 40 feet further north than the buildings that had been removed so that the road could be widened in that direction.
Interestingly, period photographs show that the builders used this additional space to their advantage. The buffer zone allowed them to leave the original northern sidewalk in place while they built the first three buildings, all west of Columbus, along with the new sidewalk (Fig. 3). However, when these buildings and PS 163 opened in 1958, the street had not yet been widened and an unusual condition was revealed in which the north side of West 97th Street was left with a pair of sidewalks separated by a lawn (Fig. 4).
Figure 3: 1958 street view looking northeast at the Park West Village buildings on the west side of Columbus in their final stages of construction. Note the original sidewalk in poor condition, a construction fence, and the new sidewalk in the background.
Figure 4: 1958 street view looking at PS 163 showing the pair of sidewalks.
West 97th Street was not actually widened until 1961, which roughly coincided with the opening of the remaining four Park West Village buildings east of Columbus and the completion of the complex. At that time, the original sidewalk was removed along with the lawn, and the paving of the roadbed was extended to meet the new sidewalk (Fig. 5). This repaving increased the width of West 97th Street from that of a typical narrow street, at 60 feet wide, to a 100 feet wide thoroughfare matching the adjacent avenues.
Figure 5: 1966 aerial photo showing the widened 97th Street.
Unfortunately, this modification quickly proved to be misguided. The increased width was well in excess of what was needed even during periods of peak traffic volume. That, in turn, encouraged speeding by vehicles exiting the Central Park 97th Street transverse heading westbound toward the West Side Highway. The roadway became known as “the 97th Street speedway,”or “the West Side’s dragstrip.” These dangerous conditions combined with the road’s five lanes caused it to be seen as a “great divide” that families with young children were afraid to cross.
Already by 1965, Planning Board 7 asked the city to reverse the change and narrow the street. The New York Times reported that the community’s request was to “widen the sidewalk to permit the creation of broad, tree-lined promenades dotted with flowerbeds, benches and sandboxes.” (Sound familiar?)
Things didn’t move any faster in the 1960’s than they do now, and these changes were not implemented immediately. We have found evidence that diagonal parking was first tested by simply painting new striping on the existing roadway in late 1966 (Fig 6).
Figure 6: 1966 birds-eye view of diagonal parking (looking northwest from Columbus)
We haven’t yet found a record of exactly when the sidewalk was widened, but the earliest photograph we have of it is in 1974 (Fig 7). Two rows of trees were planted, and it is possible that some distinctive paving patterns were used. But most of the community’s vision for this important neighborhood space was never realized.
Hopefully, with your help, we can make that happen now, some 50 years later!
Figure 7: 1974 aerial photo showing the widened sidewalk at 97th Street.
We would like to thank the following sources which were used in our research: The New York Times (including quotes from “West Side Urges Wider Sidewalks,” April 20, 1965), Nationwide Environmental Title Research (NETR), New York Public Library, New York City Municipal Archives, Museum of the City of New York, New York City Municipal Archives, US Geological Survey, Google Earth
Send your photos:
Do you have photos of this sidewalk? Your first day of school eons ago at PS 163? An outing to the Happy Warrior Playground? Photos of the sidewalk being built? It all helps tell the story of how this important neighborhood public space came to be. We would love to see them. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.