Policing Parks? Central Park’s 85th Street Bike Crossing and its Dilemmas

Policing Parks, almost a contradiction in terms. If parks are the escape from the real world, with its attending rules and restrictions, is it even desirable to police them too? Central Park’s 85th street intersection, for onlookers, would at first sight deserve some attention. The clash between citibikers and cyclists, the likelihood of a skateboard rolling underneath a car, or the regularity of small children on smaller bikes being chased by Boathouse pickup vans — these are but few problems observed on the crossing. The game of thrones on the lane must stop, but how does one start policing parks?

  1. Bikers Behind Bars, or Top-Down Policing

If Le Corbusier or Robert Moses could remodel the 85th Street intersection in Central Park, the call to banning bikers all together would not be far-fetched. The former, in The City of Tomorrow and its Planning, has been vocal about his horror of traffic, which, due to its unclassified nature, “is like dynamite flung at hazard into the street, killing pedestrians,” (22). It is Le Corbusier’s obsession with classification that fuels his beliefs. Since the number of intersection, he argues, depends on the number of streets, the latter therefore “should be diminished by two-thirds,” (22). The way Le Corbusier seeks to solve the problems of intersections — by eliminating them completely — is a symptom of an overall attitude of top-down policing. The prerequisite of chaos prescribed with democracy is a challenge that Le Corbusier would rather not face all together — making the intersection at Central Park a kind of hopeless case, a battle of bikes and peoples that has no resolution unless the grounds themselves are set aflame.

Victor Moses would operate in a similar top-down fashion if he had foreseen the arrival of citibike and company. In Robert Moses and the Visual Dimension of Physical Disorder, author Themis Chronopoulos sheds insight upon the origins of Victor Moses’s obsession with “rational scientific principles” and “nicely ordered, geometric simulations of normal life,” (209). Indeed, connecting the roots of our reliance on architecture for social control with the disorder of the French Revolution, Chronopoulos argues that there has been since an “emphasis on the architectural design of factories, asylums, schools, hospitals, and workhouses, so that social disorder could be anticipated, easily controlled, and minimized.” This better-safe-than-sorry mindset, similar to Le Corbusier’s fear of intersections, would therefore set the 85th street crossing on top of the list in terms of disorder and mismanagement — prompting people like to Robert Moses to stretch them out, render them symmetrical, and potentially emptying out of them pests more irritating than Jean Paul Sartre’s Flies — bikers. A merciless, refurbishing-oriented, top-down approach becomes the most intuitive solution to the intersection for the course’s participants — but, as far as our conscience is concerned, it does not seem to be the fairest of answers.

2. The Circus in the Lane, or Policing Diversity.

Whereas Le Corbusier and Victor Moses may be blind to the diversity of the 85th street crossing, one must move to give this melting pot of identities a chance to speak for itself. Tourist on citibikes or cyclist on timers, rolling blades whose aim is to push forward or skate boards whose goal is to zigzag around, runners who want their friends adjacent to them or runners who want their baby strollers in front of them — these are few of the multiple modes of transport, speeds, and motivations that make use of the same public space. This diversity parallels a similar jarring accumulation of terms mentioned in Beach Beneath the Streets, a book that elaborates on Rudy Giuliani’s ‘Quality of Life’ Campaign, which targeted “the working poor, community gardeners, immigrants, people of color, gays, young people, bicyclists, skaters, booksellers, artists, sex workers, students, homeless people, and political activists of all stripes,” (140). This accumulation of terms is very insightful because it asks us to wonder what these seemingly-distinct identities have in common — perhaps precisely their non-cohesiveness, their ambiguity, their greyness between black and white, their way of going astray from the straight line that a normalized society imposes on its members.

This perceived circus of identities is also addressed in Queer Constellations, which bases its argument on Sarah Schulman’s novels on the East Village, a neighborhood that used to be famed for its eclectic, multi-ethnic views, its “Polish butcher and the Korean fruit stands and the Chinese take-out and the Arab deli and the Greek coffee shop and the East Asian newsstand and the Jewish bakery,” (229). Note the use of the word eclectic — as though it were the positive synonym of chaotic. Indeed, it is this irony or double standard that Chisholm highlights through the establishment of two distinct visions of the same subculture in the East Village: the first is “the international, eternal bohemia”, “glamourous”, “wordly” “really sexy” whereas the other is “rat bohemia”, “destitute of means and hopes,” “harboring liars and believers, tops and bottoms, butches and femmes, doers and wannabes, yuppies and deadbeats, mommies and daddies, enemies and friends.”

The latter accumulation echoes the previous juxtaposition of terms regarding Giuliani’s public enemies, and the contradiction between them and their more glamorous equivalents tells us of our perhaps arbitrary perception of the diversity of peoples and the double standard that their scenic, one-dimensional spin-offs in mainstream culture highlights. The same griminess in the East Village can therefore be seen at one-time esthetic and appealing to the dominant culture (think, a ‘nice’ graffiti) or rejecting and gross (vandalism!) — similarly, chic tourists on citibikes may be Instagram-worthy photogenic but sweaty cyclists may not be so; white young men on skateboards may be called hipsters and may be invited to the lane but young black men doing the same could be asked to leave for the sake of public safety. From here we unmask the perceived chaos of the 85th crossing in its true colors — an esthetic chaos, first and foremost. Here one hopes to mark a turning point in our view of the 85th street crossing; rather than demonize its chaos, the easy way out of the problem, we are now confronted with the titanic task of accepting its wild characters and find a way to accommodate its diversity.

3. Bikers Are Pedestrians On Bikes, or Understanding, Managing and Teaching Complexity

How does one go about placing rules for such a diverse group? Emile Durkheim can usher in a new hope in the potential of human complexity and its compatibility with following rules. Indeed, in the following extract from Durkheim’s Moral Education, the sociologist concedes a critical yet logical conclusion from society’s (or in our case, the park’s) moral prescriptions to individuals:

“We end up recommending men, not the taste of measure and moderation, the logic of moral limit, but rather the logic of its opposite; I mean the impatience of hitting the brake and limit one’s self, cutting short the desire to develop one’s self without bounds. It seems to me that Man is in a difficult position as soon as he no longer has an unlimited horizon in front of him.” (53–64, my translation)

Durkheim’s theorizing of moral rules as captors, not enforcers, of human growth pushes us to radically alter our vision of the culprits on the 85th street intersection — the big vehicles, the flying bikes, the runners with earbuds. These, according to Durkheim, ought to be cared for, not limited, and even encouraged to do what they do best. This benefit of the doubt can become a real-life project rationale to include cars with runners and keep all wheeled devices together. Among all others, runners are the most flexible on the route in terms of moving right and left whereas cars are the least flexible of them but have the most control in putting the brakes without flying across the vehicle. Similarly, wheeled devices are the best at precisely just that, wheeling around, so it makes sense to have them together — employing, in Durkheim fashion, the strengths of individuals, rather than their weaknesses.

What about the different speeds of wheeled devices? Jane Jacobs and Samuel Delany in their respective great works help us manage the wheeled devices lane. Indeed, the one “quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder,” according to Jane Jacobs, is “the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served, (15). This idea of an order hidden in plain sight is similar to Delany’s claim that “the neighborhoods that have best exploited the principles of variety, self-policing, and contact are those which have come about without particular planning,” (164). So should one ought to just let the citibike tourist pause for a selfie on the same path as the professional cyclists? Not necessarily — what Jacobs and Delany are asking us to see is the fluidity of people, especially when we leave them room for flexibility. Tainting the single lane with gradations of speeds becomes the ideal solution because it neither denies nor abuses the park’s patrons; allowing the skateboarder to swirl right in their sudden Paris-Dakar ambition and the professional cyclist to swirl left when they want to slow down and drink some water.

4. Electric Bikes Are More Than Cool, or The Potential of Technology in Participatory Policing

The last week of the course pushes participants to look ahead. Hannah Arendt, though not a theorist on technology, wrote in The Human Condition in 1958 that “what makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved, but the fact that the world between them has lost its power to gather them together,” (201). This idea of a world in-between that is at fault is key to understanding the potential of technology in participatory policing — since technology, as a medium, can gather people together. How would a participatory policing system look like in the case of the 85th street intersection and what are the dangers of placing such a mode of organization? The carefulness with which one might propose a technological component to Central Park stems from “Oculus Whiffed” — an article that debates the promise of virtual reality for social good, such as transposing someone into a refugee camp to understand the perspective of the refugee. The article enlists the negative outcomes that virtual reality can generate wittingly or not, including “advertisements [that] might become more compelling or harder to detect when regulation lags in separating commercials from content” or the possibility of “headsets or software hacked to insert violent, degrading, or otherwise nasty images,” (1). These warnings, pitted against Arendt’s belief in a medium that unites people, push one to conceive of a technology system, which, though participatory, could not be as readily abused. A positive example is found in Greeley’s analysis of the genius of Lozano-Hemmer’s public installation in Mexico City in commemoration of the student protest forty years prior. A sound-light system connected to a microphone, wired to a radio station, and linked to light projectors that flash whenever anyone speaks — this system, according to Greeley, “provided an expanding sensorial forum specifically aimed at bridging temporally and spatially between disparate private thoughts and a collective public discourse,” (23).

This desire to bridge the distinct with the indistinct, the individual with the collective, lies at the root of a successful plan to technologize the 85th street intersection. How could it work? The trees along the bike path are set to carry artificial birds with built-in sound, light and sensor system — seamlessly decorated around the trees in a fitting manner. The system would be connected to a heat map data system that collects in real-time the number of pedestrians flocking from the Met Museum entrance. Since speeding bikers usually discover crowded pedestrians by the time they get to the intersection, a realization that comes too late, the birds, which calculate the degree of business on the entrance, will emit a cooing warning sound to the bikers well in advance as well as activating a LED ‘busy’ flash sign. The rationale behind this system subscribes to the Arendtian desire for a bridging medium between people, considers the abuses of VR and the bullying of Le Corbusier and Robert Moses, and boosts the hopes in human agency and organic development put forth by Jane Jacob, Samuel Delany and Emile Durkheim. Far from policing Central Park’s guests, the technology in place becomes a bottom-up forum, not an imposed hierarchy, in which bikers and pedestrians are active participants.

It is worth wondering how come a trivial space as seemingly-simple as one of the endless bike intersections of Central Park would nevertheless require a whole essay, and definitely an academic course, to debunk its problems and even its perceived solutions. Clearly the intersection only unmasks existing problems in our culture and society and points the finger at the reckless way with which we rush to change our surroundings. Indeed, even intersections bear a terrible truth about us. Imagine if the inanimate world could speak?

Works cited, or a syllabus!

Week 1:

1. Le Corbusier. The City of Tomorrow and its Planning. Courier Corporation. (2013).

2. Chronopoulos, Themis. “Robert Moses and the Visual Dimension of Physical Disorder.” Sage. (2014). 207–233.

Week 2:

1. Chisholm, Dianne. Queer Constellation. University of Minnesota Press. (2004).

2. Shepard, Benjamin Heim & Smithsimon Gregory. Beach Beneath the Streets. SUNY Press. (2011).

Week 3:

1. Delany, Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blues. New York University Press. (2001).

2. Jacobs, Jane. The Life and Death of Great American Cities. Random House. (1961).

3. Durkheim, Emile. Moral Education. Free Press. (1973).

Week 4:

1. Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. University of Chicago Press. (1958).

2. Kang, Inkoo. “Oculus Whiffed.” Slate. (2017).

3. Greeley, Robin Adele. The Performative Politicization of Public Space. Thresholds. (2013). 18–31.