West Side Spirit The Benching of Manhattan by Douglas Feiden
Imagine a $1.31 million investment that can boost the quality of life on the East Side, the West Side and in midtown, downtown and Chelsea.
A tiny expenditure that can turn the urban landscape for seniors more age-friendly, make a walkable island even more pedestrian-friendly, aid people with mobility problems — and simply give harried New Yorkers a space to catch their breath.
Sound far-fetched? Actually, with little fanfare, it is already happening. The vehicle for this unheralded miracle? The humble street bench.
Under a federally funded streetscape improvement project, nearly 450 benches have been installed on the streets of Manhattan as of July 28, according to data provided by the city’s Department of Transportation.
The average per-bench cost for the citywide program, which has already added 1,800 benches in all five boroughs, is roughly $3,000, according to an analysis by city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office.
That means the cost to date to place sidewalk pews in all 12 community districts in Manhattan is a modest $1.31 million — about the price paid by the MTA for a single subway car.
As for the benefits? It’s hard to overstate them: “Benches are a really, really big deal, and we pushed very hard to get them,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who first advocated for benches as a three-term City Council Member representing the Upper West Side.
“They enable an older person to get to the grocery store, and the doctor’s appointment, and to rest along the way,” she said. “It helps them to remain independent.”
They can also transform a bleak block into a joyous, user-friendly cityscape. Consider the stretch on the west side of Columbus Avenue between 77th and 76th Street, where a tall, unsightly block-long fence cordons off a schoolyard and had created what planners dub “sidewalk dead space.”
Not anymore. The Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District added “beautiful landscaping,” the city “bumped out” the sidewalk into the avenue and DOT installed four benches, Brewer said.
And voila! “They took a desolate block by a school fence with nothing redeeming about it and made it come alive,” she said.
Dubbed “CityBench,” the program was launched in October 2011 with a $3 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration, whose Section 5310 initiative is aimed at removing barriers and improving mobility for seniors and people with disabilities.
The FTA in September 2015 awarded an extra $1.5 million in funding to expand the program, which picked up steam in early 2016 when DOT installed CityBench # 1,500. Since then, 300 have been added.
The Manhattan tally is now expected to grow to 500-plus benches by the end of 2018, and the goal is to increase citywide totals to 2,100 or more.
“Nicest thing the city has ever done for me,” said Rosalie Meyers, who calls herself an “80-something” and was seated on the CityBench at the corner of 89th Street and First Avenue in front of a C-Town Supermarket, a bag of groceries in her lap.
“I can’t tell you how much it helps just to get off my feet sometimes,” she said.
That’s the idea: Reorder the public realm. Ever so slightly. Provide New Yorkers with a convenient, comfortable public space to sit and rest and chat with friends. Increase safety and sociability. Address the needs of the city’s increasingly elderly constituents.
But hey, this is Manhattan, so don’t expect to make all the citizens happy all the time: “I’ve got a gripe,” said longtime East Sider Mary Ramniceanu, who is 88, mobile and says she has the “zest of a vampire.”
She’s troubled that there’s no bench on the east side of York Avenue in front of New York Hospital in the upper 60s, a location frequented by, to state the obvious, lots of sick people.
“My God, the city has aged,” Ramniceanu said. “You get on a bus these days, and everybody is using either a walker or a cane or a scooter.... For goodness sakes, there’s plenty of room, just put a bench in front of the hospital and make the city a little bit friendlier.”
Still, the Upper East Side, where a quarter of the population is over 60, has an impressive tally of 41 benches, according to a DOT breakdown of bench data.
“Benches are one of those things where you actually get them for free,” said City Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the area. Unlike, say, garbage cans and tree guards, which have to be funded by so-called member items, the city is brimming with available benches, he said.
“The city has warehouses filled with CityBenches, and they’re ready and willing to be deployed,” he added. “DOT has not given me a limit on the number of benches I can request or a price.”
The result: When Kallos surveyed his constituents on streetscape and livability issues, he heard, among other things, that they wanted to see benches on 79th Street and Third Avenue, and on 77th Street and First Avenue. So he submitted furniture requests from the community. Sure enough, the benches were installed.
Now cross back to the Upper West Side: City Council Member Helen Rosenthal says the older people she meets at community meetings, senior centers, in her district office and at NORCs, or naturally occurring retirement communities, often raise the issue of walking long distances and needing a break.
“We have a lot of benches,” she said. “But we need a lot more.”
Indeed, the Upper West Side, in part due to the labors of Rosenthal and Brewer, has more benches — 60 — than almost every other Manhattan neighborhood, DOT data shows. However, it also has more residents aged 85 or over — 5,486 — than any other community in the city.
So there’s always room for more.
There’s a bench, for instance, in front of Strycker’s Bay Neighborhood Council, at Amsterdam Avenue and 94th Street. But there is no bench in front of Goddard Riverside Community Center, at Columbus Avenue and 88th Street. For that matter, there’s none in front of Rosenthal’s district office one block south, which plenty of seniors visit.
Typically, the city places the benches in areas where there are few or no places to sit; near subway stations or bus stops without shelters; adjoining hospitals and community health centers; next to senior centers, NORCs, shopping districts and municipal facilities, like public libraries, and other areas with high concentrations of older citizens.
The benches are made of steel and are sturdy, durable, rust-resistant, low-maintenance and engineered with detachable parts to make repair jobs cheaper and faster. Some have backs, other are backless, and all seat three people — with plenty of room left over for small children, pets and personal belongings.
One thing you don’t have to worry about when it comes to the city’s street benches: Sidewalk clutter. “We’ll never have enough money from DOT to have too many of them,” Brewer said.
Now, it’s your turn: Tell us the street corner where you would like to see a bench in Manhattan, and we may run your letter or contact the city’s Department of Transportation to pass on your request. Write Douglas Feiden, at invreporterstrausnews [dot] com.