Courting couples, schmoozing seniors and scampering children have used James Cagney Place on the East Side as an informal community hub for decades. Now its status is being protected as an official “pedestrian plaza”
No wonder they call it "Sleigh-Ride Hill." A photo taken after a blizzard in January 2017, from the bottom of the East 91st Street hill at Second Avenue looking west up toward Third Avenue, shows families enjoying the play street, which has been closed to traffic since 1975. Photo: Dave Rosenstein
A 1928 photo shows the view from Second Avenue looking west up East 91st toward Jacob Ruppert & Co. Knickerbocker Brewery complex. The long-demolished structures include the George Ehret Hell Gate Brewery (right, foreground) and the Jacob Ruppert and George Ringler Breweries (right, background.) The block has been closed to vehicular traffic since 1975. Photo: OldNYC, via New York Public Library Collection / Percy Loomis Sperr
The street, bisecting the site of the long-demolished Jacob Ruppert and Co. Knickerbocker Brewery, has been closed to vehicular traffic for 42 years and serves as an open-air community space.
Officially named James Cagney Place, for the song-and-dance man who grew up on East 96th Street, it is the hill where a 5-year boy named Ben
Kallos once played in the puddles on a rainy day with other local kids.
Now, he’s the 36-year-old City Council member representing the area, and he’s never stopped coming to the block — a “staple of childhood on the Upper East Side,” he calls it — especially for sledding after a snow.
“This portion of East 91st Street has been a closed play street for longer than I have been alive,” Kallos added.
In recent years, that status appeared to be in doubt: A possible threat to the landscaped, red-brick pedestrian plaza-and-walkway suddenly loomed on the horizon — the city’s planned Marine Transfer Station.
Just two-and-a-half long blocks to the east, also on 91st Street, the MTS sent shock waves through the neighborhood when it was first proposed in 2004 in the Bloomberg administration’s solid-waste management plan.
Residents of the three mega-housing towers on either side of the plaza — Ruppert Tower, Yorkville Tower and Knickerbocker Plaza, which hold a combined 1,836 units — feared the street could be reopened for westbound sanitation trucks exiting the transfer station’s 91st ramp.
Fanning those fears, the city’s Department of Sanitation, over a decade, never delineated the exact routes its trucks would take, tenant and community leaders say. And the clock began ticking when MTS construction began in 2013 with completion now anticipated in 2019.
So Community Board 8, which takes in the site developed in the 1970s as the “Ruppert Brewery Urban Renewal Area,” moved to protect the walkway in September 2014 by forming the 91st Street De-mapping Task Force.
Its mission: Find a way to remove the block from the city’s right-of-way system, legally and in perpetuity, “via demapping or other mechanism,” to safeguard the pedestrian mall, and thus, block it from ever being reopened as a traffic-bearing street.
“It was always a vehicle-free oasis in an area that has very little open space in the midst of a crowed city,” said Rita Popper, a CB8 member, task force co-chair, resident of Knickerbocker Plaza since 1975 and head of its tenants association.
“My kids played stickball on that street,” she added. “They went down that hill on their Flexible Flyer wooden sleds ... It’s the perfect place for skateboarding. It’s where seniors have always sat on the benches. They still do, but now many of them sit with their aides.”
Doubly miraculous: All this activity takes place on an old industrial site, long known for the scent of hops and barley wafting from the brewery, which closed in 1965. How do you preserve such a human-scale treasure from an encroaching city?
“We needed to figure out what we could do to make it clear that it’s a special street with a special status, that it’s not just something that was closed by accident and happens to be barricaded on both ends,” said CB8 member Dave Rosenstein, the other task force co-chair.
Easier said than done.
It is extremely rare for the city’s Department of Transportation to demap a street. Exceptions have been made — for super-blocks like Lincoln Center in 1959, and Park West Village on the Upper West Side in the early 1960s. But typically, DOT prefers to keep the grid and its rights-of-way intact to meet the city’s future needs.
“Our concern was that the street is fragile, it needs protection, it needs recognition,” Rosenstein said. But DOT made clear it has no way of knowing what its needs for the roadbed and the East Side will be “100 years from now,” he said.
A first priority was determining the street’s legal status. Officials had cautioned that it didn’t have a legally protected status: It had been closed “informally,” CB8 was told, meaning that, at least theoretically, it could be reopened at any time.
“That didn’t make a lot of sense to us,” Rosenstein said. “Obviously, it was closed under some kind of agreement with the city. So we began an extensive hunt for documentation.”
Along with Ruppert-Yorkville Management Co. (R-Y), a subsidiary of the DeMatteis Organization, which has maintained and operated the plaza since it was built in 1975, Rosenstein and Popper researched its history.
They examined files from the long-disbanded Board of Estimate, looked at records from DOT and the City Planning Commission, and even sent a researcher to Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library to scour the papers of Edward Logue, a visionary planner who helped develop some of the city’s blockbuster projects.
But the city had nearly gone bankrupt in 1975 — it was the year of the famed Daily News headline, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” — and paperwork was lost, misplaced or hard to come by. Their 18-month quest, to find relevant paperwork explaining how a closed street came to be closed, was ultimately fruitless.
“It remains an urban mystery,” Kallos said.
Eventually, DOT suggested plaza boosters apply to the agency’s NYC Pedestrian Plaza Program, which encourages the creation of vibrant, social public spaces and provides official recognition to “traffic-free” plazas if community groups commit to operate, maintain and manage the spaces.
So R-Y and CB8 in November 2016 formed Friends of James Cagney Place LLC to apply for the designation. They were turned down in January. The program requires an “active community involvement component,” they were told.
In other words, it isn’t enough that sledding, jogging, biking, courting, dog-walking, power-walking, schmoozing and skateboarding already take place on the walkway. There has to be programing and special events, too.
Organizers got the memo. This year, they staged a free jazz festival and arts-and-crafts show; a “Movie on the Hill” night in which “Beauty and the Beast” was screened; a Halloween Parade and costume contest; and a tree-lighting and sing-along. To round out the year, a “Snowflake Run” takes place December 31st.
The community again applied for “pedestrian plaza” status. Since the walkway was now officially “programmed” as a plaza, DOT accepted it into the program. It’s now better positioned to “become a neighborhood destination for the Upper East Side” and serve as a “community hub,” the agency said.
In making the announcement on December 1, DOT Manhattan Borough Commissioner Luis Sanchez conjured up a 1937 James Cagney film title: “It is truly ‘Something to Sing About’ that this part of 91st Street is finally getting official recognition as a pedestrian plaza,” he said.
The urban enclave will remain closed to traffic. No renewal of the designation is required, and no changes to its status are anticipated, a DOT spokesperson said. The plaza remains part of the city’s right-of-way and has not been demapped.
“It was a fear in the community that this play street that has been closed for generations would be reopened solely for garbage trucks spewing diesel particulate as they struggled up the steep hill of 91st Street — and that the noise from those trucks would replace the pleasant sounds of children at play,” Kallos said.
“Rest assured that now that the city has officially recognized this space as a public plaza, the street will be preserved for what we hope will be generations to come,” he said.