Monday, July 18, 2011

GUEST BLOG :: From East Side to West Side, newsracks making headlines

A guest blog by intern Kate Gilmore

Ever seen these along the street?

From Municipal Art Society Photo Competition, "Nasty Newsracks"
Southwest corner of 1st Avenue and 51st Street

Newsracks--a common piece of New York City street furniture--often blend into the background of our experiences in the City. But newsracks have become such an eyesore that many neighborhoods are saying enough is enough!

Newsracks are just one of the many factors affecting the quality of our city's streets.  Communities throughout New York City have tackled issues including commercial signage, storefronts, bus shelters and newsstands through streetscape improvement initiatives. This past semester I worked with Community Board 9 to brainstorm how they might create and administer their own streetscape improvement project. While researching precedents, Landmark West!'s innovative Retail Assistance Program Pilot launched in 1997 was a key example I reviewed for insight.  Community Board 9, Landmark West! and CIVITAS are all engaged in promoting sensitively designed and well-maintained streetscapes. Since I was already familiar with many current streetscape challenges, I wanted to learn more about CIVITAS' efforts to clean up newsracks.

So, I wanted to learn more. To do so I attended a presentation by CIVITAS at a joint meeting of Community Board 7's Transportation and Parks Committees on July 12, 2011. CIVITAS is a non-profit that works on quality of life issues on the Upper East Side and East Harlem. They have been working on the issue of newsracks for years, with the goal of improving compliance with the current newsrack law and advocating for more stringent regulations that would standardize newsrack design.

Rita Hirsh, Chair of CIVITAS streetscape committee, and Tali Cantor, Associate Director, presented a series of slides on the history and current conditions of newsracks from their UES and East Harlem neighborhood. The first newsracks appeared on the streets of Manhattan in 1984, and since then their numbers have multiplied. Each publication's newsrack uses a bright, unique color to attract the attention of a passing pedestrian.


As seen in the images, newsracks are prone to vandalism and often sit empty. According to CIVITAS, many newsracks do not comply with the current laws governing their placement and upkeep. For example, if you ever see newsracks attached to subway entrances- that's illegal! The Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for all street furniture, including newsracks; however, due to weakened legislation they are not able to issue violations to publishers that do not maintain their newsracks. Publishers self-inspect and self-report to the DOT.

CIVITAS asks: What is the solution? Could New York standardize newsracks like the one seen below on Madison Avenue? Or is enforcement the key, allowing publishers to keep their colorful newsracks, but impose stricter adherence to required upkeep?

Photo: Madison Avenue Business Improvement District
Photo source, click here.

There was a lively discussion among Transportation and Parks committee members and the public, some encouraging stricter design guidelines and standardization and others celebrating the the newsracks colorful punctuations along the concrete streetscape. The discussion also considered whether publishers should pay a permitting fee to place a newsrack on the street, since the current system allows publishers to first, place a newsrack on the sidewalk and second, notify the DOT.

CIVITAS asked that CB 7 renew their resolution (originally passed in 2006), supporting CIVITAS' efforts and recommending that the DOT's ability regulate newsrack upkeep be strengthened. They also asked that CB7 request that Council Member James Vacca (Chair of the City Council's Transportation Committee) hold an oversight hearing. Ultimately, CIVITAS wants to clean up the chaos created by newsracks littering the streetscape.

To learn more about newsracks on city sidewalks, visit CIVITAS' website.  Once there, be sure to sign the petition!

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