On Delancey Street, History Repeats

Image Courtesy Andrew Hinderaker

Eighty-two years ago, Delancey Street’s situation wasn’t much different than it is today. The thoroughfare, which cuts from the Williamsburg Bridge to Bowery, was dangerously packed with every type of transportation, and the mayor decided to do something about it.

Of course, that mayor was Fiorello LaGuardia, the year was 1930, the problem was more about pushcarts than SUVs and the solution involved building the Essex Street Market so that street vendors would have a place to hawk their wares. It worked, but almost ever since, another problem took its place: automobile traffic. And that’s only gotten worse. In the past six years, more than 730 people have been injured on Delancey Street. Nine have been struck and killed. Now, for the first time since 1930, another mayor is ready to take on Delancey.

The 82-year wait is not without reason. As New York City thoroughfares go, Delancey Street is as complicated as they come. The eight-lane roadway is one of Manhattan’s widest crosstown boulevards. As a terminus for Williamsburg Bridge traffic, Delancey is the only crosstown street that carries all the vehicles from a major river-crossing. Crowded in among all those cars is an unending stream of pedestrians and bicycles. Delancey Street never lost its historic role as a shopping district for the neighboring communities in Chinatown, Little Italy and the Lower East Side, and with North Brooklyn’s booming population of bicyclists, it’s a natural crosstown bike route.

  This June, Mayor Bloomberg and the Department of Transportation broke ground on a solution as complex as Delancey Street’s problem. Homing in on the Williamsburg Bridge’s connection to Delancey—where bicyclist Jeffrey Axelrod and pedestrians Dashane Santana and Patricia Cuevas were killed in the last year alone— the DOT eliminated outer traffic lanes on both sides of the bridge. Before, the whopping 165-foot-wide street indicated to drivers to accelerate onto a highway, not slow onto a neighborhood street. Now, the north-side sidewalk will be extended with paint and planters, and on the south side of the bridge Delancey’s service road will be pedestrianized to provide 14,160 square feet of new public space between Norfolk and Clinton streets. On Bowery, at the west terminus of Delancey Street, the DOT implemented a similar solution. Where the street widened from four lanes to eight, the DOT added new space for pedestrians and shrunk traffic lanes to make for a more gradual transition.

Because more than half of all the pedestrians struck on Delancey Street had a walk signal in their favor, the DOT paid special attention to turning vehicles. To reduce conflicts, they have restricted left turns where Delancey intersects with Allen, Chrystie and Essex streets. The City also shortened the distance vehicles travel through the Lower East Side by allowing turns onto the Williamsburg Bridge directly from Clinton Street south of Delancey.

Only time will tell if Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts to improve Delancey Street will do as well as Mayor LaGuardia’s, but one thing’s certain: A cure for Manhattan’s most historically treacherous street is a prospect for every street in NYC; if we can make it better there, we can make it better everywhere.