One of New York’s more enduring illusions is that its physical quarters are universally accessible. But while there are acres of parklands and miles of sidewalk, the majority of Gotham consists of private structures that are off limits except to customers or tenants (unless you enjoy scuffling with doormen and security guards).
The city’s 503 officially designated, privately owned public spaces are scattered among 320 structures, only four of which are outside Manhattan. These urban nether-regions are planned and (theoretically) maintained by the building owners. But before you get dewy-eyed over their civic-mindedness, it’s worth noting that a zoning resolution passed in 1961 and amended several times since allows developers to sidestep height and setback restrictions in exchange for adding public areas to new buildings. It all sounds good, but a stroll around town reveals just how liberally “public space” can be interpreted.
1166 SIXTH AVENUE • A serene oasis tucked away from the city’s bustle, this treesy respite features plenty of seats and a convenient cut-through between 45th and 46th streets. It also appears to be an anomaly: The majority of midtown public spaces are better suited to grabbing a smoke, tying your shoe, and moving on.
1221 SIXTH AVENUE • Here’s a case in point. This claustrophobic sunken plaza (read: pit) gives gawking pedestrians—and voyeurs working in the McGraw-Hill building that towers above it—a vulture’s eye view of lunchtime lollygaggers.
1285 SIXTH AVENUE, 135 WEST 52ND STREET, 1325 SIXTH AVENUE, 151 WEST 54TH STREET, AND 156 WEST 56TH STREET • This informal sequence of tunnel-like through-block gallerias, on the other hand, captures a certain utilitarian whimsy, allowing strollers to traverse five blocks without treading on a single avenue. If you’re so inclined, you can even descend below street level and make your way to Rockefeller Center.
60 WALL STREET • This cavernous downtown atrium, although overlit, has the homey feel of a town hall-bus station hybrid. Though it’s packed with noshing suits during the day, a crew of scrappy regulars moves in and classes up the joint once the final bell has rung.
550 MADISON AVENUE • A kind of snooty uptown cousin to 60 Wall Street, the Sony atrium has the sterile, overdesigned formality of a corporate cafeteria. Apparently, its reputation for discouraging “undesirables” is legit: When I was there, an ostensibly homeless man was driven from table to table by a surly rent-a-cop.
1991 BROADWAY • A more innocuous version of the Sony atrium’s proprietary bullying occurs here, where a tiny indoor plaza is so thoroughly dominated by Ollie’s Noodle Shop that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s part of the restaurant. It’s not, so feel free to bring in food from the outside.
1886 BROADWAY • This small, pleasantly landscaped plaza has the virtue of being directly behind the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. It’s also just down the block from the West Side YMCA; if you’re on a budget, treat yourself to the cheapest meal in town at the Y’s cafeteria—hell, take it over to Ollie’s. One caveat: On even moderately blustery days, this site functions as a wind tunnel.
1 COURT SQUARE, LONG ISLAND CITY • Finally, to give the rest of the city its due, hop the E or V train to Queens’ only privately owned public space. Unfortunately, this indoor/outdoor plaza is as drab as most of its Manhattan kin, and it sits in an inhospitable microclimate to boot. And true to form, it’s situated beneath the borough’s tallest, homeliest building.