Friday, September 2, 2011

An Impromptu Public Space

by Betsy Harvey, MCRP '12

Welcome back Bloustein! For those of you who are reading this blog for the first time, I write regular Friday posts about anything and everything related to streets. As a transportation planner, I am interested in their use beyond just shuttling cars back and forth. Streets play important social and economic roles as well, and they are powerful symbols both in our imaginations and in history.

Like most of New Jersey, New Brunswick does not want for a lack of roads. However, when something like a hurricane puts many of them out of service, it may seem like we could do with more. The day or two following Hurricane Irene last weekend, Route 18 was closed from flooding, so drivers diverted to George Street/Ryders Lane, clogging it beyond its normal capacity. A half-hour drive between Princeton and New Brunswick became two hours.

However, something interesting happened on Route 18. On Sunday, as the Raritan River crested over the highway across from the Hyatt Hotel, it was turned into something of a public space. People, for once, had real access to the river. A man (though rather foolishly) waded out a few dozen yards to go fishing. People biked up and down the road. A young man brought out his boom box, playing easy jazz. Groups of friends wandered around, hanging out and talking as they took pictures of the phenomenon, knowing this would most likely never again happen. Irene exacted terrible economic and human costs, to be sure. But the experience on Route 18 shows how much people crave public spaces where they can socialize outdoors, and will take advantage of even a flooded highway.

Route 18 in New Brunswick after last Sunday's Hurricane Irene (Photos by the author)


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