Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Haters gonna hate, but hopefully not on these periodical holders.
In 2011, a Wall Street Journal columnist prowled the city in a Zipcar, looking for newspaper racks gone rogue. He was tagging along with local activists who viewed the plastic periodical holders as a “scourge” on the streets. They stalked up to racks in front of Papaya King, home of the cheapie hot dog, prying open box after box to snap photos of garbage furtively squirrled away inside. The writer recounted how, when nearby garbage cans were overflowing, patrons took to stuffing their “syphilitic contents” straight into the empty news racks.
The war on news racks
It was hardly the first time that New York City residents and business improvement districts took aim at the little plastic containers—and it wouldn’t be the last. Back in 2002, the city passed a law governing the placement, registration, and upkeep of news racks, which are ultimately overseen by the Department of Transportation. The racks can’t be located, for instance, within 15 feet of a fire hydrant, or five feet of a corner, and must not be allowed to “deteriorate into unsanitary condition.” Boxes that break the rules can be hauled off to storage—which results in the owner receiving a $50 penalty and accruing a storage charge of $1.40 per day.
In less than a year, the Village Voice reported in 2003, inspectors doled out “12,000 notices and assessed more than 2,000 fines, totaling almost $1 million.” Many of these fines, the article continued, were for so-called aesthetic violations. That was murky territory, because, the paper cheekily noted, “the city has yet to define a nice rack.” That is to say, aesthetics were in the eyes of the beholder. It was conceivable that a scuff could be an aesthetic demerit comparable to graffiti, argued critics who accused the law of being punitive.
The stakes were high. For publications with modest budgets, fines could mean cutting salaries and potentially losing reporters, the Voice noted. Michelle Rea, the executive director of the New York Press Association, which represents weeklies throughout the city, argued that it stepped on the papers’ rights—and, also, seemed to signal massively misplaced priorities.
"With all the issues the city has to wrestle with, focusing all of this effort on news racks is just absurd," she told the Voice. Other city council members wondered aloud whether imposing aesthetic guidelines could become a way to subtly privilege or silence particular kinds of content, infringing on First Amendment rights.
The bickering continued. In 2007, there was a local photo contest for ugliest news rack. (Winning, one presumes, was both an honor and an insult.) "They’re so dirty that nobody in their right mind would touch them," sneered one community board member to DNAinfo in 2013. “Having the streetscape overflowing with trash isn’t something we consider to be quality of life,” a representative of the Upper East Side non-profit CIVITAS, which campaigns for urban issues, explained.
Designing a solution
Was there a way to design a solution to the problem? A local business improvement district took up the mantle. “We said, ‘These boxes are too ugly, we need to get rid of them—they’re like a cancer on the street,’” Dan Biederman, the president of 34th Street Partnership, tells CityLab. “We spent $23 million enhancing the streetscape of our district,” he continues. “Anything that makes it look lousy, we try to go after.”
Starting in January 2012, they rehabbed the 40 news racks in the 34th Street district and Bryant Park. A vendor received $30,000 per year for an annual wipe-down, but there wasn’t any other scheduled maintenance. The boxes were certainly worse for the wear: rusted, chipped, bearing faded stickers and busted doors and latches.
Over the next two years, they added 60 new coin-operated boxes that could fit the various dimensions of the publications they hoped to attract—which ranged from small pamphlets to oversized tabloids.
Now, they’re working to entice publishers to give up their stand-alone boxes—which, Biederman says, clutter up sidewalks and curb an orderly streetscape—and sign on to shared ones. In February 2016, 98 standalone news boxes, which Biederman refers to as “renegade boxes,” were removed from the streets within the district—49 percent of the total number of solo holdouts.
Is the squabble cooling off? On its website, CIVITAS, the organization that has fighting words for so many news racks around the city, writes that the Partnership’s boxes “illustrate a clean alternative to the free standing news boxes that are often neglected.” Biederman hopes that other groups around the boroughs—and country—will follow suit. “Unfortunately, I have an eye that’s trained to look for eyesores,” he says. “It makes me sad that most of the city has these racks that are ugly.”