June 3, 2010

What's Left of the Avenue of the Americas?

(updated 2015) The change of name from Sixth Avenue to "Avenue of the Americas" became official October 2, 1945 when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia signed a bill passed by City Council. According to an article in The New York Times ("6th Avenue's Name Gone With the Wind," New York Times, Oct. 3, 1945), a few voiced opposition to the change, including the Citizen Union, arguing that the street contained so many "eyesores" that the new name would be "scarcely an honor to our sister nations."

Others speaking on record at City Council included Mrs. Viola Warrin, who thought the new avenue name was "an awful mouthful;" Albert W. Ransom, who shared his observation that "Avenue of the Americas" was supported "by nobody 'but a group of people seeking propaganda';" and various Greenwich Village activists, including Marion Tanner (the aunt of writer Patrick Dennis, more on this website) of the Greenwich Village Association. The Mayor, on the other hand, said he found "general approval in this city, in this country and in the entire hemisphere." The Sixth Avenue Association, chief instigators of the "Avenue of the Americas," celebrated with a luncheon at the Rainbow Room.

northern block of the Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Ave.) with medallions for Argentina, Costa Rica, and Chile

On October 20, a formal parade and ceremony took place to officially rechristen Sixth Avenue as the Avenue of the Americas. Crowds cheered a parade of four thousand Navy veterans, newly returned from victory in the Pacific Theater of War, upstaging Mayor La Guardia and President Juan Antonio Rios of Chile. ("Navy Steals Show at Dedication of Avenue of Americas by Rios," New York Times, October 21, 1945). According to the Times, the Mayor said that the street name change reflected "the love and affection we have for our sister republics of Central and South America" and the realization of President Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy. At the ceremony, President Rios, who spent part of the previous day in Hyde Park to lay a wreath on the grave of the late President, placed a new Avenue of the Americas sign on a reachable street pole especially built for the occasion.
"With the ceremonies ended, the signal was given to dismiss the service men, and with a shout that startled the dignitaries the patient sailors, marines and midshipmen evacuated the Avenue of the Americas for simple Broadway." 
Simón Bolívar
With twenty-one countries signing the Charter of the Organization of American States in April of 1948, the idea of an Avenue of the Americas seemed promising. The city designed a new plaza at the intersection of Central Park South and the Avenue of the Americas in celebration, and an existing equestrian statue of Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) was moved from Bolivar Hill to a new granite pedestal on the east side and rededicated in 1951. According to the city's Parks & Recreation page on the statue, Bolivar was soon joined there by a statue of Argentine general José de San Martín. In 1965 the dedication of a statue in honor of Cuban leader José Martí completed the trio.

José Martí
Farther south on the avenue, a handsome statue of Brazilian leader José Bonifacio De Andrada E Silva, now re-sited on the west side of Bryant Park, was dedicated in a ceremony in April of 1955. (Park page) On the southern end of the avenue, statues of Juan Pablo Duarte (1813-1876) of the Dominican Republic and General José Artigas (1764-1850) of Uruguay, each in their own small park spaces, complete the official set of six statues. A relatively recent statue of Benito Juarez of Mexico, diminutive in comparison, also on the west side of Bryant Park, was dedicated in 2004.
One of three surviving medallions of Cuba

In addition to the statues, in 1953* the city erected hundreds of new lampposts bearing medallions, each with distinct symbols representing the countries of the Americas (* The City Review Midtown Book page). Later, when the city replaced lampposts with new ones, the medallions came down, too. Some remain to this day, chiefly on the far north and on the far south end of the Avenue of the Americas. For those going to a movie at the IFC, the nearby medallion of Surinam hangs from a post just to the north side of the theatre marquee.

Along the northern block between Central Park South and W. 58th, following medallions for Argentina and Costa Rica, the one for Chile hovers over the opening of the grotesque Jekyll & Hyde Club. Across the street and down a block or so, look for a shield with beach and palm trees signifying Cuba, one of three medallions for the nation that still dangle over the Pan-American boulevard. The sign is near a travel ware store and a cigar shop, if you're in the mood for irony.

medallion for Canada at the intersection with Washington Place

Playground of the Americas
After many blocks in which the signs have fallen by the wayside, the medallions pick up again in Greenwich Village - Canada, at Washington Place; Cuba (again) at W. 4th, Honduras, Barbados, and Venezuela near Bleecker St. Crossing Houston, an official Parks plaque notes the small Playground of the Americas, a site that features nothing more than a modest set of playground equipment. The sign itself is fascinating to read. While noting the story of the Avenue of the Americas, as described here, the narrative also includes the story of the name "Houston," originally named for a southern-born American patriot who spelled his name H-O-U-S-T-O-U-N. The current street name, a corruption that's been misspelled since 1811, "is often erroneously associated with Sam Houston (1793-1863), the commander of the Texas forces during the Texas War for Independence." (I suppose this digression does help to advance the story of the Americas, and native Texans in the city should enjoy this brief mention of the Lone Star State. Someone should lobby for an appropriate equestrian statue in honor of the Republic.)

Juan Pablo Duarte

Cuba shows up again - now, three! - at the intersection with King Street in the Charlton-King-Vandam Historic District, with nearby medallions for Uruguay, Grenada, and Bolivia. El Salvador presides over an untamed empty lot near a car wash. The General José Artigas Monument comes into view in a shady block-length park that, given visual evidence on a recent visit, could use some work. The medallion for Nicaragua is at Broome Street, and the one for Belize is at Watts. Crossing Grand St., the thin triangular Juan Pablo Duarte Square features a statue of the dignified leader of the Dominican Republic, dedicated in 1978 by the country's consulate. Across the street, one of the avenue's most rusty and worn medallions hangs from the lamppost, this one symbolizing the United States of America.

rusty medallion with symbol of the United States of America

The walk: I highly recommend walking the entire length of the north-south stretch of the Avenue of the Americas to absorb the whole effect, beginning at the northern end at the equestrian statues on Central Park South and ending at Canal Street. The distance is approximately 3.6 miles, so stop for snacks and wear sensible shoes. There’s much more to see than what’s described, so a companion post, a strolling guide to Sixth Avenue, is posted here. The new name for Sixth Avenue never took hold among locals, except for its use as a fancy-sounding address.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from May 28, 2010.

NOTE: This is the companion post and map for A Walking Guide to Sixth Avenue/The Avenue of the Americas.

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