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Does New York City Really Need These Giant 5G Towers?

Does New York City Really Need These Giant 5G Towers?


This is Street Wars, a weekly series on the battle for space on New York’s streets and sidewalks.

A thrilling glimpse of New York City history is on display at the intersection of West 12th Street and Washington Street in Manhattan. Cobblestone-like Belgian blocks, most likely dating to the 1870s, line the street. The three-story Federal-style brick building on the southeast corner was built in 1842. It’s easy to imagine pulling up in a horse and carriage — or even in a Model T, since there’s a 1920s Art Deco building on the northeast corner.

So when the city proposed placing a shiny new 5G tower on a corner there, neighbors were not happy.

“Greenwich Village is known and loved around the world for its charming architecture,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation, an organization devoted to safeguarding the heritage of Greenwich Village, the East Village and NoHo.

“There is a harm to having these 32-foot tall futuristic towers, often with large video display terminals on them, in residential neighborhoods in historic districts,” he said.

Thousands of residents participated in a letter-writing campaign against the proposed tower, Berman said. And the state’s Historic Preservation Office recently warned that tall towers would have an adverse effect on landmark blocks in the in the Greenwich Village Historic District. The “incompatible design” of the poles would “create a visual distraction,” officials said.

The fate of the West 12th Street tower is still under review by the Federal Communications Commission. But plenty of 5G “smartpoles” are on the way.

The towers, which have been popping up around New York City since 2022, are part of the city’s effort to upgrade its wireless service. More than 150 of the 32-foot towers have already been installed, and about 2,000 more are coming, said Nick Colvin, the chief executive of LinkNYC, the communications network responsible for the Link5G towers.

These days, most people’s phones do so much more than just make voice calls, Colvin said. If you have had an email that wouldn’t go through or trouble searching for a location in a map app, or experienced any kind of dead zone in smartphone service, Colvin explained, it’s because the city’s network is in desperate need of an upgrade.

“The demand being placed upon the existing infrastructure is outstripping the capacity of that network that was built,” he said.

Colvin bristled a bit at the design complaints. “I’m a New Yorker,” he said, “I care about the public space.”

The towers are silver and gray, much like New York’s streetlight poles. Their tops are full of transmitters, which get covered by a “shroud” to keep them looking sleek.

Colvin said that other designs had been considered and rejected. “They were ugly,” he said. So Link5G worked with Antenna Design, the same firm that designed the MetroCard vending machine and the new subway cars, and towers were designed just for New York.

Needless to say, not everyone admires them.

“People don’t want, first of all, to have this monstrosity in their neighborhoods,” said Odette Wilkens, the executive director of NYC Alliance for Safe Technology.

She is concerned about the plan to add what she calls “gargantuan” towers in Jamaica, Queens, near the historic neighborhood of Addisleigh Park.

At least 16 community boards across the city — representing approximately two million New Yorkers — have voiced concerns about the 5G tower rollout. City officials, including Mark Levine, the Manhattan borough president, and Representative Jerry Nadler have written letters of support.

And while the F.C.C. has declared that 5G technology is safe and not a health hazard, Wilkens nonetheless worries that the towers are a threat to public safety. In an email newsletter, she urges New Yorkers to speak up against the towers. “YOU NEED TO ACT NOW!” she wrote. “YOU’RE GETTING CLOBBERED WITH 5G TOWERS.”

The city government, however, insists that the towers are part of a “critical” effort to give all New Yorkers access to high-speed internet.

“This administration will not be deterred by NIMBYism and will continue to prioritize democratizing access to technology, building a more connected and livable city for New Yorkers,” said Ray Legendre of the city’s Office of Technology and Innovation.

Many of the locations of Link5G towers (as well as LinkNYC Wi-Fi kiosks, which do not have towers) were previously home to public pay phones.

Years ago, if you wanted to allow for six people to make phone calls, Colvin said, you would need 15 to 20 feet of sidewalk for a bank of pay phones.

So far, he said, 8,000 pay phones have been removed from New York sidewalks, and the new 5G towers will take up much less space. Colvin said the design is as “future-proof” as possible: “Like the pay phones, we expect these to be there for decades to come.”

Can New York City move into the future while still preserving parts of its past? Colvin hopes so.

“The mission of LinkNYC — and of the 5G program — is to provide digital connectivity for free to everyone in the city,” he said.

Being connected, he said, is “more and more necessary to be able to participate in the economy, apply for jobs, interact with government, pay a parking ticket, things like this. It’s just essential for life.”

But he knows what he’s up against: “It’s always hard, in a city like New York, to change things.”

While 5G towers are new, the idea of streetscape clutter to accommodate technology is not. In the 1880s, New Yorkers had to deal with a different pole on the sidewalk: the telegraph pole.

A New York Times article from 1881 described in detail the startling arrival of “unsightly” telegraph poles on Pine Street in Manhattan, explaining that “gangs of laborers” proceeded to “tear up the pavement” and erect telegraph poles “the size and clumsiness such has rarely been seen outside of the Maine woods.”

The poles were not just called “crooked and rough” but “huge, ugly excrescences” that took up space on the sidewalk, “thus forcing the unfortunate pedestrians into the mud-filled gutter.” The state attorney general filed a suit to have them removed. In 1882, The Times reported on another lawsuit aimed at removing telegraph poles from West 21st Street.

In 1876, a Times reporter wrote: “One of the first surprises which greet the foreigner on landing in New York is the dense growth of telegraph poles which obstructs the streets.”

But after 1900, telegraph poles were so common that this reporter found not one but two reports of men falling asleep on top of them. (In both stories, the men had been drinking.)

David Schley, a professor at Durham University in England who specializes in urban history, has been researching 19th century New York for a project and noticed a lot of telegraph pole discourse.

In the media, he said, “they used it as one of many analogues for the workings of power.” For instance, he saw newspaper articles comment on how the volume of telegraph wires “became thicker as you approached Wall Street, because that’s where all the wires are converging, and that’s the financial hub of the city. That’s the street that is connected to London and connected to places all around the world.”

Schley also said that there were discussions about connectivity that resemble the ones we have now.

“A major storm hit New York in December of 1874,” Schley said, “and The Times took this as an opportunity to reflect on the interconnectedness of modern life, writing, ‘Before the invention of the railroad and telegraph life was much simpler than now, and each household was less dependent upon its communication with the external world.’”

Were those the good old days?

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“The three guys who were commissioned to come up with any plan that they wanted — they were just not thinking deeply about the effects of what they were going to announce. These guys were not Hausmann, who put the avenues in Paris. They were not city planners. I think to New York City’s eternal shame, these were not guys who really engaged with this sort of project. It seems as though none of these three commissioners sat down and thought, you know, what we’re doing here is very important, and it’s going to affect how the shape of the city takes on forever.”

— Gerard Koeppel, author of “City on a Grid: How New York Became New York,” on the commissioners who implemented Manhattan’s street grid in 1811.



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