For our latest mission, we created separate walking lanes for tourists and New Yorkers on a Fifth Avenue sidewalk. Department of Transportation “employees” were on hand to enforce the new rules and ask pedestrians for their feedback on the initiative. Enjoy the video first and then go behind-the-scenes with the photos and report below.
Agent Greenspan came up with the idea for this project earlier this year and did some experimenting with different types of chalk and line drawing machines. When he told me about the project, I immediately fell in love with it and asked him if he would like to collaborate and turn it into an Improv Everywhere mission. To my delight, he was down.
To make it work as an IE mission, I knew we’d have to add a performance aspect to create more of a scene. We came up with the idea of having agents pose as Department of Transportation employees directing pedestrian traffic to really bring the lanes alive.
Cast and crew getting organized in Madison Square Park
Agent Greenspan designed the stencils and ordered all of the equipment online. It was important to us to use chalk and not spray paint. For IE missions, we always attempt to leave no trace behind once we disappear. Although the chalk would still be up after the mission, it would wash away after a heavy rain. Even though we were using water-soluble chalk, we were still nervous about getting in trouble with the police. The NYPD has a history of arresting activists, artists, and even six-year-old girls for using chalk on the streets (in all cases charges were eventually dropped.)
Agent Greenspan hid his stencils in the bottom of two boxes. He definitely attracted attention from passersby when he began spraying. Fortunately, the boxes helped disguise his actions a bit, and the orange vest gave him the appearance of authority. He laid the stencils down on both sides of the block.
Agent Fanelli guards the stencils as the chalk dries
Agent Greenspan sets up the line machine
Agent Black clears the way as the line is drawn
Agent Black directs pedestrian traffic on the south end
Agent Fanelli on the north end
A group of women from Spain came by and loved the lanes. This woman posed for a photo.
One of many who stopped to take a picture
Laughing at the lanes
One dog was from out of town
iPhone listening New Yorker
After a while we figured it would be better if Agents Black and Fanelli stood together rather than on opposite ends of the block. It was hilarious watching them interact with pedestrians and riff off of each other. The video was only able to capture a small fraction of the comedy that came out of their mouths.
Agent Lindquist positioned herself about twenty feet past the stencils near the corner of 23rd Street and stopped pedestrians to ask for their feedback. She explained that she worked for the Department of Transportation, that this was a test block, and that the lanes would be painted on every block in the city by the end of the summer.
She received a wide variety of feedback. Many people thought it was hilarious and were skeptical of it being legitimate. Others bought into it, especially tourists. The most common complaint was that part of the fun of visiting New York is experiencing the hustle and bustle of the sidewalk as you walk amongst New Yorkers. Some were upset at the idea of the new lanes taking away from that experience.
Agent Lindquist’s feedback form
Several New Yorkers gave the lanes high praise, perhaps frustrated with the slow walking tourists they encounter on their daily commute. This guy loved it so much he insisted upon giving Agents Fanelli and Black high fives.
The mission lasted about an hour before we packed up and disappeared. The lanes, of course, remained on the street so the prank continued. We were very curious if the project would make it’s way to the Internet before we could edit and post our video. Three full days passed and all was quiet. But then…
New Yorker Mark Armstrong took a single photo of the project and put it on his Tumblr blog. The post was “liked” and “reblogged” nearly 500 times. It quickly attracted the attention of larger blogs like The Awl and Gothamist.
It then started popping up on blogs all over the place and spreading through twitter and facebook. The next morning, both the New York Post and the New York Daily News had stories in their paper and online.
The Post even produced a video:
As more local TV and radio media started picking up the story that day, Mayor Bloomberg was asked about it at a press conference. The mayor chose to spin the tourist lane positively, saying it was clear that it was a “nice thing to do” for tourists and that he thought it was “very cute.” He went on to say that anyone who saw an anti-tourist message in the chalk had to be a “sick person.”
Later that day, the real Department of Transportation buffed the chalk clean. It stayed up for four days, but ultimately could not survive the media attention.
New York Magazine put the project in their weekly Approval Matrix graphic. They classified it both “brilliant” and “highbrow.” Though we shouldn’t toot our horn too much, as the same graphic shows our Ghostbusters mission in the “despicable” and “lowbrow” section! I mean, I get that guys running around in silly costumes is pretty lowbrow, but despicable? Lighten up Approval Matrix!
The whole thing was a very unique experience for us. Typically our missions don’t get blog and press coverage until after we post them on our site. It was fun to watch people speculate as to who was responsible and what his motives were. In the end, The Tourist Lane is not a pro-tourist or anti-tourist project. It just is.
Agents Black, Fanelli, and Tourist Lane creator Jeff Greenspan