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Citizens Union

Founded in 1897, the Citizens Union is a product of the Progressive Movement with a mission of working against corruption in politics. They were especially active in the preservation of Central Park.

Location: 299 Broadway, Suite 700, New York, NY 10007  |  Google Maps
People: Walter Arndt, Albert S. Bard, George Hallett, William Joyner, Seth Low, MacNeil MitchellRobert Moses, Frederick Law Olmsted, William Schieffelin, Calvert Vaux
Organizations: Advisory Committee for the Preservation of Parks, City Club, Mayor’s Billboard Advertising Commission, Municipal Art Society, Parks and Playgrounds Association
Places: 2 Columbus Circle, Belvedere Castle, Carnegie Hall, Central Park, Grand Central Terminal, Lincoln Center
Above: Sheep Meadow in Central Park; Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Citizens Union is a not-for-profit group that advocates for good government for all New Yorkers. For over a century, it has served as a civic watchdog and has fought corruption and advocated for political reform. The organization is independent of any political party and advocates for open elections, transparent government, fair processes, efficient and effective administration, public knowledge of civic affairs, reduced influence of money and special interests, and public participation in civic life.1 Through its Citizens Union Foundation, the Citizens Union publishes the Gotham Gazette, an online journal of news and opinions concerning civic affairs.

1913: The Citizens Union participates in the Mayor’s Billboard Advertising Commission, formed by Mayor William Joyner

1923: At the suggestion of Albert S. Bard, the Citizens Union secretary Walter Arndt sends letters to various neighborhood, business, and block organizations inquiring whether billboards were a concern for them

November 1923: A Citizens Union representative was among numerous civic organization representatives denouncing the subway plan for Central Park at a public hearing

December 1923: The Citizens Union’s secretary, Walter Arndt, lodges a protest with the City against the proposed art center in Central Park

December 1923: Members of the Citizens Union and the Parks and Playgrounds Association threaten a lawsuit to block the proposed radio station in Central Park

March 1924: Citizens Union joins a wide range of organizations in opposition to the war memorial and the arts center in Central Park 

May 1924: Citizens Union joins with other organizations to create a new coalition that would fight intrusions into city parks, called the Advisory Committee for the Preservation of Parks

November 1924: Citizens Union president William Schieffelin proposed banning cars from Central Park

1926: The war memorial proposal for Central Park is also beaten back

1956: The Governor of New York signs the Bard Law

2004 & 2005: The Gotham Gazette of the Citizens Union Foundation ran articles opposing the destruction of 2 Columbus Circle, and identifying 10 significant threatened historic sites in New York City

Arising out of the progressive movement of the late 19th century, Citizens Union was founded in 1897 as an independent political party, opposed to the political machines that dominated New York’s municipal politics. In 1901, its candidate for mayor, Seth Low, was elected to office. Six years later, the organization changed focus and converted from a political party to an advocacy organization that endorsed candidates and lobbied for legislation.2

In its first half century of existence, Citizens Union fought for election reforms, including split ticket voting, which allowed voters to support candidates from more than one political party, and proportional representation, designed to give minor political parties a better chance to win office.3 It also tracked a wide range of legislation in Albany, took positions on many bills, and actively lobbied legislators for its priorities.4

Citizens Union also became involved in many important campaigns, which were precursors of the historic preservation movement, thanks largely to the efforts of its longtime member Albert S. Bard, who served variously as a vice president and a member of the organization’s executive committee. With Bard’s involvement, Citizens Union lobbied against billboard interests and advanced proposals for state legislation and constitutional amendments that would allow the regulation of private property for aesthetic and historic purposes, culminating in the passage of the Bard Law, which enabled local historic preservation regulations in 1956.5

Citizens Union has continued its involvement in New York City affairs to the present day. It lobbied for the removal of Robert Moses from public posts in the 1950s, challenged racial discrimination in the drawing of City Council districts in the 1970s, and helped put an end to the Board of Estimate in the 1980s. Since 1999, Citizens Union has published the Gotham Gazette website, which provides daily political news and commentary on New York City public affairs. 

In the early 20th century, civic organizations such as the Citizens Union, the City Club, and the Municipal Art Society championed preservation and aesthetic values in public landscapes. These organizations not only lobbied local government, but they also used innovative forms of civic activism to arouse public concern for these matters. The groundwork laid by these efforts would ultimately lead to the adoption of state and local legislation enabling the regulation of private property for historic and aesthetic purposes.

Citizens Union in particular was involved in two early fights: the battle to save Central Park from intrusions incompatible with park uses, and the battle for a legal basis to restrict outdoor advertising and billboards in residential and scenic areas. The Citizens Union and other organizations were successful in preserving Central Park’s aesthetic values at a time when they were under unprecedented threat. The billboard battle, after many defeats, would lead to the adoption of legislation that enabled the modern legal framework for historic preservation.

The Citizens Union was an early proponent of preserving Central Park. Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s design for Central Park was intended to create a pastoral landscape, and in the beginning even picnicking and ball games were prohibited.6 As the city grew and ideas about the purpose of parks changed, many recreational, cultural, and commercial intrusions began to be proposed within Central Park. A 1924 article in the New York Times reviewed the numerous proposals in the previous few years that would have irrevocably changed the park’s landscape. Among the more serious proposals were a nine-acre war memorial, a music and art center, a radio station, an open cut through the full length of the park for a subway line, a formal sculpture exhibition ground on fields north of the Metropolitan Museum, an underground garage for 30,000 cars, a new cross-park drive and monument that would have resulted in the demolition of Belvedere Castle, and a series of imitation battlefield trenches to encourage the purchase of war bonds during World War I.7

Awareness of the damage to the park caused by existing and proposed intrusions was strong among civic groups, including Citizens Union. In 1923 and 1924, Citizens Union undertook a series of lobbying actions against many of the Central Park proposals and also advocated to remove cars from the park—a goal that has still not been fully achieved nearly a century later. In November 1923, a Citizens Union representative was among numerous civic organization representatives denouncing the subway plan at a public hearing.8 Ultimately, a subway would be built beneath Central Park West rather than through the park itself. In December, the organization’s secretary, Walter Arndt, lodged a protest with the City against the proposed art center.9 A week later, members of the Citizens Union and the Parks and Playgrounds Association were threatening a lawsuit to block the proposed radio station in Central Park, in part because the broadcasting equipment would rise several hundred feet above the skyline and detract from the beauty of the park.10

By March, Citizens Union had joined a wide range of organizations in opposition to the war memorial and the arts center.  After six months of intensive lobbying at City Hall and in Albany by Citizens Union and other civic groups, the arts center proposal was abandoned.11 Then in May 1924, Citizens Union joined with other organizations to create a new coalition that would fight intrusions into city parks, called the Advisory Committee for the Preservation of Parks.12 On the heels of the previous year’s successes, in November 1924, Citizens Union president William Schieffelin proposed banning cars from Central Park, citing the pollution of the open space by automobile exhaust.13 After two more years, the war memorial proposal was also beaten back.14 Although the park would be compromised in the years when Robert Moses was parks commissioner with playgrounds and skating rinks, among other intrusions, the survival of the major elements of Vaux and Olmsted’s vision down to the present day is due in no small measure to the efforts of the Citizens Union and related organizations in the 1920s.

The Citizens Union was also active in anti-billboard campaigns and aesthetic regulation. The Citizens Union played a key role in a broader fight for aesthetic values which, after many twists and turns, ultimately led to the adoption of New York State’s Bard Law allowing regulation of private property for historic and aesthetic purposes in 1956. This was the battle to regulate outdoor advertising, which began in earnest in the second decade of the 20th century. In 1913, Citizens Union participated in the Mayor’s Bill-Board Advertising Commission formed by Mayor William Joyner, which sought a legal means to limit outdoor advertising, particularly in scenic areas.15 At the time, courts took a dim view of the permissibility of restrictions on billboards, and New York’s highest court had ridiculed billboard opponents as “sentimentalists.”16 The mayor’s commission, of which Albert Bard was the secretary, recommended adoption of a constitutional amendment to allow the state to limit outdoor advertising on the basis of aesthetic beauty.17 The commission also proposed a municipal solution that would involve voluntary cooperation with members of the advertising industry and a municipal ordinance that regulated billboards for safety, rather than aesthetics.18

The constitutional amendment made no headway at a constitutional convention held in 1915.19 Meanwhile, voluntary cooperation with advertisers quickly proved ineffective.20 A few years later, Citizens Union began to lobby in the state legislature for a bill that would tax outdoor advertising, on the theory that if billboards could not be regulated away, then a financial disincentive might help reduce their numbers. In support of this and related efforts, Albert Bard began to collect model legislation from other states and countries that could be used to shape a bill in New York.21

In mustering support for its campaign against outdoor advertising, Citizens Union and other civic groups did not rely solely on traditional lobbying activities. They also used creative tactics to get the public involved and to try to shame advertisers. In 1922, the Municipal Art Society invited Citizens Union and other civic groups to participate in a public forum on the billboard industry. The forum, which according to a newspaper account attracted 1,000 attendees, inflamed public passions on the issue to such an extent that a representative of the advertising industry was shouted down, and Albert Bard was unable to give the speech that he had prepared for the occasion.22

Citizens Union itself took the lead in two letter-writing campaigns in the billboard war directed at block organizations and large companies. At the suggestion of Bard, Citizens Union secretary Walter Arndt sent letters to various neighborhood, business, and block organizations in 1923 inquiring whether billboards were a concern for them.23 The organization also sent letters to the executives of 100 firms, including many consumer-products companies, asking them to stop outdoor advertising outside of residential districts. While such tactics may not have been immediately effective, they did serve to keep the billboard issue in the public mind. Off and on for the next fifteen years, Citizens Union would continue to champion billboard bills in Albany.

In 1938, another constitutional convention was held in New York. Coordinated by Bard, the Citizens Union and other civic organizations championed a constitutional amendment that would allow the control of private property for the purposes of “natural beauty, historic associations, sightlines and physical good order.”24 While its roots were in the anti-billboard movement, the language of this amendment plainly speaks to broader concerns. In fact, the state conservation commissioner, Lithgow Osborne, had initially proposed a narrower amendment that would target billboards; Bard argued for an amendment that would regulate all private property, on the grounds that this would avoid singling out a particular industry.25 Ultimately, however, no such amendment was passed by the convention.

However, Bard’s Law would eventually be passed. After nearly a half century of failed efforts to enable aesthetic regulation in New York, the tide suddenly turned in the 1950s. Prompted by recent proposals to demolish buildings such as Grand Central Terminal, Bard had been working on a legislative bill, which would become known as the Bard Law, to allow regulation for historic and aesthetic purposes. After the Supreme Court of the United States in 1954 decided in Berman v. Parker that community appearance could be a valid purpose of governmental action, the bill seemed likely to pass constitutional muster, and it was championed by many organizations, including the Citizens Union. After the governor finally signed the Bard Law in 1956, Bard wrote an item in the Citizens Union’s newsletter giving the organization, together with bill sponsor MacNeil Mitchell, credit for the bill’s passage. An editor’s note appended to the article states: “Mr. Bard is too modest. It is he who drafted this ‘aesthetics’ amendment and his persistence, along with that of George Hallett, that got this bill through. The Committee on Legislation of Citizens Union was easily persuaded to approve the bill when Mr. Bard explained that it would allow a city to prevent a builder from erecting a structure that looks like a green frog near a beautiful public building.”26

However, the Citizens Union did not fight to preserve Carnegie Hall. After the Bard Law passed and Bard’s role in the organization was lessened, the Citizens Union did not always champion preservation. In 1960, a musician who was resident in Carnegie Hall’s artist studios wrote to Bard with concern about the hall’s impending demolition in conjunction with the move of the New York Philharmonic to Lincoln Center.27 Although Bard argued that the Citizens Union should get involved in the Carnegie Hall fight, the executive board declined to do so, and its vice chairman, Richard S. Childs, wrote a letter to the New York Times arguing in favor of the hall’s demolition.28 Carnegie Hall was soon saved through purchase by the state.

However, later in 2004 and 2005, the Gotham Gazette of the Citizens Union Foundation entered the preservation fray, running articles opposing the destruction of 2 Columbus Circle and identifying 10 significant threatened historic sites in New York City.29

  1. 
“Mission, Values & Aims,” Citizens Union. Article retrieved 25 March 2016
  2. 
 “115 Years of Leadership for Good Government,” Citizens Union. Article retrieved 25 March 2016
  3. 
 Ibid.
  4. 
 Records of the legislative activities of the Citizens Union may be found in the Albert S. Bard Papers, held in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library.
  5. 
 Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008).
  6. 
 Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: a History of Central Park (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992).
  7. 
 “Central Park Again in Danger: 80-Year Battle Goes On Despite Consistent Repulses,” New York Times, 16 March 1924.
  8. 
“Call Subway Plan a Threat to Parks: Leaders in Civic Affairs Say Open-Cut Project Would Start General Invasion,” New York Times, 17 November 1923.
  9. 
 “Asks City to Block Art Centre in Park: Citizens Union Enters Protest Against Using Ground for Buildings,” New York Times, 17 December 1923.
  10. 
“Whalen’s Park Radio Station Faces Contest: Members of Civic Organizations Urge Court Action If Necessary to Stop Installing of Broadcasting Plant,” New-York Tribune, 23 December 1923.
  11. 
“City to Rush Work on Big Art Centre: New Plans, Made Necessary by Abandonment of Park Grab, Nearing Completion,” New York Times, 12 June 1924.
  12. 
“Civic Societies Join Forces to Protect Parks,” New York Herald, New York Tribune, 13 May 1924.
  13. 
 “Citizens Union Head Would Bar Autos in Park: Schieffelin Says Exhaust Gases Are Killing Trees and That Speeding Machines Imperil Children,” New York Herald, New York Tribune, 16 November 1924.
  14. 
“City Memorial Plan Left to Committee: Estimate Board Authorizes the Mayor to Name Twenty to Study War Project,” New York Times, 9 March 1926.
  15. 
 Citizens Union, Letter to Bar Association of the City of New York, 1913, Box 36, F. 1, Albert S. Bard Papers, New York Public Library.
  16. 
“Blames the Judges for the Billboards: Raymond B. Fosdick Attacks Court of Appeals for Refusing to Abolish the Nuisance,” New York Times, 14 December 1913.
  17. 
 Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 28.
  18. 
 City Club, Document, May 11, 1914, Box 36, F. 1, Albert S. Bard Papers, New York Public Library.
  19. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), pages 29–30.
  20. 
 Conference Committee on Outdoor Advertising Conditions, Meeting Minutes, June 22, 1915, Box 36, F. 1, Albert S. Bard Papers, New York Public Library.
  21. 
 Albert Bard, Letter to American Civic Association, 1921, Box 36, F. 4, Albert S. Bard Papers, New York Public Library.
  22. 
“Hisses and Catcalls End Advertising Debate,” New-York Tribune, 30 March 1922.
  23. Walter Arndt, Letter to Albert Bard, November 28, 1923, Box 36, F. 4, Albert S. Bard Papers, New York Public Library
  24. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 31.
  25. 
 Albert Bard, Letter to Richard A. Douglas, May 2, 1938, Box 37, F. 9, Albert S. Bard Papers, New York Public Library.
  26. 
 Citizens Union, “Across from City Hall: Citizens Union News,” July 1956, Box 39, F. 7, Albert S. Bard Papers, New York Public Library.
  27. 
Ida Franca, Letter, March 10, 1960, Box 39, F. 9, Albert S. Bard Papers, New York Public Library.
  28. 
 Albert Bard, “Stand on Carnegie Explained,” New York Times, 2 April 1960.
  29. 
“Historic Preservation in NYC,” Gotham Gazette, 18 April 2005. Article retrieved 25, March 2016