Pedestrians pack Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue during a two-hour closure to vehicle traffic on April 22, 1970, the first ‘official’ Earth Day in the United States.

The 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day this April 22 recalls what several environmental historians called the most impressive observance in the United States, in New York City. Perhaps this feature of the day in the city of traffic gridlock made the greatest impact in the national consciousness:  for two hours, Fifth Avenue was closed to motorized vehicles between 14th Street and 59th Street, bringing midtown Manhattan to a near-standstill. Treehugger named New York City today the best city in the nation for pedestrians.

“One horse-drawn buggy, carrying members of a neighborhood association, was the sole vehicle in the ‘autoless’ space, as one reporter called it,” remembers one source of the 1970 Manhattan street closure.

Other New York City events that day included a Union Square rally with Mayor John Lindsay and actors Ali MacGraw and Paul Newman.  More on the rally from the city’s Earth and Arbor Day history page here. Crediting Lindsay with a leadership role among the nation’s mayors, Tom Cochran said last year, “Mayors walked arm-in-arm down Fifth Avenue with no traffic. It was a day I won’t forget because back then it seemed strange there was no traffic, no taxis – just thousands walking to save our environment.”

Lindsay said the city would commit $1 billion over the next decade to public transit. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller rode his bicycle to the Union Square rally. The same day, he signed into law a measure creating the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Photo:  Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.