During the pandemic, Jackson Heights looked nothing like it does now. Its streets were empty, filled only by the piercing sounds of ambulances zooming toward Elmhurst hospital because it was the epicenter of the pandemic. Residents who were not essential workers were stuck inside dealing with isolation and loneliness. In an effort to address this problem, in May 2020, 34th Avenue was cleared for people to walk and have a space to interact with others while socially distancing. The open street would soon become a place where people came to celebrate cultural holidays, take a Zumba dance class in the mornings or learn a new hobby. Now, what was once a temporary measure, will become permanent and the open street will be renamed Paseo Park. Seeing the positive impact Paseo Park had on their neighbors, a group of photographers set out to capture their stories culminating in Queens’ newest photography exhibit: Paseo Park Portraits.
“The most important thing I heard from neighbors is that having access to this open space, during the pandemic, in a community that ranks last in access to park space, made people feel less alone and helped create this sense of community that a lot of people had been missing and really needed,” says Dawn Siff, photographer and curator of Paseo Park Portraits. “With these photos and exhibit I wanted to show the joy access to an open space has brought to our community.”
With a grant from Queens Council on the Arts, Siff and photographers Kisha Bari, Bridget Bartolini and Patrick Chang went along the avenue to capture people happily making use of the open street. The photos were taken during the fall. Even though the pandemic’s worst was over, neighbors still used the avenue frequently and it was special to them in different ways.
Before moving to Jackson Heights from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Jasmin Chang would often come to the avenue with her partner for a stroll. She enjoyed seeing the different things people would do with the space. Paseo Park became a place that would soothe the lonely feelings that arose when she moved to the neighborhood.
“[Walking down the avenue] was enjoyable both because it is a fun activity to have a street to walk down for such a long stretch, but also because if you were to walk down the street for a minute you see so much of the flavor of the neighborhood,” she says. “People sitting out in chairs just talking, people playing cards, kids roller blading — you get a rich snapshot of the place and that’s something I really loved about it.”
Chang hopes that through the photographs people are able to see that Paseo Park is a place for everyone — whether it is to relax, make art or make food, anyone can find something to do along the avenue.
“[At Paseo Park] you learn about so many facets of the neighborhood, how much it has going on and how many people have really amazing ideas that they are pursuing for the community,” she says. “I think that is a snapshot of what [Paseo Park Portraits] does. All the people that are a part of the project, all the hands that are touching it all come together in a similar way that the park does itself.”
Josefina Bahamondes has been living in Jackson Heights along 34th Avenue for the past five years. Bahamondes is a school teacher and during the start of the pandemic she had to adapt to the challenges of remote learning. Many of her students who lived in Jackson Heights were couped up at home, unable to leave due to fear of the virus. Their community lacked green space for them to play outside and maintain social distance safely. When 34th Avenue was turned into an open street, she was thrilled.
“We sometimes forget how to enjoy ourselves and we can enjoy simple stuff like just having an open space. How lucky we are to have this space in Jackson Heights after being one of the neighborhoods with the least amount of open spaces in all of New York,” she says. “The open street is providing a new opportunity for us to go out and enjoy and I wish in the future it can become a real park with more greenery.”
When Bahamondes had her photo taken by Siff, Mayor Eric Adams had just announced that 34th Avenue was going to become a permanent open street; she was also celebrating recently becoming a United States citizen. She and her husband decided to bring out hula hoops for neighbors to enjoy.
“As we are growing up, we can also go out, have fun and play. We forget that [as adults] we can play too. The open street is a space where we can meet people, enjoy ourselves and create community,” she says. “This is not just a space for little kids. It’s for everyone, it doesn’t matter who you are, everyone can go out and enjoy themselves.”
Mark Saldana is a watercolor artist born and raised in Corona, Queens. He’d often hang out with his friends in Jackson Heights, but due to rent increases a few years back, Saldana left Queens and moved to Brooklyn, however he continued coming to Queens, especially 34th Avenue.
“Queens is forever my favorite borough and I rep Queens so much and I love that I get to create a lot of artwork and build community and relationships over there,” he says.
Along with some of his friends, Saldana created an artist collective that shared their work on 34th Avenue.
“There are so many artists in Queens that we thought, ‘Why are we looking for opportunities in Brooklyn or Manhattan? Why can’t we create these opportunities and relationships in our own borough?’” he says. “When 34th Avenue opened for the public we started meeting new people, new friends and new creatives. We really just needed an open street to meet other creatives in our community. That was the best part of it.”
This exhibition was also eye-opening for the photographers themselves. Bridget Bartolini, is an oral historian who’s been living in Jackson Heights for the past five years and has been documenting the 34th Avenue open street for her thesis project.
“I’ve been researching the open street since 2020, interviewing people about the ways that they’re using the street and what the street means to them and documenting the evolution of the street,” she says. “So many people have been connected, neighbors made new friendships and formed these relationships where they know each other’s routines. They’ll go on their walks and say hi. It’s also created these pleasant interactions with people for me.”
Bartolini remembers the story of a Taiwanese woman named “Mickey” whom she photographed. Mickey moved to Jackson Heights shortly before the pandemic began, but at the time Jackson Heights did not feel like home. She would often hang out with her friends in Manhattan and then return to Jackson Heights. During the pandemic, she stayed home and baked. She then started selling her baked goods on the open street, which allowed her to interact with people and practice her English.
“She is a super friendly and naturally outgoing person, so [not knowing English] was very limiting. Since becoming a street vendor she has connected with so many people. She has a lot of customers who are regular customers and love her stuff,” Bartolini says. “[Because of the open street] she also connected with other Taiwanese people. She formed a group for other parents who have kids around the same age as her, so that they can all practice speaking Mandarin with their kids.”
Siff hopes that the portraits are able to show visitors the joy and the good that the open streets produced, most importantly, the strong community ties that came out of the pandemic as a result of the open street.
“When I was editing [the photos] and the quotes, there was a common thread of loneliness and finding community,” she says. “I think that’s what really stuck out to me. Just the impact that this has made in people’s lives and the ways in which it’s helped people find community.”
The exhibit is available to view at Espresso 77 (35-57 77th St. near the corner of 37th Avenue).