Open Streets are here to stay.
The city’s pandemic response to a lack of open space in some neighborhoods is looking like it might outlast the pandemic.
Epicenter-NYC writer Jade Stepeney spoke with Shekar Krishnan and Sophie Maerowitz, two organizers of Open Streets programs in New York City, about the passage of the new Open Streets Bill. Krishnan is a housing lawyer and running for City Council in District 25 (Jackson Heights) and Maerowitz co-founded the Loisaida Open Streets Community Coalition (LOSCC).
What are Open Streets?
Open Streets is a program to make outside safe, accessible and enjoyable spaces for New Yorkers. New York City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera of District 2 (East Village) and Council Speaker Corey Johnson of District 3 (Chelsea) proposed legislation back in April 2020 to launch an emergency open streets program.
The 34th Ave Open Streets Coalition in Jackson Heights and the LOSCC in Manhattan were born in April to combat social isolation during the pandemic. The Department of Transportation (DOT) reports 1,607 open streets as of January 19.
Krishnan, whose patchwork of open streets run through Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, says having open streets has been a critical lifeline for residents.
“Because housing is so overcrowded and unaffordable here, 34th Avenue created such a vital space for so many neighbors, seniors and families to come together and have a 30-block long place to spend time outside during such a dangerous and urgent moment in our community,” he said.
After the DOT made Avenue B an open street, the NYPD dropped off barricades, but failed to enforce the road restrictions. Drivers pushed aside, removed and straight-up ran them over. While picking up the scraps one night with her partner, Maerowitz had her “aha” moment.
“We ran into our district leaders John Blasco and Aura Olavarria and [realized] there are other people that are willing to pick up the slack,” she said. Volunteers created signage, painted street murals and decorated barricades to define the space as reinvented.
Organizations like the YMCA and Fresh Air Fund have partnered with Open Streets to host events, like Zumba and kid-friendly activities.
Why not just go to a park?
That’s a common complaint by opposers. Residents in Jackson Heights and Loisaida are concerned about disappearing parking spaces, commute times and growing tension between the volunteers maintaining the streets and those who would rather not have them. 34th Ave Compromise, a community group fighting to change the conditions of the Open Streets Bill, says the program has run its course as New York City gradually opens back up.
All neighborhoods should have allocated park space per capita, but they don’t. Jackson Heights ranks among the lowest in New York City for park space. Loisaida, even with East River Park, falls short, too.
“The pandemic showed us just like when there’s demand for people to get outside, that space is simply not enough,” Maerowitz said. “Our neighborhood was already suffering from an underserved portion of that ratio.”
Krishnan says the Open Streets coalition reenvisions who New York City streets are for.
“The biggest issue we face is systemic inequality, where immigrant communities like ours, communities of color, don’t get the resources and services from city government that they need to create these spaces and sustain them,” he said.
Because social distancing was, and still is, paramount, the lack of park space speaks to who is deserving of areas to play, exercise and live.
“This is a matter of public health. It’s a matter of racial justice and equity, and it’s a matter of street safety,” he said. “There are so many streets in our community here in Jackson Heights and across Queens that are so dangerous, especially for seniors and young children. Especially having young kids now, I hold their hands really tight when I cross the street with them because I’m so nervous about cars coming.”
What’s in the Open Streets Bill?
The Open Streets Bill, co-sponsored by Rivera and Johnson, requires the DOT “to operate an open streets program, which would provide street space to pedestrians and other non-vehicular street users.”
Community organizers still have the power to manage individual open streets. Support by the local government legitimizes the yearlong efforts of volunteers, vendors and residents who made open streets possible.
What’s next for Open Streets?
For Maerowitz, she hopes to see paid staffing positions for residents open, equitable funding and support for culturally relevant programming.
“As my co-founder, Laura Sewell says, ‘we’ve been doing CPR on the open streets.’,” Maerowitz said. “We want to be able to move into a phase where we can just improve it and make it safer and make it better.”
Friends of 34th Avenue Linear Park has its eyes set on becoming a permanent fixture.
“We’ve done it before with Travers Park and Diversity Plaza. I think having that will really help us make this really special permanent park space for our community,” Krishnan said. You can sign the petition to make 34th Ave a linear park here.
Looking to get involved with Open Streets? Find your open street here. Sign up to volunteer with LOSCC here. Follow the 34th Ave on Instagram at @34linearpark and LOSOCC at @loisaida_oscc.
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OUT & ABOUT
Born in Flames
Born in Flames: Feminist Futures, the first exhibition assembled by Jasmine Wahi as the Bronx Museum of Art’s Holly Block Curator of Social Justice, is a must see.
What is a social justice curator, you may wonder? In Wahi’s words, “ a social justice curator is a cultural worker who creates exhibitions that prompt dialogue and subsequent change towards a more socially equitable and just society. I think an alternative title would be “visual activist”—a person who believes in the symbiotic relationship between art and social change.”
“Born In Flames: Feminist Futures” presents works by 14 contemporary artists created over the last four decades, bringing together ideas from multi-positional, intersectional, and intergenerational vantage points. The exhibition demonstrates not only the artists’ place within a futurist lineage, but also exposes the ongoing impulse to imagine new realities on their own terms. Their work critically examines current struggles for equity by exploring strategies for justice and equality through multifaceted futurisms.
Admission to the museum is free and ticket reservations can be made here.
Blessed Unrest theater group is performing an original show, “Touch,” this weekend near Madison Square Park. Part of the Open Culture Program, “Touch” is based on performers’ experiences of isolation, and offers viewers “an invitation to partake in the warmth of creative intimacy, with the safety of distance.” Performances will be held this Saturday, May 8, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, May 9, at 3 and 5 p.m. Reserve your space here; tickets are pay-what-you-can, with a suggested donation of $25.
Free drive-in movie nights
The Queens Drive-In is hosting free movie nights for the next two months; “The Polio Crusade” and “28 Days Later” are next up, this coming Thursday, May 13. Advance registration is required, and spots open up two weeks prior to each showing.
GIVE & GET HELP
Reflections by NYC Youth on the Civil Uprisings of 2020
The Museum of the City of New York has a new initiative to help center and amplify the voices of young New Yorkers ages 14-24 as they try to make sense of the last year. Named Project 8:46 — that’s how long cellphone footage captured Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck before killing him — it is a video collage of crowdsourced responses, which will be presented with the museum’s ongoing “Activist New York” exhibition. The submission deadline is Friday, May 14. Learn more and enter your submission here.
Mother’s Day donation drive
Park Slope Girl Scout Troop 2011 will be collecting diapers, wipes, baby food and formula and any other helpful baby/mothers items this Saturday, May 8, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in front of the Old Stone House (336 3rd St.) in Brooklyn. Questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
India still needs help
On Saturday it reported more than 400,000 Covid-19 cases for the first time, and had a record-high number of deaths on Sunday. However, experts have suggested that actual infections and deaths are three to five times higher as the official count is coming from hospitals, excluding people dying in their homes. If you are interested in donating to local efforts, here is a list of organizations that are accepting international donations.
How do you talk to people in a way that makes them want to get a vaccine? Our volunteers tell you what they’ve learned and share the (nonjudgemental) scripts they use. Join us at 8 p.m. tonight on Twitter, YouTube or Facebook.
QUEENS MEMORY PROJECT
Epicenter-NYC partners with Queens Memory, a community archiving program supported by Queens Public Library and the Queens College Library, to share its Covid-19 project. For the past year, Queens Memory has been collecting personal stories about life during the pandemic.
The stories gathered will become a testament to the struggles and resiliency of the World’s Borough. Submissions will become part of the Queens Memory digital collections at Queens Public Library and the Queens College Library and will be shared through the Urban Archive platform.
Do you have a connection to the borough and a story to share? We want to hear it. Submit yours here.
In June, I had to leave my home of seven years after I and the majority of my housemates were laid off or unable to work due to the pandemic. For the first time in our many years of timely rent payments, we knew April was going to be a problem. The unemployment website was constantly broken and would it even cover those of us who were precarious gig workers? One of my housemates had been working for Trader Joe’s, but I convinced them to quit. This was difficult to do in mid March, explaining to friends how little information even experts had on the virus kinda felt like a tinfoil hat conspiracy, but eventually they were thankful when an older worker ended up dying of the virus, and another grocery worker friend of ours caught it and spread it to his whole family. We knew we had to be really careful to not spread the disease, we even teamed up to buy groceries for the entire house to limit potential exposure. We also worked with our local tenants union to build a mutual aid network for delivering groceries to people more at risk, in quarantine, or struggling to buy food in general. There wasn’t enough PPE for healthcare workers so originally the government said masks weren’t effective. Transit workers were discouraged from wearing them to “not scare people” and over a hundred transit workers died in the early weeks of the pandemic. Our house was full of drag queens and cosplayers so we decided to make our own masks when we couldn’t buy any, we eventually started making extras to contribute to the mutual aid effort. I thought it was very poetic to make use of my partner’s grandma’s old fabric. She had died the year before after living in their family’s Elmhurst apartment for over 60 years. In early April, my heart was heavy for the people of Elmhurst. Working-class immigrant areas gutted by decades of cuts of public infrastructure were hit incredibly hard, but the constant sirens and refrigerated trucks made it to our neighborhood, too. I’m incredibly worried about the city hitting hospital capacity once again. Without universal healthcare and international cooperation, I fear the age of pandemics will never end.
—O.K. Fox, April 2020
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Shout-out to the teachers
It’s Teacher Appreciation Week. It’s been a hell of a year and you’ve stuck by us and our students the whole way. Thank you.
One week back
Public school students who opted to return to classrooms have enjoyed a full week of uninterrupted learning, for the most part. Some students sit at desks in front of screens, and some have chosen to stay home altogether. New York City Schools Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter has assured parents that an adult who cares for them is teaching, whether in-person or through a screen.
Porter and standardized tests
Porter has criticized the Specialized High School Admissions Test, calling for a “multi-pronged approach” that doesn’t solely rely on test scores. Activists and parents alike criticized Porter for her criticism, as Asian-American students lead in admissions. Ex-schools chancellor Richard Carranza tried to get rid of the tests altogether, to no avail.
Roughly two hours from NYC by car, Kent, Connecticut, is the perfect place to take in spring and slow down your pace. Start your day with a hike followed by a picnic at Kent Falls State Park, which covers 250 lush green acres, and boasts a 250-feet waterfall.
After burning some serious calories, reward yourself with a cold one from Kent Falls Brewing Co., before heading to the Eric Sloane Museum, which is dedicated to the renowned artist and author (and reopens this Friday, May 7!). For food, we recommend local favorite Fife ‘n Drum.
We want to see, hear, feel, support your art and response to this moment. To submit a poem, short story, artwork or any shareable experience, email us. If your work is selected, you will receive a $100 stipend and become part of our growing network of artists.
This week we welcome Christen Clifford. Clifford is a feminist performance artist, writer, curator, professor, actor and mother. Her work has been shown at Eva Presenhuber, The New Museum, PS 122/SoloNova, Dixon Place, Postmasters Gallery, EFA Project Space, to name a few. Her essay about gender and aging, “Mother, Daughter, Moustache,” was in the New York Times bestselling anthology “Women In Clothes” (2014). Molly Ringwald read it on national radio for WNYC’s Selected Shorts.
Clifford’s work spans a wide range of mediums from immersive installations to spoken word. She has just released a limited edition artist book, “Baby Love”, with Project for Empty Space. PES is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating safe and equitable spaces for audiences and artists alike. They are currently accepting applications for their residency program.
Clifford wrote “BabyLove” in a rush, in the delirium of new motherhood. It was first published on Nerve.com in 2004. The artist reflects on her role as a new mother nearly two decades later in the current second edition reprint. It comes at a time when the culture around mothering has changed. Clifford highlights a new paradigm in which society casually embraces the trope of the “sexy mom” and “momedy.”
“BabyLove” is a 28-page book produced by risograph, a kind of copy machine using a hybrid process between screen printing and photocopying. The four color art book includes documentation of the artist’s postpartum journey. “BabyLove” is a limited edition of 150 copies, 10 with a special cover featuring Gold Leaf Breastmilk. You can purchase the book here ($40/$100), and see more of Clifford’s work on her website and instagram.