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.