In case you missed it in Tuesday’s newsletter, we published “A tale of two lives,” a deeply moving story about Antonio, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador. Formerly a lawyer, Antonio now supports himself by selling face masks on a corner in Queens while he desperately tries to get a work visa.
Now, back to regularly scheduled programming with our independent journalist Felipe De La Hoz, who is bringing you some coverage of the upcoming municipal primaries from the perspective of constituencies and communities.
A new issue in this municipal election cycle (aside from the pandemic recovery, of course) is the open streets initiative (still related to the pandemic, of course). Open Streets is a program the city began piloting about a year ago in direct response to the limitations on gathering forced by the coronavirus pandemic. The idea was that sections of certain streets would be closed off to through traffic, allowing neighborhoods to suddenly access the stock of open public space that is otherwise made dangerous by cars. The initial pilot only encompassed about 1.5 miles total and is widely regarded as a failure, largely due to Mayor Bill de Blasio administration’s inability to enunciate a clear vision for it.
Despite that early speed bump, the program has since grown to nearly 70 miles of city streets with some form of pedestrian closures, short of the administration’s goal of 100 miles, but more than in any other city in the U.S. There is a mix of types of open streets, including some that are closed to all vehicle traffic and some that allow entry to drivers who live in the neighborhood. Some take place every day, others on certain days. They are designated by the city, but logistically run by volunteers, who set up the barricades that keep cars out and sometimes plan activities. The throughline is that the streets allow local residents — or anybody, really — to enjoy open spaces worry-free, at least in theory.
Voting in New York City can be confusing. Did you know you have to register with a party before you can vote in its primary, or that this year will feature the first round of ranked-choice voting, where you can select an order of candidates by preference? For more guidance and resources, see here:
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The city has added restaurant and retail components, allowing restaurants and stores to use more space on sidewalks and curbs, and now to apply to use street space itself for seating. Thousands of restaurants have already joined, and though restrictions on indoor dining are being rolled back, many have indicated a willingness to keep the outdoor space. The program in general has been expanding in fits and starts, hampered by a lack of administrative focus and planning. Some of the designated open streets areas have simply fallen apart due to volunteers not having the bandwidth to keep them going, and the city’s muted response to aggression and attacks by drivers and open streets opponents.
Indeed, when I walked over on Wednesday to a couple of sites in Harlem listed as open streets in the city’s official list, the streets had no barricades or any indication they belonged to the program. The W. 120th St. section between Lenox Avenue and Mount Morris Park West, however, was functioning and showed the promise of the program.
A group of kids were playing a game of pickup basketball with a small hoop that had been set up on the side of the street as neighbors strolled around. Mike Robles, who has lived on the block for about six years, was out with his daughter, who was playing with a dollhouse set up on a large rug in the street. He said it wasn’t their dollhouse, but the neighbors have all gotten used to sharing and looking out for one another. “The city is so congested that I think this is actually a relief, this is a safe haven for kids to play. The parents pretty much know each other here, so we can sort of watch the kids from afar and make sure everybody’s okay,” he said, adding that he and his daughter were out almost every day. He acknowledged that different neighbors had different perspectives, and some weren’t as on board with the plan, but believes that there are ways for everyone to be happy with it, particularly with more active support and intervention from the city.
Earlier this month, the City Council passed a bill making the program permanent and providing more of an operational framework and funding for it. Many of the details, including which streets will remain open, how often and for how long, as well as which will be added to the roster, remain up in the air. Evie Hantzopolous, a nonprofit executive who helped set up the 31st Avenue open street and is now running for the open District 22 council seat — encompassing Astoria and East Elmhurst, among other neighborhoods — said that the greater intentionality guaranteed by the new law would be a big help after the volunteers spent the last year “figuring it out as you go along. We had very little guidance from the Department of Transportation.”
In addition to more funding for volunteers and programming, she expected “better signage, better barricades, and we’re actually talking with some of the restaurants on the street about fully closing to traffic and parking on the weekend, two blocks, and making it like an open restaurant, open street thing.” The notion of having more permanent barricades isn’t just a throwaway; Hantzopoulos said that one of the main obstacles to the open street so far was safety, with her and other volunteers often being harassed by anti-open streets people, recently having their barricades stolen, and having some motorists generally ignore the effort. “One of the moms tried to organize a kid’s bike hour. We did it a few times, but then it was too scary for the kids, because the drivers just did not care. Not everybody, but many of them just kind of just didn’t care.”
Despite the program’s relative popularity — a poll of the city’s registered voters commissioned by the Transportation Alternatives advocacy group and run by the Siena College Research Institute found that a full 63 percent of voters would favor an expansion of open streets in their own neighborhoods — although it has not been without controversy. At a District 25 candidate forum hosted by URL members Epicenter and TBN24 this past Saturday, it was the preeminent question. (Watch our forum here.) The Queens district encompasses 34th Avenue, one of the larger and most prominent open streets sites, which has brought controversy. Opposition runs the gamut from narrow practical considerations — elderly and limited-mobility neighbors have a harder time driving onto the block, the open space is loud or disruptive, it impacts deliveries — to a hazier ideological resistance, which views any restrictions on cars’ ability to transit and park freely as self-evidently bad.
Ultimately, it’s a question about resource allocation. In a city of New York’s density, space itself is a scarce resource, and public space is zero-sum: if cars are using it, people can’t. It was a more straightforward conversation while the whole city was in an emergency posture, traffic had fallen enormously, and it was largely impossible to gather inside. Now that things are inching towards normality, the big question is whether open streets was just a pandemic experiment or a fundamental shift in the way New Yorkers and our leaders view our shared space.
Every major Democratic mayoral primary candidate has signaled support for the program and a willingness to expand it and further incorporate it into the fabric of civic life. In terms of the discrete questions that the next administration will face, they include where to site new open streets, exactly how the process to open and oversee new sites will function, how to ensure that they have a safe operation, and how much funding they should get for volunteers and activities. In council races, the issue has mainly come up in areas that have already had some successful implementations that have caused local controversy, like in the before-mentioned District 25. The recent bill already moves the ball forward significantly and leaves questions mostly around management, not legislation.
Advocacy groups like Transportation Alternatives are pushing for infrastructure like bollards and permanent barricades, as well as more proactive outreach from the city to actually help communities set up the open streets in the first place. “There are some communities where being able to put up free labor every single day to organize this is just not a high priority, and is not something that can be expected of communities that have already been disadvantaged and under-resourced, and are still recovering from the pandemic,” said TransAlt’s communications director, Cory Epstein. “Part of the legislation says the city needs to conduct proactive outreach and assist with the application process.”
Current official open streets sites. Many have ultimately fallen apart due to lack of support.
The main concerns expressed are around accessibility for people with disabilities and emergency vehicles, but the infrastructure can be set up to let these vehicles through. Ultimately, TransAlt is proposing a so-called 25 by 25 approach, i.e. 25 percent of city space currently occupied by cars to be used for people by 2025. That’s an aspirational goal, but there are other areas that the next city council slate could address immediately. Hantzopoulos, the candidate, suggested a more deliberate approach to public space in general.
“This is a problem of how we do planning in our city. We don’t have a comprehensive land use plan, or even a borough wide one. When we look at rezonings, when we look at development, we never look at: how much open space do we need? How much open space do we have? How much open space has been taken away?” Hantzopoulos said. One simple yet potentially transformative solution, she suggested, would be to make the creation of “public, not just open space, but actual public space” to large-scale developments.
Variations of the model have been tried elsewhere. Hantzopoulos pointed to Barcelona’s recent efforts to democratize public space. While it can seem like a technical conversation about traffic and urban design, where the city’s next crop of leaders fall on open streets will chart a course on the elemental question of who gets to use one of our most valuable resources. One thing everyone can agree on is, especially after this year, New Yorkers need clean, safe spaces to congregate.
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This newsletter was written by Felipe De La Hoz for URL Media, a network of Black and Brown news and information outlets. Our collaborative elections coverage is sponsored by a grant from the Center for Cooperative Media.