NYC open streets forged pandemic community, now tearing one apart

NYC open streets forged pandemic community, now tearing one apart

Jim Burke was tending to a stretch of the 26 tree-lined blocks in Jackson Heights where kids play, neighbors pause to chat and people gather for Zumba classes when a shout cut through the calm.

“Someone in an SUV called me a c — k-sucking f—–t,” Burke recalled.

Burke is co-founder of the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition — stewards of a project that has earned praise for helping ease the isolation of the pandemic by expanding outdoor public spaces once dominated by cars.

But as life has returned to normal in New York, the debate over keeping streets closed to traffic has turned ugly.

On social media, opponents of the open street voice outrage in the form of Facebook comment diatribes, videos of fire trucks maneuvering the street and claims of putting the “lives of Jackson Heights residents in danger.” A GoFundMe is circulating, with $5,000 raised since July for a lawyer to represent them.

“It has become a hazard for everyone who lives here,” one woman yells in one video of a child being loaded into an ambulance near the open street. “… the little cement thingies that only create chaos.”

Others blast back. This “bad faith opportunistic posting” is intentionally spreading misinformation, one Facebook user accuses. Burke calls it a “toxic environment” that has escalated in recent weeks to homophobic, xenophobic and racist slurs. The open street is being turn to a permanent linear park, called Paseo Park, and is reaching completion, which has added fire to the debate.

“These people made either their own members or other people scared, angry, and then they’re gonna take it out on us,” he said.

The other side answered back.

“You call us homophobic and xenophobic, but our lives are at danger and you do not care,” the woman on Facebook said.

In the darker days of the coronavirus pandemic, the city’s open streets program were a bright spot for pent-up New Yorkers. They cemented community at a time it was most needed. But now in Jackson Heights, the exercise in community building is threatening to tear the community apart.

And many wonder: If it’s this controversial in Jackson Heights — a so-called success story — what does that mean for the future of open streets in post-pandemic New York?

Burke has volunteered nearly full time on the open street project for more than two years. His efforts have transformed 1.3 miles from the residential neighborhood.

Pre-pandemic, the street was simply a conduit for traffic. Now, he says, it’s a community: In the morning, a group of seniors sets out to walk the length of the road, making sure to touch markers at either end of the more-than-a-mile-long stretch. After school, thousands of children spill out into the street, filling it with joy, screams and laughter. On weekends, people show up for arts and crafts, meditation classes, ESL and gardening.

To keep it all running, Burke, his co-founders and dozens of volunteers have set up barricades, led clean ups, nudged the city and Department of Transportation for extra support and coordinated programming.

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“You call us homophobic and xenophobic, but our lives are at danger and you do not care.”

—  An opponent of open streets posting on Facebook

“This is the heart of the community” said Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo, another co-founder of the 34th Ave. Open Streets Coalition, said. “ … It’s really a chance to build a beautiful community in such a diverse neighborhood.”

As a result, the street is touted by many as the “gold standard” of NYC’s open streets and is now a formalized, city-backed linear park. City Council Member Shekar Krishnan, who represents Jackson Heights, ran for office on a platform for the street.

“34th Avenue really is the model open street for all of New York City,” Krishnan said. “And as it shows, it’s an opportunity for us coming out of the pandemic to really reflect on how crucial public open spaces are for us and how we need more of it, and to be more creative about the ways that we’re creating it in our city.”

Across the city however, the open streets program has lost ground, shrinking from 80 miles to just 20 in the past two years, according to Cory Epstein, spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives.

Leslie Davol, executive director of Street Lab, said this isn’t a failure of the program, rather, a “maturation” of it: The remaining streets are well-taken-care of by residents, local businesses or neighborhood groups. Street Lab is a nonprofit that creates programming for public space around the city.

But the majority of streets have either been reduced in scope or have disappeared altogether. Some streets have been reduced to fractions of their pandemic peaks to allow for more cars to flow, while trying to keep some aspects of the original concept. Others, left unmaintained by city government or residents who couldn’t dedicate time, have had their barricades cast aside. The pavement has been reclaimed by cars.

A majority of the open streets were lost in residential or lower-income neighborhoods and the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. One open street in Greenpoint also faced fiery vitriol last year.

Some in Jackson Heights wish the shrinking trend would reach them.

Ricardo Pacheco, president of Jackson Heights Coops Alliance, resents the city for the open street project. He and others regularly take to social media to aim complaints about the street.

“There’s just thousands of people who live right next to, right in front of this avenue,” Pacheco said. “We have to deal now with the garbage, rats, the drunks, blaring music, Zumba classes in the morning, this, that and the other, all these events, noise and stuff, but there’s no peace. This is not a park. We didn’t move to a park.

“If I would have wanted to move to a park,” he added, “I would have saved my money to go to Central Park.”

Pacheco and other opponents of the open street say it blocks emergency vehicle access to the avenue and building accessibility for people with disabilities, as well as limits parking spots. They say they weren’t included in the development of the project, and that the drastic change to the neighborhood was something they never bargained for when they moved in.

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The DOT has designated emergency access routes through plazas and around diverters in the open street and finalized designs of the linear park after sharing them with Community Board 3′s Transportation Committee. Multiple meetings, workshops and surveys have also been hosted by the DOT over the last two years.

“They could call me and our board crazy, or we’re just mad or we’re instigators, but we really are just trying to inform people what’s happening,” he said. “[When] I have a meeting, I always start with, ‘This is not to indoctrinate anybody to be against Open Streets. It’s just to let you know what’s happening.’”

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The pandemic changed the way New Yorkers saw their streets, showing them what’s possible when cars and commuters are taken out of the equation.

But as the future of open streets hangs in the balance, it’s unclear if the effort will become just one more pandemic memory.

“I think everybody suddenly looked at public space and said, ‘Wait a minute, you know, there’s cars here. This is space that belongs to everybody. We could be using it for a whole host of other things,’” Davol said.

But the success of open streets hinges on an array of factors — including strong community involvement and support. That can be hard to replicate and sustain as many get back to work, take kids to various activities and return to the more stepped-up pace of post-pandemic life. In Jackson Heights, there are enough supporters dedicated to investing the time and energy, but in other locations, a return to the way things were may be easier.

Resistance to change, intentional or not, may also contribute to the continued erosion of the program.

During the city’s darkest moments, open streets provided breathing room and a place to play for neighborhoods where it was sorely needed. Now, with COVID’s crisis moment past, New York risks squandering an opportunity for a transformative moment, said Adam Ganser, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks.

“This is a process of change,” Ganser said. “We’re right in the middle of the metamorphosis of many parts of the city to these open streets… In five years or in 10 years, when these open streets are beloved by their neighborhoods, people will be asking, ‘Why did anybody ever not want to have this here?’”

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