Last week, a mysterious man wearing flip-flops and driving a supposedly “counterfeit” Amazon van stole a slew of Open Streets barriers in Greenpoint. How does one dispose of 16 huge, heavy metal barricades? Apparently by chucking them into Newtown Creek.
“We took a boat out and we were able to get two of them out of the water onto the shore,” said Kevin LaCherra, a coordinator for North Brooklyn Mutual Aid, one of several community organizations that have volunteered to look after the barricades and maintain the city’s open streets program in Greenpoint.
LaCherra said that the place where the barricades were ditched into the Superfund site—at the very end of Apollo Street—has a history of illegal dumping. Five were found on the shoreline, in addition to the two they were able to pull out of the water.
“The others were kind of sunk down in the muck and were very heavy and we couldn’t get them,” LaCherra said. “We were hooking a bunch of them. It’s about 10 feet down in water.”
The brazen barricade theft (caught on video and posted on the community website Nextdoor) represents a significant escalation in the conflict between those who feel like the city’s Open Streets program is an intrusion into their lives and identities, and the volunteers who have been charged with upholding one of the city’s most popular pandemic-era initiatives.
Last April, Mayor Bill de Blasio begrudgingly agreed to close 100 miles of city streets to vehicular traffic at certain intervals so New Yorkers could spend time outdoors, while maintaining social distance. One year later and that figure has shrunk to around 70 miles. Critics point out that the program still favors wealthier neighborhoods, and is significantly less ambitious than the initiatives seen in other major international cities.
Still, last month de Blasio said he would make the program permanent, and every major Democratic candidate for mayor has pledged to keep it going or expand it.
No city effort to close down city streets, even temporarily, would be frictionless. But the opposition to the Open Streets in Greenpoint—Russell Street next to McGolrick Park, and three blocks of Driggs Avenue, near the exit to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and next to P.S. 110 elementary schools—has been particularly vitriolic.
Since the mayor’s announcement, an Open Streets volunteer was physically assaulted, the locks that the group uses to secure the barricades were sabotaged with glue, and the barriers themselves have been tossed into the park and under the BQE.
The North Brooklyn Open Streets Community Coalition oversees open streets on the entirety of Berry Street in Williamsburg, as well as the Greenpoint open streets.
“The main complaints around Berry Street are about emergency vehicles, or people partying at night, or sanitation. Those are all management issues that can and should be addressed,” said Katie Denny Horowitz, the executive director of the North Brooklyn Parks Alliance, a nonprofit member of the coalition.
“What’s happening around Driggs and Russell is quite different. That is an anti-government, ‘nativist’ sentiment, ‘protect the homeland’ type opinion, that is more difficult to address and more difficult to change with more resources. That’s more of a cultural difference,” Horowitz said.
“My fellow real Greenpointers, we have a problem,” reads one representative anti-Open Streets post from March on the “Greenpoint is my hometown” Facebook group, a private page with more than 3,000 members. “These hipster transplants have been barricading driggs and russell to car traffic for almost a year. We need to fight back against this…Im calling on every able bodied REAL greenpointer to move those barricades open every time You see them in the street.”
“Those ahole hipsters come from other states and their parents want to get rid of them, so they send them to NY and pay for their rent, so they don’t go back home,” one person responds. “Hit them with the barricades or break the barricades. Get a group together and someone with a big pickup trunk ram through them.”
Another rather prescient commenter suggested this tactic: “Someone has to load them, barricades and hipsters, into a van and remove them!”
More of the same sentiment can be seen on the greenpoint.natives Instagram account. A recent post blamed the open streets barricades for delaying fire fighters in their response to a fire in Greenpoint over the weekend, despite the fact that the barricades have not been in place since they were stolen.
“We should have never risked human lives in exchange for more pedestrian/cyclist spaces!” the post reads. (An FDNY spokesperson told Gothamist, “The first unit was on scene in 3 mins and 6 seconds…As per FDNY operations, there were no delays in arrival to this fire.”)
A Streetsblog analysis of one Open Street on 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights showed that traffic injuries decreased by 85% over a seven-month period when drivers were banned from the road.
“We don’t oppose Open Streets, we oppose threatening the safety of our residents in exchange for Open Streets,” the operator of the greenpoint.natives Instagram account told Gothamist when we asked to speak with them.
In the absence of more concrete support from the city—including the Department of Transportation and the NYPD—the game of cat-and-mouse between advocates and some angry residents seems destined to continue, a state of affairs that one opponent of the program acknowledged as bizarre, given that the program itself is supposed to be a signature initiative of the de Blasio administration.
“It’s leaving the volunteers to close the streets off and kind of putting them up against the rest of the community,” said Ryan Dornan, who has lived on Morgan Avenue for over a decade, and says that the Open Streets on Driggs cause traffic to back up on his block.
“We have a symphony of cars honking their horns on an almost daily basis, as the block is simply not wide enough to handle the influx of traffic,” Dornan said.
Dornan claimed that had the DOT done more outreach, they would know that the Open Streets plan is unpopular in Greenpoint, though he admits that some of the anti-Open Streets posts are “unhinged.”
“I think the big problem is that the community wasn’t surveyed about it,” Dornan said. “I don’t know who runs the Open Streets, but I would guess they don’t live around here. It more seems like they’re pushing their agenda: anti-car.”
LaCherra, who is a fourth-generation Greenpoint resident, said he doesn’t buy this line of reasoning.
“Some of these very same people that are out here saying, ‘I’ve lived here for four generations, this program is terrible all you people are terrible,’ those are the people…that have thyroid issues and asthma, caused by the BQE, caused by the fact that Driggs is a cut-through to McGuinness Boulevard,” LaCherra said.
“We know that this program is a climate imperative. This problem doesn’t get better, it gets worse,” he continued. “We’re relying on the city to do what they say they’re going to do at the bare minimum, so this isn’t falling on people. We’re prepared to do our part but it’s going to take a lot more from the mayor’s office and the city.”
The DOT told Gothamist that they held two community workshops in February for North Brooklyn residents to discuss Open Streets, and have urged residents to complete an agency survey.
“The outrageous incidents we’ve seen recently are not common, but they are unacceptable—and we won’t hesitate to act,” agency spokesperson Brian Zumhagen wrote in an email. “DOT is working with our partners at NYPD to protect volunteers and other community members as investigations continue. In the meantime, we are replacing barricades as we ensure every Open Street has the resources it needs for quality management and maintenance.”
Amazon has insisted that the van used to steal the barricades in Greenpoint was a “counterfeit vehicle.”
So who has the means and the gumption to carry out this kind of theft of city property? There are a number of working theories, none of which would be discussed on the record by Open Streets defenders and opponents.
“It certainly makes sense you’d have them doing corporate branding,” said Albert Fox Cahn, a fellow at Yale Law School and the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
“What surprises me is that they would use Amazon rather than a fake company,” Fox Cahn said. “Did Amazon have an agreement with the NYPD to allow this?” (An Amazon rep did not respond to questions about whether the company allows law enforcement agencies to use its logos.)
“The fact is, we have absolutely no information about the NYPD’s clandestine operations. There’s more public disclosures about the CIA than what NYPD’s undercovers do. There’s no oversight mechanism, this entire world operates completely in the dark with no accountability,” Fox Cahn added.
A City Hall source told Gothamist the vehicle likely belonged to the NYPD. “Of course it’s them,” they said.
An NYPD spokesperson declined to say whether the van belonged to the department.
“There are no updates at this time and the investigation remains ongoing,” NYPD spokesperson Sergeant Edward D. Riley wrote in an email last Friday. The NYPD’s press office did not respond to our followup request on Monday.
Meryl LaBorde, a coordinator who helps maintain the Open Streets in Greenpoint, said that the barricades would likely stay off Russell and Driggs for the foreseeable future.
“We have the ability to bring it back sooner rather than later, but we need DOT and we need the City to step up with more resources now before we can implement the program safely,” LaBorde said. “We don’t want to put our neighbors and ourselves at risk.”
For groups who currently want to sponsor an Open Street, the list of requirements is long. Volunteers are responsible for community outreach, for setting up, taking down, and storing the barricades twice a day, repairing them when they are broken, and picking up trash. Groups that request funding from the city require formal nonprofit status, and organizations are legally responsible for what happens on their Open Streets.
Asked what concrete changes they are planning to make to the program, Mayor de Blasio’s office said that they will have more to say “soon.”
“The city knows how to do this in a way to close streets off safely and effectively. They could do it tomorrow,” LaCherra said. “It’s a choice, made by the mayor.”
On Saturday afternoon, drivers had free rein on Russell Street next to the park. Someone had placed a cone in the middle of the street, which was easily avoided.
“I wish there was more room for bikes and pedestrians basically, and that it was safer to cross the street near a park and near a school without feeling like you’re gonna get run over,” said Daphne Brucculeri, who lives near McGolrick Park and was out with her children Felix and Flora. “And that [Open Street] helped.”
Flora, who is 7 years old, said she enjoyed riding her bike on the open street while it lasted.
“I don’t get to go on the street a lot,” she said, “because I don’t get to go on the bike lanes, since I’m too little. So I feel really happy that some streets are closed so I can go on the full street.”
Jerry Goodman, who was out walking his dogs Ash and Roxy, said he was born and raised in Greenpoint, and that he preferred the streets to be closed to motor vehicle traffic.
“It just feels safer. These people come down the street too fast to begin with. But now I have to double check ‘cause half the time it’s open now. Especially with the little dogs,” Goodman said. “It used to be nice seeing the kids ride their bikes up and down. It was nice, you know?”
Goodman, whose family owned their eponymous and essential bar on the corner of Nassau and Russell before it became The Palace, had a simple explanation for all the anger directed at open streets.
“These people don’t like changes,” Goodman said. “I was in the bar business for 20 plus years. Anybody who’s ‘real Greenpoint’ didn’t like no strangers coming in the neighborhood.”
He added, “Old timers would come back to Greenpoint and they’d say, who are these people at the bar? I say, you live in Jersey now, you come in once a year.”