When the New York City Council voted last month to codify Open Streets into city law, making barricaded, traffic-free roadways permanent, it became clear the program had moved beyond its initial purpose: giving cooped up New Yorkers extra space outdoors while remaining socially distanced during the pandemic.
Under the new legislation, which passed 40 to 8 and was signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the existing 235 Open Streets locations will be allowed to use curbside parking spots for programming, and they’ll have the option to keep the streets closed to through traffic 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Additionally, the Department of Transportation will be responsible for adding and maintaining 20 Open Streets locations in areas “underserved” by the program.
But as street safety advocates, outdoor dining enthusiasts, numerous elected officials, and all eight Democratic mayoral candidates celebrate the redistribution of street space from cars to pedestrians, some residents are questioning whether it’s something they actually want.
“I first and foremost am a cyclist, so I avoid Open Streets at all costs,” said Jessica Seibert, a 40-year-old Greenpoint resident who considers herself part of a silent portion of New Yorkers who are ambivalent about the program.
“People could be walking their dogs in the middle of the street. I just avoid it. I think it’s strange when people are like, ‘Oh, it’s for cyclists to come out!'” Seibert said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an anti-Open Streets kind of person. I just think last summer, it was cool and it made sense and it got people outside. But now, it’s just kind of messy.”
In Greenpoint, where the Open Streets include three blocks of Nassau Avenue, one block of Russell Street near McGolrick Park, and three blocks of Driggs Avenue, tensions over the program have flared to the point where opponents have tossed barricades into Newtown Creek and even assaulted one volunteer who’d been keeping the barriers up.
Katie Denny Horowitz, the head of the nonprofit group maintaining the Open Streets in Greenpoint, told Gothamist last month that the barrier-tossing crowd was “an anti-government, ‘nativist'” subset of residents who’ve been engaged in a broader culture clash with newer transplants. But she acknowledged that especially on the Nassau Avenue Open Street — which also continues down Berry Street in Williamsburg — concerns about sanitation and late-night partying, for example, are issues that “can and should be addressed.”
Seibert, who lives in northern Greenpoint, said she sympathizes with older residents who likely weren’t consulted before their block was chosen for the program.
“As an outsider, I can be like, ‘This is great, there’s an Open Street for me to go party and hang out with my friends outside.'” she said. “But you know what? People live there. It’s not a permanent vacation.”
Overall, the Open Streets program has broad support. In March, a Data for Progress poll found that 67% of New Yorkers agreed the city was right to close certain streets last summer. And in making the program permanent, lawmakers and advocates have emphasized their desire to expand Open Streets, particularly in lower-income, outer borough neighborhoods that disproportionately lack park space.
Still, a blocked-off roadway is not the same thing as a park.
“The district I represent in Southeast Queens is well-documented as a transit desert, and as a result, residential parking is at a premium in our community,” said Council Member Adrienne Adams, whose district includes Jamaica, Richmond Hill, and South Ozone Park. She voted against making Open Streets permanent.
“What I have heard from constituents is that they don’t want to lose more parking,” she said. “Instead, I believe we should expand our beautiful green spaces and parks to better serve our children, families, and entire neighborhoods.”
Council Member Francisco Moya, who represents the Queens neighborhoods of Corona and Elmhurst, also voted against the bill. On top of his constituents’ quality of life concerns — “garbage, noise, people gathering playing music” — he said he was opposed to the aspect of the law that gives the Department of Transportation the power to put an Open Street in a spot where residents might not want one.
Moya also pushed back against Open Streets advocates from other parts of the city trying to impose a program in the name of racial equity, especially when residents of his district — which is 68% Hispanic and 10% Black — have said they don’t want it.
“I think it’s really clear: Black and Latino communities can speak for themselves, they do not need anyone to come in and talk for them,” Moya said. He expressed frustration that Open Streets supporters don’t seem to accept that his constituents, after a “thoughtful process,” simply don’t want the plan and feels it’s insulting that proponents “come back with, ‘They’re underrepresented communities, therefore’ — no! We can speak for ourselves. And we have.”
Just west of Moya’s district, on a 1.3-mile stretch of 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, the city has seen one of its most vibrant — and oddly contentious — examples of the program.
“We all agreed it was needed at the beginning,” said Jackson Heights resident Gabi Bharat. “There were people in the parks gathering, and people needed to spread out.”
But now, Bharat said, the program feels excessive, and she believes most residents don’t realize this is permanent — or want it to be. A group she’s organized, called 34th Avenue Open Streets Compromise, is pushing to shorten the blocked-off stretch, limit the hours (it’s currently open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week), get vendors out of the median, and move all the activities (Zumba, yoga, ESL classes, et al) into the small “pocket park” on 34th Avenue and 78th Street.
Bharat’s group also wants the Open Street to be managed and operated by the NYPD or another city agency, rather than the volunteer group, called the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition, which she characterized as “mostly white people from other states” who are taking advantage of Hispanic residents, in particular, to push an anti-car agenda.
“They’re into the politics of it,” said Paola Peguero, who’s also with the compromise group. “For the photo, they get your Hispanic people out. But they’re not the ones asking for this.”
She accused the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition of exploiting residents. “[The Coalition is] doing food drives, they’re doing all kinds of activities, and then they go out with a petition telling them, ‘Sign here if you like the Open Street,'” Peguero said. “All of this is being done in a very sneaky way.”
Peguero added her group is also concerned about a faction of people who want to turn 34th Avenue into a permanent linear park, a plan supported by Queens Borough President Donovan Richards. (The volunteers maintaining the Open Street are part of a separate group.)
“They constantly refer to The Netherlands and Portland,” she said. “It’s like they’re trying to make Jackson Heights something that it’s not.”
Jim Burke, a 34th Avenue resident who’s one of the Coalition volunteers maintaining the barricades and producing activities for the past year, said the Open Street has been overwhelmingly embraced, “particularly by the Spanish-speaking immigrant community.”
As Burke sees it, the compromise group members — whom he repeatedly referred to as “the haters” — are putting their own convenience and selfish desires over other residents’ quality of life.
“When they want to shorten the hours, that means the guy who delivers food all day, when he gets home to see his kids, he can’t enjoy the street,” Burke said. “The woman who’s been cleaning someone’s house all day long, when she gets off work, this means the street would not be for her? It would be really unfair to cut that amenity off for the people who make this city run, a lot of whom are essential workers.”
Last Saturday, tensions came to a head — sort of — when about 125 people aligned with the compromise group marched down 34th Avenue, chanting, “Who are we? Residents! What do we want? Compromise!”
Meanwhile, multiple people who were out enjoying the Open Street told Gothamist that they simultaneously enjoy the program and understand the concerns about it.
“The open streets thing is great, I love it, I wish it could stay,” said John Leonard, an electronics technician who lives on 34th Avenue. “I think there are just some points about it — the culture of the Open Street isn’t really settled.”
“For example, there are lot of people that do bike-riding on it and they wanna ride fast to get through to the next neighborhood,” Leonard continued. “But then there are also a lot of people on the street that wanna just ride it like four miles an hour. And in addition to that, there are kids, there are toddlers, and you know, parents walking around with like three kids running in front of them that are intersecting with the bike riders and to me, that is a safety issue and it’s an accident waiting to happen.”
Signi Lama shouted, “Keep them open!” as the protesters marched down the avenue. The 16-year-old high school student said he uses the street everyday, and thinks it’s especially useful for seniors so they “can go out and walk.”
But he also expressed doubt about whether it should actually be a permanent fixture on the avenue.
“Maybe not permanent,” he said, “but like, maybe keep it until COVID is over or something like that.”
In fact, the city not only plans to keep Open Streets running well after COVID is “over”; officials are adding resources, enforcement, and programming, with the hope of convincing more New Yorkers that reallocating street space for non-car use is both a benefit and something they can get used to.
Earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that during select hours on weekends, 10 streets across the city will be transformed into Open Boulevards, with picnic tables, activities, and live performances being added to the roadways.
Immediately, a reporter raised concerns about one of the locations — Ditmars Boulevard in Queens — noting that it’s a major commercial thoroughfare, and blocking traffic could create a “quality of life” issue for residents.
“Hopefully it will be a roaring success, and folks will get used to driving around these streets,” said Jee Mee Kim, the Chief Strategy Officer for the Department of Transportation. “And I think in the end we’re going to see a net benefit for the community.”
The mayor, who was himself an early skeptic of the Open Streets initiative at the start of the pandemic, appeared both sympathetic to the concerns raised, and ready to evangelize to the not-yet-converted.
“This is going to be the summer of New York City, and Open Boulevards are going to be a great example of a reason people will flock here,” he said. “But we try it. We see how it goes. And then we can build upon it or make adjustments. That’s the beauty of this approach.”