Taking Open Streets Into Their Own Hands

Neighborhood coalitions keep things safe in city-sanctioned spaces

By Candace Pedraza

SAFER SPACE: On a spring afternoon, bike riders and pedestrians make use of 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights. (Candace Pedraza)

For Sophie Maerowitz, co-founder of Loisaida Open Streets Coalition, the main problem facing the open streets program she helped create could be solved through fairly simple means.

The sawhorses used to close off Avenue B between East 8th and 9th Streets were getting destroyed.

“We would call the Ninth Precinct every few days and go, ‘Hey guys, are you going to replace these barricades? Because they’re getting hit by trucks and cars overnight and they’re getting shattered and just lying in the street,’” she recalled.

Maerowitz, 27, and a few other volunteers then decided they were going to just start setting up the sawhorses themselves. They’d coordinate times to bring them out in the mornings on Saturdays and put them away in the evening, safe from oncoming vehicular traffic. This was the entire point of open streets programming, after all: safe crossing, free of cars, for pedestrians and bikers looking to spend time outside.

The Loisaida program is one of dozens across the five boroughs initiated during the pandemic. Social distancing became a must if people wanted to gather.

One easily accomplished way to do so was by opening streets up for pedestrians and cyclists to roam freely. The concept of open streets started from the ground up, with programs like Maerowitz’s and others beginning out of volunteer work. Eventually, that work was recognized by the city Department of Transportation, and, in turn, grants made these sites official in the eyes of City Hall.

We would call the Ninth Precinct every few days and go, ‘Hey guys, are you going to replace these barricades? Because they’re getting hit by trucks and cars overnight and they’re getting shattered and just lying in the street.

Sophie Maerowitz

Co-founder, Loisaida Open Streets Coalition

Building inclusion

As popular as open streets have been, there have been inequities from the start. According to a Transportation Alternatives report, half of open streets are 0.16 miles long or less and many are still concentrated in wealthier neighborhoods. Street programs launched by coalitions on the Lower East Side and in Jackson Heights, Queens, incorporate less police presence and more programming to increase community ownership. 

Maerowitz’s experience in dealing with the barricades was a good enough reason to make Loisaida’s program more autonomous from the city. Jim Burke, 50, who is the director of the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition group of volunteers and their programming in Jackson Heights, took action just after seeing how dangerous an unregulated urban space could be in his neighborhood.

“I know the boulevard on 34th Avenue and just in the whole neighborhood, and different kids and adults have suffered some traffic violence over the last few years,” said Burke. 

The death of 9-year-old Giovanni Ampuero, struck and killed by a driver on 70th Street along Northern Boulevard, and its effect on the boy’s family became a big reason to advocate for safer streets, Burke said: “I had met them and it was just like, you know, so devastating.”

Burke has also witnessed dangerous acts committed by unsafe drivers in Jackson Heights, which has some of the smallest amounts of park space and some of the smallest sidewalks in the city.

155th street fridge from side

TIGHT SQUEEZE: The red lines on this Sidewalk Widths NYC map show how streets in Jackson Heights are crowded for both pedestrians and bicyclists.

The path to permanency

Sidewalk Widths NYC, which draws from 311 Open Data’s sidewalk information, confirms why sidewalks in this Queens neighborhood make social distancing nearly impossible. Most of Jackson Heights is labeled with bright red lines on Sidewalk Width’s maps, indicating how hard it is to pass with limited contact with other pedestrians. 

To start, Burke and a group of volunteers put out a sandwich-shop sign—the type you’d see folded out in front of a bodega or bar—signaling to pedestrians that 34th Avenue had been given a block of space for residents to roam freely before they were recognized by the DOT. 

The group became what is now 34th Avenue’s Open Streets coalition, which included programming like free English-as-second-language classes for immigrants in the area, arts and crafts for children, and afterschool jump-rope classes. 

“And what’s great is, you know, before if you wanted to do that you’d have to join a gym or you have to travel to a park. You have to make time and pay money on a schedule,” Burke said. “We offer all these services for free. And you know, a lot of people come and take advantage.” 

Ensuring that these open streets remain permanent is a main focus for organizers like Burke, Maerowitz and Rosie Izzi, social media manager and a volunteer for the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill Open Streets Coalition. Safety still has to be ensured for participants in the events held in the middle of city blocks every week.

“I think more can always be done,” Izzi said. “There are little things like implementing more effective barriers for our streets that don’t screech when moved, and bigger issues that need to be addressed like ensuring folks who have safety concerns about emergency services being able to make it down the street in a timely fashion are heard and understand the solution.”