Every weekend, Brooklyn’s youngest residents joyfully scoot along 5th Avenue giggling and laughing. Others play with chalk or dance to music. This happiness is only possible because the Open Streets program turns these traffic-clogged streets over to people. This is proof our streets can be lively, vibrant, and safe places if we choose for them to be, and if we invest in their care and management.
The 5th Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) has done an amazing job running the 5th Avenue Open Street which spans 15 blocks. And yet, their impact could be expanded if they had steady funding and agency coordination at the City level. Each year, the 5th Avenue organizers independently raise $50,000 to manage barricades on weekends, provide sanitation, and organize programming. Each weekend is the product of countless volunteer hours. Without this leadership and fundraising, our neighborhood wouldn’t have access to these care-free, car-free spaces. Now we are asking for the City to invest resources to ensure that every neighborhood has the same opportunity.
The current Open Streets model is inherently inequitable. Districts with BIDs have a leg up; they have the structure in place to organize local residents and business owners and coordinate labor. But BIDs only cover 2% of New York City’s communities. For everyone else, permits are financially out of reach and the burdens of maintenance and liability requirements are high barriers to entry. Once established, managing a consistent Open Street requires hundreds of hours of labor each weekend and additional time and energy spent planning, preparing, and organizing. In spite of this, public places in District 39, such as the Avenue C Plaza, have become community anchors. The plaza has become a beloved space where neighbors take summer art classes, host Iftars and other interfaith events, tune up their bikes, and watch World Cup games. However, this success relies on the generosity and dedication of volunteers and community-based organizations.
This is why alongside my Council colleagues I have advocated for full funding of the New York City Streets Plan to create a Neighborhood Stewardship Initiative to create more Open Streets throughout our City. This Initiative would hire residents for new green union jobs to manage existing and new Open Streets, helping neighborhoods without BIDs open their streets to the community. New hires would provide clear barricades and signage and ensure that Open Streets are truly local and open, without the need for police presence or volunteer labor. This framework for managing streets and sidewalks would empower New Yorkers to embrace public space, mandates coordination between agencies, and promotes vibrant neighborhoods. But to have vibrant open spaces, City support needs to go beyond just the maintenance of the Open Streets and fully embrace all the elements that make them centers for community. In addition to the Neighborhood Stewardship Initiative, our City must provide funding to support street vendors, neighborhood block parties, fruit trees, sidewalk art, street furniture, and promote safe access to play spaces. All of this is essential infrastructure for safe, healthy, and vibrant neighborhoods.
Open Streets are also more than just spaces for community, they’re about safety. In January, I wrote an Op-Ed in response to the tragic and preventable death of Arcellie Muschamp to a reckless driver. Since then, traffic violence on our streets has only gotten worse, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine recently called it a ‘public health crisis.’ There are life saving safety designs that our City desperately needs, but above all else to make our streets safer we need to get cars off the road. Open Streets are car-free spaces that prioritize people walking, scooting, cycling, dining, and dancing. The policies, design, and management that make Open Streets so successful, safe, and enriching can be applied broadly to give communities the safety and livability they deserve year-round.
Summer is coming and we have budget decisions to make. I proudly stand by investing in our City’s public space so that each New Yorker has access to safe, clean, and joyful public space. Public space is central to an equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City. This is why I am dedicated to centering it as we create a city rooted in care. Hope to see you at Avenue C Plaza or 5th Avenue Open Streets this summer.