Space Crusaders

Image courtesy Nicole Rosenthal

When the Mayor announced his ambitious plan to put a pedestrian plaza in every neighborhood in New York City, it seemed that even a few folks at the Department of Transportation thought the whole thing was farfetched.

The flagship projects along Broadway and in downtown Brooklyn were one thing: they had tourist traffic and lunchtime crowds and business improvement districts to manage the facilities, but in other corners of the city, on neighborhood streets far from the traditional tourist tracks, it seemed impossible—despite T.A.’s insistence that New Yorkers were clamoring for more public space—that the City could find the kind of community support it needed.

Five years on, that’s clearly not the case. While other livable streets projects initiated at the same time have faced backlash and trumped-up outcry, the Bloomberg administration’s efforts to hand over street space from cars to local communities has proven wildly popular. The demand for temporary plazas, summertime Play Streets, Weekend Walks events and year-round pedestrian spaces are outpacing the City’s wildest expectations.

There are now permanent pedestrian plazas in communities as diverse as Jackson Heights, East New York, Morrisania and Richmond Terrace. In Williamsburg, Prospect Heights and Brownsville, temporary street closures have proven a boon for businesses and residents alike, and Play Streets, where a neighborhood street is temporarily closed to traffic so that kids can romp, have been so popular that the city has more than doubled the number of community-led Play Streets since the program was incorporated into PlaNYC in 2011.

Where is all this unprecedented interest coming from?

Transportation Alternatives’ Pedestrian Advocacy Manager Jennifer Godzeno told Reclaim, “I think it has always been there, but it has taken some time for people to realize that there are now real mechanisms in place for residents to reclaim their streets as public space. Once people know that it’s possible to re-organize the streets all around them to better serve walking and play, they want it, and they work for it.”

In neighborhoods around the city, that kind of work is underway. Residents of Astoria, Glendale and Corona have already brought plans for permanent pedestrian plazas to the DOT. In the Bronx, neighbors are fighting to restore car-free Sundays on Grand Concourse and win a temporary closure on the Sheridan Expressway. And in Jamaica, Queens, the YMCA has been working overtime to convince the NYPD and the Transportation Department that it needs a Play Street to accommodate all the kids who’ve flocked there this summer.

“Watching these programs grow all across the city is simply amazing,” Godzeno said. “It counters the idea that these spaces are just for touristy areas and affluent neighborhoods, and affirms the fact that people in every community want, and are willing to stand up for, these kinds of improvements.”