Streetfilms: The Glory Days of Car-Free Park Rallies

If you’ve ever wondered how Aaron Naparstek and Clarence Eckerson whiled away the hours before the advent of Streetsblog and Streetfilms, here’s your answer. They donned cheeseheads and Hummer suits while role-playing in support of a car-free Prospect Park. Clarence has been hanging on to this proto-Streetfilm for some time (it was shot in 2002), waiting for the right moment to spring it on us. With the push for a car-free Central Park and Prospect Park gaining steam as summer approaches, not to mention the launch of the Livable Streets Network two days ago, that time is now.

It may look silly, but this little demonstration — together with a 10,000 signature petition drive and a 500-person town hall meeting — helped win a significant expansion of car-free hours in Prospect Park. Before the campaign, cars had been allowed through the park 24 hours a day during the work week, from the end of October to the beginning of April. Afterward, cars were only allowed into the park during the morning and evening rush.

So, who says the glory days of car-free park rallies are over? A few more events like this could provide just the push advocates need to get a car-free trial for both parks this summer.

  • Really, 2002? You guys look really young there, same with DeBlasio. You’re sure it wasn’t 1996 or something?

    I think gas cost about $1.58 then…

  • Fine, I logged in so you can see a picture of me from 2006.

  • “wile away” not “while away.”

    definition of wile away:
    To pass (time) agreeably: “wile away a Sunday afternoon.”
    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/wile+away

  • JF

    Again, is there a particular strategy for Prospect Park? Who’s blocking car-free summer hours now? Who is opposed, and being targeted? Lew Fidler?

  • gecko

    Not the racoons. They seem to love it!

  • Felix

    How come the videos don’t appear on my computer anymore? I could view them on the old site.

  • Felix: Can you describe the problem you’re having with the video and what you see on the screen when it’s not working? Shoot an email to tips@streetsblog.org if you would.

  • AMH

    Me too. All I get is a black box on the screen. That’s it, just a black box where I guess the video should be.

  • AMH or Felix: Can you tell me what type and version of web browser and computer you’re using?

  • @AMH, Felix. Sorry for the trouble; we’re working on getting this issue resolved asap. In the meantime, you should still be able to view the video here: http://www.streetfilms.org/archives/car-free-prospect-park-street-theater-2002-archives/

  • christine

    finally , some good old screaming and yelling and looking silly for a good cause.. I think its time to do it again in central park…
    we must have one silly day per year… pick your cause

  • christine

    What about a people free day in central park.. no people just cars playing softball , taking in the sun, listening to concerts, caring for the minicars .. we will all come dressed as cars…

  • Lewis Derkins

    I’m not necessarily against improving safety for pedestrians in the park, but I have a couple of critiques on this video:

    I understand that the intent of the event on film is to be a little over the top to attract some attention, but there are a couple of points that I think should at least be clarified in this post.

    Flatbush Avenue was there, and busy before the park was. So the traffic didn’t steal the park from pedestrians, it was actually the other way around. Flatbush Ave. is the main traffic artery of Brooklyn – it’s not just an alternate route for the freeway as your video suggests.

    In fact, looking at an original plan of the park, it appears that all of the current roads including the East and West Avenues that are now closed to traffic were incorporated into the original design. Back in the 1860’s it was carriages rather than cars, but the designers clearly intended traffic to have some access to the park – otherwise they wouldn’t have built roads/paths, and they would have diverted the existing ones. Cars aren’t banned at rush hour, so aren’t the people driving through the park during the times that are now forbidden less likely to be people looking for shortcuts around traffic and more likely to be people who just want to enjoy the park? Isn’t it unfair to say that the cars are hogging the park and should be banned entirely – aren’t you just asking not to share the park? What about people with limited mobility who need to be driven into the park before they can get out and enjoy it, doesn’t banning cars deprive them of an opprotunity to use the park also?

    Also, Crashstat.org’s latest figures don’t show any fatalities in the park for the most recent data they have (only 2005). Has there been an uptick in the number of accidents or fatalities, and what was the cause? If it’s bicyclists not obeying traffic rules, then is banning cars really the solution, or shouldn’t we focus on educating bicyclists and pedestrians to prevent injuries?

  • JF

    What about people with limited mobility who need to be driven into the park before they can get out and enjoy it, doesn’t banning cars deprive them of an opprotunity to use the park also?

    Please, give me a break. How many of these people are there? We should endanger pedestrians and cyclists and make the park really unpleasant for hundreds of people so that a few people can drive or be driven into the park?

    Who says that cars are the only solution to mobility impairment? There are all kinds of solutions that don’t involve opening the park to general traffic. Larry has suggested a historic horsecar that could bring people into and through the park. Many mobility-impaired people have wheelchairs or other devices.

    There are many parts of Prospect and other parks that are far from any road, and as inaccessible to the mobility-impaired as the areas near parking. Are you suggesting that we should pave roads to all these places, so that the mobility-impaired can drive there?

    I have limited mobility right now due to a back injury. It’s difficult for me to walk long distances, and it would be hard to get to the middle of the park on foot. But guess what, I don’t have a car! If you’re willing to sacrifice public safety and money for these few people, are you also willing to pay for a cab to take me into the middle of the park?

    There are a few halfway-decent arguments for keeping the loop drive open. This is not one of them. Please don’t insult our intelligence.

  • Lewis Derkins

    JF –

    You make a valid point, there probably aren’t that many mobility impaired people, but that’s not really the main thrust of my point. What I’m really getting at are how many accidents have there been, and thus why close off the park? Crashstat.org doesn’t show any within the park on the roads that you’re banning vehicles from.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the notion that you shouldn’t have cars in the park. The main point of my post is that the video is a little slanted to imply that the park was there first and then the traffic came and took it over. If we’re debating banning traffic for the benefit of pedestrians and cyclists, we should at least acknowledge that the park was built in the middle of the city and incorporated roads into the original design.

    If you’re banning the cars for safety reasons it’s one thing, if you’re banning them for aesthetic reasons it’s quite another. I don’t think either reason is necessarily bad, but I think you should be honest with the people you are trying to drum up support from and be careful not to scaremonger people with safety concerns that don’t seem to exist.

    That said, I understand that the point of an event like this is to be a little over the top and attract attention, but I think that the post on the subject should at least acknowledge some of the valid points on the other side and explain why you disagree with them.

    You mention that there are a few good arguments for keeping the roads open. If you want to persuade people to close the park, isn’t it prudent to address those arguments and provide a rebuttal rather than just let this video stand for itself?

  • mike

    Lewis – You are jumping to conclusions. CrashStat.org does not show injuries or fatalities on the Prospect Park loop roads because of the way that the State codes its crash data. You’ll find the same situation in Central Park.

  • Tom Rorb

    Lewis,

    It seems as if you don’t really get it. This was just one action – albeit fun and flashy – over 15 years asking for cars out of the park. It’s not meant to be a dossier or a complete case for or against cars – for that all you have to do is look at the coverage over the years and the struggle. Go to the Transportation Alternatives website. No one involved with the movement would ever “let this video stand for itself.”

    Yes it did incorporate roads into its design. But these roads are very windy and were only meant for slower vehicles like horse carriages. Never were they intended to have cars whipping thru the park well over 30 mph like they do at times (again see T.A.’s website.)

    As for handicapped or elderly who might need a car to drive thru the park? It is such a small number. If that is truly a reason for keeping the drives open, let the parks establish a permit system to drive, there are already a few vehicles on the park drives (Parks, police, maintenance) for one reason or another and allowing a few people to go by car per day on the drives couldn’t be argued with. Esp. if THAT was the only reason to allow a full closure.

  • Wow, Lewis. Thanks for the history lesson. It’s totally inaccurate.

    The designers of Prospect and Central Parks, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux never intended the Loop Drives to be part of New York City’s transportation network. The Drives were designed specifically for recreational, horse-drawn carriage rides and for Sunday afternoon promenading. Central Park’s transverse drives were designed for crosstown transportation. Note that they are sunken below grade. O & V did all that they could to keep the hustle, bustle, commerce and industry of the city out of their parks.

    Olmsted was particularly proud of the design of the Prospect Park Loop Drives. He engineered frequent curves, dips and rises in the road so that carriage riders could never see too far ahead and to create the feeling of a winding rural road. He talked about the Loop Drives as an antidote to the city’s unforgiving, industrial geometric street grid.

    While O & V’s design is still beautiful, it’s always been particularly ill-suited to mixing motor vehicle thru-traffic and park recreators. Without traffic signals or stop signs drivers can go extremely fast if they want to. Yet they can never see all that far ahead of their vehicle to know if there’s a kid, a bike, a dog, a relaxed and spacey adult or even a horse wandering out into the roadway. We’ve clocked cars regularly traveling at speeds in excess of 50 mph along certain segments of the Park Drives. We’ve had one cyclist killed by a driver in recent years.

    Your suggestion that the motor vehicle traffic was there before the Park is odd. Prospect Park and its Loop Drives were designed in 1866, three decades before the advent of the motorcar in New York City. Grand Army Plaza, the entrance to the Park, was designed mainly as a pedestrian space and a trolley rotary. The car was very much perceived as a kind of foreign invader to the Plaza and the Park when it first arrived. Communities often tried to fight it but the elite wanted to retrofit the city to accommodate the private motor vehicle and they had their way.

    By the 1920’s Brooklyn’s wealthy minority of car owners had, literally, annexed this public space for themselves and started to squeeze out all other users. Outside Prospect Park, sidewalks were narrowed, front stoops were sheered off and eventually the trolley lines that crowded Flatbush Avenue were purchased by General Motors, decommissioned and replaced with much unloved diesels buses. Flatbush Avenue was a pretty effective transitway. It’s always been a lousy, choked and hazardous motorway. O & V’s grand plaza, the entrance to Prospect Park, became such a chaotic traffic sewer that in the ’20s, Brooklyn’s city fathers installed a “Death-o-Meter” at the end of Flatbush entrance of Grand Army Plaza to tally up the number of Brooklynites who were being killed and maimed in car crashes.

    Aesthetics is not the main reason why well over 125,000 people have signed petitions to ban cars from Central and Prospect Park. Car-Free Parks are fundamentally a public health issue. Brooklyn is a borough of 2.5 million tightly packed together people. We’ve got less green space per person than any of the other four boroughs and we’re way down the list compared to other major US cities. Meanwhile, our asthma rates are staggering, our childhood obesity rates are sky-rocketing and a lot of our kids grow up never even knowing what grass is. Prospect and Central Parks are the city’s lungs. If you don’t have a house in the Hamptons or the Hudson Valley, these are the places you go to get some excercise and a bit of nature and to get away from the city’s increasingly intense motor vehicle traffic congestion.

    Brooklyn kids used to play stickball, kick the can and cops and robbers in the street. I grew up playing in the street. My kids won’t. Brooklyn’s thousands of miles of streets have long since been annexed for the exclusive use of motor vehicle travel and storage even though it’s still, today, a relatively wealthy minority of the population that actually owns a car in Brooklyn. With the exception of the occasional ambulance, cop or landscaper, there’s absolutely no reason why the 2 miles of Prospect Park Loop Drive need to be a part of that transportation network. Motorists save somewhere between 3 and 10 minutes by cutting through the Park rather than just going around it.

    Fortunately, we have persuaded plenty of people that car-free parks is the right thing to do and we are winning this fight.

  • gecko

    Besides being dangerous, unhealthy, and aesthetically unappealing, cars in Central and Prospect parks are totally uncool and demonstrate symbolically a complete lack of imagination.

    If there is a true commitment by this city to adapt to and mitigate the climate change crisis as often expressed, what better place to start than transforming the parks to be totally green?

    How would we remove virtually all maintenance and security vehicles that are much larger than required and that use internal combustion engines from our parks?

    How would we retrofit the existing park buildings to net-zero or even net-positive energy structures to demonstrate how it can be achieved using solar, geothermal, and passive solar design?

    Or, how to move the park to zero-waste by broad implementation of recycling, composting (already done), banning bottled water and putting filters on public fountains (if they are really necessary), using waterless urinals and toilets, and John Todd’s Living Machines for human waste treatment that adults and school children can see and understand how will we move into the future?

    Getting cars out of our parks wii be the first miniscule step.

    If this extremely simple thing can’t be done, well, what message does that really send?

  • Gecko (#19), these are visionary suggestions and I’m glad you brought them forward. I have seen composting toilets in ecologically delicate areas (shorelines) and think they’re fantastic.

    It’s a shame we have to fight so hard for something as basic as removing car traffic from our parks.

  • md

    I think Dave Lines may have shot some of that footage. I certainly remember seeing him a lot with a camera in those days.

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