… And Give Queens Residents More Room To Breathe and Stroll

As COVID-19 hits hard in crowded neighborhoods, the mayor's plan to open pedestrian streets must be much bolder.

Queens desperately needs more of these —  the pilot pedestrian street in Jackson Heights. Photo: Courtesy Nuala O'Doherty-Naranjo
Queens desperately needs more of these — the pilot pedestrian street in Jackson Heights. Photo: Courtesy Nuala O'Doherty-Naranjo

Several candidates are challenging Assembly Member Michael DenDekker for a Queens seat covering parts of Woodside, Jackson Heights and Corona [map]. Today, we present two op-eds from challengers, Jessica González-Rojas and Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo, in hopes of spurring a vigorous discussion of one of the most important issues facing the district: transportation. Here is O’Doherty-Naranjo’s piece. González-Rojas’s can be read here.

As COVID-19 turns normally thriving, bustling New York City into a ghost town, now is the time to ban car traffic on more streets, especially in the populous Queens neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and Woodside — all hot spots for the virus. 

Mayor de Blasio recently proposed a small pilot, closing just a few blocks to car traffic in each borough — in Queens, a stretch of 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights. We must be bolder. 

Nuala O'Doherty-Naranjo
Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo

In order to give everyone breathing room and prevent the spread of COVID-19, we must have enough space to allow everyone to maintain social distancing, making our streets truly safe. Pedestrian streets must be established in every neighborhood, so that people can easily walk to an open space.

Many New Yorkers are crammed into small apartments — never so much as in our heavily immigrant, Queens neighborhoods. Each day of the pandemic, our apartment feels smaller. Many of our neighbors are doubled up or worse. New Yorkers crave space

As spring brings warmer days, people naturally want to emerge from their homes and enjoy the fresh air. But in an era where we have to maintain social distancing, our parks are too few and too small. How can we enjoy the fresh air while still being six feet apart, when so much public space is given over to cars? 

For years we have closed streets to traffic for “Play Streets,” “plazas” and parades. For a few weeks each summer, the city institutes “Summer Streets,” which convert long stretches of asphalt used by vehicles into linear parks for biking, skating, and walking. We need to expand on that — and do it now. We must close streets as the days get warmer so that people can safely go outdoors without putting each other at risk of spreading or contracting COVID-19.

We simply can’t fit on our sidewalks. They are too narrow — and twice a week, they are lined with trash. Our already narrow space gets unmanageably smaller once you consider social distancing. Our children must run and ride bikes; families must stroll in the spring air to maintain a healthy outlook during this COVID calamity.

Give the people space! The crowded corner of 37th Avenue and 90th Street in Jackson Heights shows the unhealthy conditions when cars and drivers have priority over the greater public. Photo: Courtesy Nuala O'Doherty-Naranjo
Give the people space! The crowded corner of 37th Avenue and 90th Street in Jackson Heights shows the unhealthy conditions when cars and drivers have priority over the greater public. Photo: Courtesy Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo

This is not hard. The mayor must pick blocks next to schools, churches, green spaces and parks to expand green spaces we already have. Pick blocks with few cross streets and use our school crossing guards to monitor traffic. The city closes many streets regularly for parades, so there is a system in place to set up barricades and post announcements.

We must consider the physical and mental health of our community — now, before warm spring days are here. Let’s be proactive and make sure we close streets in every neighborhood to cars and let our neighbors out of their apartments to breathe free while keeping a safe physical distance. 

Often major disruptions lead to positive changes. Once neighborhoods see the value of using their streets as open public spaces that can be used by more than just cars, we will open many people’s eyes on how we can use our street to serve all New Yorkers. 

Let’s get this done — our physical and mental health depends on it. 

Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo (@NualaFor34) is a Democratic candidate for state Assembly in the 34th District, in Queens.

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