Mr. Mayor, You’re a Smart Guy, So Why Do You Wrongly Think Cops Must ‘Enforce’ Open Space?

Here is how open streets are done in Minneapolis.
Here is how open streets are done in Minneapolis.

Gersh Kuntzman is editor of Streetsblog and writes the Cycle of Rage column. This is one of those columns. The others are archived here. There. There’s your disclaimer. The following is opinion based on fact.

The mayor is a puppet.

Mayor de Blasio again rejected the growing number of elected officials, activists and residents who are demanding more open space for socially responsible recreation, resorting on Saturday to his same old answer: car-free streets are “dangerous” places that must be “enforced by the NYPD.”

And, of course, he added in a gratuitous attack on Streetsblog (but more on that later).

There’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start with a tiny bit of background.

Last Sunday, the mayor scrubbed — after just 11 days — his own tiny pilot project to close four short stretches of roadway to automobiles to create more open space for socially responsible recreation for a cramped, isolated public. The mayor said the project could not continue because it required too many police — but the mayor was widely ridiculed for his belief that each block needed two to four police offices to secure the newly created space.

In the days since, many American cities have succeeded in opening up far more roadway space for residents to recreate while maintaining the proper distance. On Thursday, Oakland announced a network fo 74 miles (that’s seventy four miles) of car-free space for pedestrians and cyclists, administered by its Department of Public Works and not, interestingly, its police department. And on Friday, several business improvement districts and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer called for far more open space in New York.

As you might imagine, it all brought de Blasio’s failure back into focus. So on Friday morning, WNYC host Brian Lehrer asked the mayor about it. The mayor said he was “unfamiliar” with the Oakland plan, adding, “I’m going to hold with this answer today — [open space] is not enforceable the way we need it to be.”

Now you’re up to date. At Saturday’s virtual press conference, Streetsblog asked the mayor if he had figured out his next steps, given all that has happened since he ended his own pilot program.

Question: The ability to move around while also socially distancing is itself a vital issue for fighting the spread of this disease. So I will ask this question. On Friday, multiple business improvement districts, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, asked you to open up many more streets, including Broadway, which is virtually car-free right now anyway. And given that you were asked about Oakland’s 74 miles of car-free streets yesterday, maybe you can give us a timeline beyond your answer yesterday, which was, “No.”

The mayor started by saying his “team” would “evaluate the Oakland plan.”

But the rest of his answer must be enjoyed in full (minus repeated sentences) because it captures this mayor — his fealty to the NYPD, his lack of understanding of public space, his anti-urban cowardice — in a tight nutshell. (Portions in bold will be discussed below):

Gersh, you have a specific mission and I respect your mission, you’re very smart person, so I’m going to ask you to take in the fullness of what I said [on WNYC] and not just say, “You said ‘no,'” but listen to why I said what I said, which is, we have an NYPD that has been diminished in terms of workforce, although continues to do a great job. We have a concern about enforcement at grocery stores, supermarkets, pharmacies all over the city that is so crucial to ensuring that social distancing and shelter-in-place will work. The NYPD strongly believes, in addition to everything else it has to do to keep people safe, that it needs to focus its enforcement efforts on where people are right now rather than open up a whole new vein of places that have to be enforced and could be gathering points.

I’m saying this is about enforcement, making sure that the enforcement we need in every other way is sufficient, watching the amount of workforce we have to work with the NYPD, not creating the danger of new potential gathering places. And Oakland is, obviously, a big American city — but it’s not New York City. It has nowhere near the population or the density we have. So, what [streets] do we need to keep open for first responders, for ambulances? What do we need to keep open for food deliveries? We have to look at the whole picture and decide what makes sense.

First, about that attack on Streetsblog, which was the mayor’s second attempt this week to degrade our work (in a prior press conference, he had questioned why we always ask about “transportation,” implying that real reporters ask about why he said there would be no burials on Hart Island (there are), his administration’s pay-to-play scandals, or whether there will be a Regents exam this year, but only fake reporters keep asking, day in and day out, about his plans to create livable communities, clean the air, reduce the city fleet size, crack down on reckless drivers and fix the subway system).

By praising my intelligence, the mayor is actually doing the opposite, saying, “Come on, Gersh, you’re smart enough to know that you’re asking dumb questions.” We’ll let our readers decide if we are wrong to ask the mayor why he chooses not to implement policies rolled out with little controversy by the mayors of cities all over the world. (The funny thing is, our questions are ultimately softballs for a progressive mayor who claims to care deeply about all the issues we write about, so we have no idea why he keeps bristling when we ask about them.)

Now, onto the substance. The mayor’s long answer boils down to four letters: N.Y.P.D. He has been asked repeatedly about open space, and his constant answer is, “The NYPD says it cannot enforce open space and, without cops, the result will be unsafe gatherings.”

If he cared to look, the mayor’s own city reveals that this is a myth. I rode from Park Slope to Coney Island and back on Saturday and found miles and miles of open public space where residents were getting fresh air and some much-needed mental health breaks with no cops securing the area. Here are some pictures.

Imagine that: The Shore Parkway bike path. No cops. No COVID enforcement worries. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
The Shore Parkway bike path. No cops. No COVID enforcement worries. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

 

 

 

 

The Coney Island boardwalk. Also no cops. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
The Coney Island boardwalk. Also no cops. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

These kinds of images are not part of Mayor de Blasio’s experience with the city, as he is never in such places without his police detail or his car.

Pedestrians are not the problem. The mayor is a very smart person, so he certainly knows that the greatest, easily preventable threat to life in an urban area are automobiles, whose drivers kill hundreds of people every year. And the greatest way to save the lives (and improve the lives) of pedestrians is to give them more space where cars can’t go. If it’s done right — like in Minneapolis (pictured at the top of this story), Denver or Oakland — a city can create livable, safe, clean communities and police officers can focus on their main mission: battling crime, not standing around on street corners watch kids learn to ride their bikes in safety.

But the mayor doesn’t share this vision of public space (indeed, he had to be forced by the city council to create more pedestrianized zones). The mayor never decries drivers for their recklessness and threat they represent on our streets; indeed, he would rather maintain the lie that pedestrians can’t be trusted in open space unless they have Dermot Shea as a chaperone. (This approach also applies to the mayor’s enforcement in our crowded subways, by the way, as these two videos show. Again, the issue is the lack of space for people to socially distance.)

That’s the mark of a leader who does not appreciate that New York is a great city because of the creative spirit of its people, not the repressive instincts of its police — or the fecklessness of its mayor.


four parody coversAnd, in case you want a little music to go with your Sunday lockdown, enjoy our song parodies about the de Blasio administration’s response to the coronavirus:

  • The mayor’s failure to create enough open space in the first place (“Corona: C-Apostrophe-Rona!“)
  • Drivers who are speeding like crazy right now (“Feelin’ Zoom-y!“)
  • The mayor’s failed open-streets pilot program (“All We Get Are Cops,” modeled on the Beatles’ “All Together Now”).
  • The mayor’s obsession with cars (“Car-Loving Monster“).
  • The mayor’s latest rejection of a plan to open up Broadway for pedestrians (“On Broadway“).

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