IN THEIR OWN WORDS: Outraged at Local Community Board, Open Streets Supporters Send Letters

The open street on 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights is the most popular in town. File photo: Clarence Eckerson
The open street on 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights is the most popular in town. File photo: Clarence Eckerson

Last week’s Queens Community Board 3 Traffic and Transportation Committee discussion over the future of the 34th Avenue open street in Jackson Heights and Corona led many listeners to believe that the community board does not support this valuable open space initiative in two park-starved communities and will ask the Department of Transportation to return the roadway to serve car owners. After the meeting, the community board started receiving letters from open street supporters (we were CC’d). We reached out to the community board to find out how many letters have been received, but the board did not respond (which is typical of this board). Here are two of the letters that board members have received.

To Queens Community Board 3 Chair Renetta English
Traffic & Transportation Co-Chairs Stephen Kulhanek and Edward Kiernan
All Members of the Community Board

Dear Ms. English, Mr. Kulhanek, and Mr. Kiernan, members of the Board:

I am writing in strong support of making the 34th Ave. Open Street permanent and to express my concern about the tenor I heard in the Traffic and Transportation Committee’s meeting last week.

As a resident of 34th Avenue, I see the enormous positive transformation this Open Street has brought to our neighborhood in a difficult time. The street has become an important place for the neighborhood to have some respite in a socially distant way and to experience joy and community. The Open Street has been a literal lifeline during the pandemic, but as you will know better than I do, our community severely lacks in green space — even with the expanded Travers Park, we continue to rank near the bottom among all districts in NYC in terms of access to green space, which is truly shameful. I, therefore, urge you to leverage the amazing opportunity and gift the city has given us to support the permanent transformation of 34th Avenue into a linear park.

As most Jackson Heights residents I do not own a car — but all I see around me are cars, cars, cars: stored freely on both of every single street, clogging the lanes, and dangerously racing through the streets when possible. This brings enormous damage to our city and its people — injuries, death, the health impact of CO2, the inequity of reserving most public space for use by car owners, etc.

I am sure as community board members, you are familiar with the dreadful statistics. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that there be one street in the neighborhood that is mostly car-free. One street. One beautiful street that has brought so much joy and relief, helped so many of our elders to freely move outside without fear of being hit by a car, helped so many children to learn how to bike this summer, helped so many families and young people to spend time together joyfully. Shame on us as a community if we give up on this piece of heaven that we were gifted in a terrible time. Having this space will be even more important in the winter when there is little other recreation possible.

I was, therefore, confused — and, well, shocked — to hear the overwhelmingly negative tenor of the committee’s discussion with the DOT. From the outset of the meeting, I was sad to realize that most committee members did not have an open mind about the DOT’s presentation and vision for 34th Avenue. (I’d like to thank you for enabling the chat function during the meeting, which enabled many community members listening in to express their support, among a small number of negative voices.)

I found the committee members’ take especially puzzling because I have been gathering petition signatures on the street on many weeknights and weekends over the past few months, and have never encountered this level of hostility. Of course, I have had conversations with car-owning neighbors who are opposed — as with anything new, some people feel threatened by change, and it takes a willingness on all sides to engage in open-hearted discussions about weighing community benefits vs. private interests. But these negative voices were few and far between compared with the overwhelmingly enthusiastic conversations I have had with neighbors on the street who couldn’t wait to sign the petition.

I was also puzzled to hear some committee members’ claims that they or someone they know experienced violence when driving their car on the street. I am on the street every day, multiple times, and I see neighbors slowly and carefully driving to or from a parking spot without any issue whatsoever. Of course, there are situations where car drivers speed down the Open Street, endangering and scaring people, and I think it’s quite all right to yell at them at such times.

Also, I regularly see ambulettes on 34th Avenue picking up or dropping of mobility-impaired neighbors, so it’s simply not true that the Open Street is a problem in that respect.

In short, no matter what claims are made on Facebook, the discussion I heard in the committee meeting does not reflect the experience of the many neighbors I have interacted with over the past many months and who strongly support permanency — this includes neighbors who own cars but feel the benefits far outweigh the small personal “cost” of having to drive slowly and move a gate out of the way when entering a block to park.

The community board should by now have received more than 1,500 petition signatures directly from the neighborhood in support of permanency, and I am asking you not to ignore this enormous level of support in the community that you represent. I hope the broader community will have an opportunity to speak out in support of this transformation sooner rather than later, but in light of the committee meeting’s tenor, I wanted to reach out to you right away.

Thank you so much for your service to our community!

Angela Stach

———

To Community Board 3,

I am writing this email to express my love for the 34th Avenue open street and to try to convey how much it has meant to the vast majority of the local community.

We have lived on 81st Street, three buildings south of 34th Avenue for three years.  We have loved living here from the get go, as it is so vibrant and eclectic. That said, the opening of 34th Avenue has transformed our neighborhood into a real community. We all know the diversity of Jackson Heights. But we also know that diverse groups of people can remain separate entities and not intermingle much. The 34th Avenue open street has changed all that. Families living in the western end of our neighborhood starting at 69th Street are enjoying walking and jogging to Junction Boulevard and vice versa for the neighbors on the eastern end. The 34th Avenue open street’s influence in creating a more cohesive neighborhood is reason enough why it needs to stay as it is now.

The open street has also been a blessing for the local kids. They pour out of the buildings lining the avenue to bike ride, play tag, scooter, skate board, hopscotch, jump rope, you name it. Far better than playing video games inside, which had been their main recreational option before the avenue became safe for play.

Equally fantastic, now that the fall is here, we see that the teachers at the 34th Avenue schools are using the avenue as a safe and ample space to engage the students in fun and educational activities. Seniors love the avenue as well, from the infamous senior Bingo game, to strolling octogenarians that take their nightly constitutional.

The opportunity to get fresh air and exercise in your own neighborhood is obviously invaluable and was sorely needed by young, old and everyone in between. If the 34th Avenue open street is lost as a play, exercise and socializing space, it will be a huge loss to Jackson Heights. The 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition has given us a gift. Allow us to continue to treasure it.

Risa Procton

Do you have something to add to this debate? Please comment below or send your own letter to Community Board 3 using the board’s email address: communityboard3@nyc.rr.com. Please CC us at tips@streetsblog.org.

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