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‘Open Culture’ Program Must Be Equitable and Expansive, Says Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, Others

When cars are banished, culture can flourish, as this Time Lapse Dance performance on the Upper West Side shows. File photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

New York could have an explosion of cultural activity across all five boroughs and into neighborhoods with little access to arts programming — but only if City Hall broadens and properly oversees the "Open Culture" program, advocates and the council member who created the program said on Sunday.

As mandated by Council legislation passed last year, the Department of Transportation last month put out an initial list of 105 short roadway sections that will be set aside this spring and summer as "Open Culture street locations," but the list is far smaller and narrower — and burdened by more logistical hurdles — than advocates and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens were hoping for.

"The list is not final," Van Bramer told Streetsblog on Sunday. "We continue to negotiate and push the administration to include more streets and to make sure that there is equity in the choice of streets. I was very clear with City Hall that I was not happy with the initial list, and DOT has agreed to look for additional streets that we provided in consultation with the cultural community and with a lens towards including culture deserts."

Van Bramer's comments came one day before Mayor de Blasio is expected to discuss the program and its application process on Monday (though a public event appears to have been scrubbed because of the snow).

Like Van Bramer, cultural groups were not pleased with the DOT's initial list for a program that, along with Open Streets and Open Restaurants, has the potential to define the de Blasio administration's COVID-era expansion of the very notion of public space and the use of streets for people rather than for the storage of vehicles.

Cultural groups herald the plan, but have pointed out its potential flaws. For one thing, of the 106 streets included on the DOT's initial list (check it out here) only 10 of the open air performance locations are on existing open streets. Plus, the list itself doesn't match what cultural organizations sought for logistical purposes to facilitate performances.

Dozens of arts groups have added hundreds of proposed open culture streets to a public Google that has been making the rounds of cultural organizations (we are not linking to the list out of fear that it might get deleted).

"The big concern is that streets on the list don't connect to cultural institutions," said Robin Schatell, a longtime producer of cultural events in public space. "Arts orgs should have been asked collectively what streets they want to have rather than just coming out with a list. It's been very piecemeal. Underserved neighborhoods are definitely under-represented on that list."

The process, Schatell said, was flawed from the get-go.

"It was all done quickly, like, 'Do you want to produce arts on the street this summer? Call your council person if you want a street on the list.,'" she said. "That's not the way to do it. We are arts producers — we are logistics people. It needs someone from the arts community involved."

Schatell also pointed out that the initial list did not seek to link up cultural groups with existing volunteers who set up the most successful open streets in the city, such as 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Avenue B in the Lower East Side and some of the North Brooklyn locations. She and other people on the "culture @ 3" Zoom call only got connected to the open streets working group thanks to the involvement of open streets activists, not the city.

"That should have happened at the start because there are already citizens groups organizing these streets," she said.

All of that said, Schatell, Van Bramer and others see the open culture plan as potentially (to use one of the mayor's favorite words) transformative for a city whose world-class cultural offerings has basically been shut down since March. Van Bramer's original vision — of public streets bursting with dance, music, theater, comedy, puppetry and opera performances — will certainly happen in one form or another in public space usually occupied by cars.

That is no small thing.

"Access to the arts is already limited for so many people, and this will democratize culture by using the streets of the city as the stage," Van Bramer said. "That immediately makes art and culture and performance accessible to everyone, even people who didn't go out searching for it. People will go for a walk in their neighborhood and they'll hear music and they'll walk towards it and they'll experience the arts and they'll appreciate artists."

Cultural groups will be able to charge for the performances, but people can also walk past and watch without paying. Even if the performers don't charge, the streets will be their billboard, Van Bramer said.

"Most small arts groups don't have their own venue and have to rent out a space, which you can't even do now, so this program is saying, 'You don't need a physical home,'" Van Bramer said. "People will walk up to the performance and say, 'This is pretty cool. Who is this?' That can really grow the arts. It's sad that COVID showed us a way forward to using our streets better, but it's very, very, very exciting."

And even though she's concerned about the rollout, Schatell agreed.

"It's a great program!" she said. "There is nothing negative about the idea, and the work Jimmy Van Bramer has been doing. We just want the details so we can start planning."

We asked DOT for comment, and for more details about the program, but the agency sent over a statement from a spokesperson, not from the agency's new commissioner, Hank Gutman, the intellectual property lawyer appointed last week by Mayor de Blasio.

"We look forward to launching the open culture program soon and supporting artists while delivering safe, dynamic cultural programming in neighborhoods across the city," the spokesperson said via email.

Here's the current list of DOT "open culture" streets:


    • St. Raymond's Avenue Bet. Benson Street And East Tremont Avenue
    • East 165th Street Bet. Grand Concourse And Sheridan Avenue
    • East 161st Street Bet. Grand Concourse And Walton Avenue
    • East 140th Street Bet. Third Avenue And Alexander Avenue
    • East 140th Street Bet. Alexander Avenue And Willis Playground


    • 56th Street Bet. Fourth Avenue And Fifth Avenue
    • 59th Street Bet. Fifth Avenue And Sixth Avenue
    • Richards Street Bet. Verona Street And King Street
    • Ashland Place Bet. Fulton Street And Lafayette Avenue
    • East 18th Street Bet. Church Avenue And Caton Avenue
    • Hanson Place Bet. South Portland Avenue And South Elliot place
    • Hanson Place Bet. South Oxford Street And South Portland Avenue
    • Main Street Bet. Water Street And Front Street [Existing Open Street Location]
    • Manhattan Avenue Bet. Grand Street And Maujer Street
    • Moore Street Bet. Graham Avenue And Humboldt Street
    • South Oxford Street Bet. Lafayette Avenue And Greene Avenue
    • South Oxford Street Bet. Atlantic Commons And Hanson Place
    • St. Felix Street Bet. Fulton Street And Lafayette Avenue
    • St. Felix Street Bet. Hanson Place And Lafayette Avenue
    • Hegeman Avenue Bet. Christopher Avenue And Mother Gaston Boulevard
    • Carlton Avenue Bet. Flatbush Avenue And Park Place
    • Fort Greene Place Bet. Lafayette Avenue And Hanson Place
    • Rockwell Place Bet. DeKalb Avenue And Lafayette Avenue
    • South Portland Avenue Bet. Hanson Place And South Elliot Place [Existing Open Street Location]
    • St. Marks Avenue Bet. Sixth Avenue And Flatbush Avenue
    • West 10th Street Bet. Surf Avenue And Coney Island Boardwalk
    • West 12th Street Bet. Avenue V And 86th Street
    • West 22nd Street Bet. Neptune Avenue And Coney Island Creek
    • West 23rd Street Bet. Neptune Avenue And Coney Island Creek
    • Adams Street Bet. Sands Street And Prospect Street
    • Bond Street Bet. Livingston Street And Fulton Street
    • Degraw Street Bet. Third Avenue And Fourth Avenue
    • Division Avenue Bet. Kent Avenue And Wallabout Channel
    • Dock Street Bet. Front Street And Water Street [Existing Open Street Location]
    • Gallatin Place Bet. Livingston Street And Fulton Street
    • Greenpoint Avenue Bet. West Street And Transmitter Park
    • Hoyt Street Bet. Schermerhorn Street And State Street
    • North Sixth Street Bet. Berry Street And Bedford Street
    • North Sixth Street Bet. Kent Avenue And Riverfront
    • Noble Street Bet. West Street And Franklin Street
    • River Street Bet. South First Street And South Third Street
    • Whitwell Place Bet. First Street And Carroll Street
    • Sixth Street Bet. Third Avenue And Second Avenue
    • Seventh Street Bet. Third Avenue And Second Avenue
    • Beverly Road Bet. Church Avenue And East Second Avenue
    • Prospect Park West Bet. First Street And Second Street
    • Sackett Street Bet. Third Avenue And Fourth Avenue
    • Bragg Street Bet. Avenue W And Avenue X
    • Sackett Street Bet. Nevins Street And Third Avenue
    • Douglass Street Bet. Bond Street And Hoyt Street


    • East Third Street Bet. Avenue B And Avenue A
    • East 11th Street Bet. Second Avenue And Third Avenue
    • East 26th Street Bet. Madison Avenue And Fifth Avenue
    • East 29th Street Bet. Madison Avenue And Fifth Avenue [Existing Open Street Location]
    • East 47th Street Bet. First Avenue And Second Avenue
    • East 99th Street Bet. First Avenue And Second Avenue
    • East 103rd Street Bet. Lexington Avenue And Park Avenue
    • East 104th Street Bet. Madison Avenue And Fifth Avenue
    • East 104th Street Bet. Second Avenue And Third Avenue
    • East 105th Street Bet. Madison Avenue And Fifth Avenue
    • East 108th Street Bet. Third Avenue And Lexington Avenue]
    • West 27th Street Bet. 10th Avenue And 11th Avenue
    • West 35th Street Bet. Sixth Avenue And Seventh Avenue
    • West 51st Street Bet. Broadway And Seventh Avenue
    • West 53rd Street Bet. Sixth Avenue And Seventh Avenue
    • West 63rd Street Bet. Broadway And Columbus Avenue
    • West 75th Street Bet. Broadway And Amsterdam Avenue
    • Norfolk Street Bet. Rivington And Delancey Street
    • Suffolk Street Bet. Rivington Street And Delancey Street
    • Dominick Street Bet. Varick Street And Sixth Avenue [Existing Open Street Location]
    • Morningside Avenue Bet. West 114th Street And West 116th Street [Existing Open Street Location]
    • King Street Bet. Greenwich Street And Hudson Street [Existing Open Street Location]
    • Little Sixth Avenue Bet. Spring Street And Broome Street


    • 23rd Avenue Bet. 27th Street And 28th Street
    • Newtown Avenue Bet. 31st Street And 33rd Street
    • Newtown Road Bet. 50th Street And 49th Street
    • 34th Avenue Bet. 93rd Street And 94th Street [Existing Open Street Location]
    • 34th Avenue Bet. 77th Street And 78th Street [Existing Open Street Location]
    • 34th Avenue Bet. 69th Street And 70th Street [Existing Open Street Location]
    • 34th Avenue Bet. Broadway And 65th Street
    • 34th Avenue Bet. Broadway And 59th Street
    • 41st Avenue Bet. 10th Street And 12th Street
    • 43rd Avenue Bet. 51st Street And Roosevelt Avenue
    • 46th Avenue Bet. Fifth Street And Vernon Blvd
    • 47th Avenue Bet. 31st Street And Van Dam Street
    • 49th Avenue Bet. Fifth Street And Vernon Boulevard
    • 12th Street Bet. 44th Avenue And 43rd Avenue
    • 24th Street Bet. 36th Avenue And 35th Avenue
    • 29th Street Bet. 40th Avenue And 39th Avenue
    • 35th Street Bet. 35th Avenue And 36th Avenue
    • 37th Street Bet. Starr Avenue And Bradley Avenue
    • 42nd Street Bet. 47th Avenue And Greenpoint Avenue
    • 51st Street Slip Lane Bet. 43rd Avenue And 51st Street
    • 46th Street Bet. Queens Blvd And Greenpoint Avenue
    • Woodside Avenue Bet. 39th Avenue And 39th Avenue
    • 204th Street Bet. 32nd Avenue And 203rd Place
    • 235th Street Bet. Douglaston Pkwy And LIRR Station
    • Forest Park Drive Bet. Forest Parkway And Woodhaven Boulevard
    • Skillman Avenue Bet. 41st Street And 43rd Street [Existing Open Street Location]

Staten Island

    • Center Street Bet. Arthur Kill Road And St. Patricks Place
    • Nedra Lane Bet. Arden Avenue And Dead End
    • Savoy Street Bet. Clarke Avenue And Riedel Avenue
    • Tysen Court Bet. Center Street And Clark Avenue
    • Hancock Street Bet. Seaview Avenue And Garretson Avenue
    • Minthorne Street Bet. Bay Street And Victory Boulevard
    • Promenade at Lighthouse Point Bet. Bay Street And Victory Boulevard
    • New Dorp Lane Bet. New Dorp Plaza And Eighth Street
    • New Dorp Lane Bet. Eighth Street And 10th Street
    • Annadale Road Bet. Jefferson Blvd And Belfield Avenue
    • Annadale Road Bet. Lorrain Avenue And Jefferson Blvd

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