DONOVAN RICHARDS: A Linear Park on 34th Avenue Can Lead the Reimagining of Our Streets

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards supports a linear park on 34th Avenue.
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards supports a linear park on 34th Avenue.

This is the latest in our ongoing series of opinion pieces in favor of converting the 34th Avenue open street into a linear park, which is the subject of a new petition drive that seeks a logical final conclusion to what the Department of Transportation calls “the gold standard” of open streets. Previously, we published support from Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas. This latest piece is from Queens Borough President Donovan Richards.

Photo: NYC Council
Donovan Richards

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed so much inequity across the spectrum of our society, from healthcare and housing, to education and employment and beyond. For a time, Queens was the epicenter of the epicenter of the world’s worst public health crisis in more than a century, with our historically underserved, predominantly communities of color suffering the worst.

But this pandemic has also shined a spotlight on the longstanding, inexcusable inequities in the amount of open space in these very same communities — places where our families were suffering long before COVID-19 and its economic fallout landed a crushing blow. It is time to reimagine our streets in a post-pandemic world.

Righting these historical wrongs will not happen overnight. Creating a city truly rooted in equity across the spectrum is going to take bold leadership and a true grassroots approach. On 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, we already have the blueprint on how to do just that — and 34th Avenue should serve as a model for the rest of New York City and beyond.

Every time I visit, I am amazed. From tai chi classes to hopscotch to English as a Second Language programming, the Jackson Heights community was creative in utilizing their streets, and every member of that community deserves applause.

It is no secret that our more densely populated communities like Jackson Heights, Jamaica, and Far Rockaway are home to just a fraction of our borough’s expansive greenspace. It’s also no secret that such a glaring lack of urban space is itself a threat to public safety, significantly increasing the grave health risks pedestrians face in the form of reckless driving and air pollution.

That’s why I called for a significant expansion of the Open Streets program during my State of the Borough address in March. It’s why I rallied last month with the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition and other neighbors to demand the Jackson Heights space be made permanent. It’s why I believe there can be no compromise when it comes to radically redefining open space in each of our communities.

On 34th Avenue, I am calling on the Mayor’s Office and the Department of Transportation to act immediately to turn what they have called the “gold standard” into a golden opportunity for good.

  • Let’s designate 34th Avenue as a linear park and extend this oasis of recreation from Broadway to Flushing Meadows Corona Park, giving hundreds of North Corona families access to this incredible space in the process.
  • Let’s provide financial and material support to community-based organizations for continued maintenance and organized events that safely bring our families together.
  • Let’s give the half-dozen schools along the route additional space for their students to hone their developing social skills.

For far too long, our historically underserved communities have gone unseen and unheard, no matter how loud they clamored for equity. That ends now.

There is so little public green space in Jackson Heights — one of New York's most-diverse neighborhoods. Map: Google/Streetsblog
There is so little public green space in Jackson Heights — one of New York’s most-diverse neighborhoods. Roughly 130,000 people live in the area represented above — with just one small park. Map: Google/Streetsblog

Having grown up in a number of these communities, and having had the absolute honor of representing Southeast Queens in the City Council, I’ve seen this with my own two eyes.

I know first-hand what it’s like to be a young person of color with little to no options when it comes to enjoying safe, open space. I know what it’s like to raise a child in Southeast Queens, where unless you’re lucky enough to live in immediate proximity to one of our very few parks, access to open space and clean air is nothing more than a myth. And it’s not just families in Southeast Queens who feel this sting of inequity — it’s families in our more-urban sections of Northern and Western Queens as well. A family’s ZIP code should not determine whether they get a park across the street or open space in their neighborhood.

Creating a park in its traditional form out of thin air may not be realistic, so it’s time we think outside the box and see what’s staring us in the face. Our streets are for all of us, not just for those with the ability to own a vehicle. So let’s unlock the immense potential they offer, like we’ve done on 34th Avenue, and prove it.

Out of this unprecedented suffering comes truly unprecedented opportunity. This is our chance to redefine the role our streets play in our communities, who they belong to, and how they can benefit, not harm, our collective health. We cannot let it go to waste.

Donovan Richards is the borough president of Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @drichardsqns.