UNCIVIL WAR! Parking-Obsessed Opponents of Health, Safety and Parks Berate DOT Officials for an Hour

DOT official Jason Banrey was berated for an hour by opponents of the 34th Avenue open street ... ON the 34th Avenue open street. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
DOT official Jason Banrey was berated for an hour by opponents of the 34th Avenue open street ... ON the 34th Avenue open street. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

When historians of the future set out to chronicle the decline of American democracy, they should consider delving into how a simple city initiative to give more green space to residents of a working-class neighborhood with almost no parkland turned into a process by which an ill-informed minority of people, formed in the crucible of Facebook, has been allowed — invited, even! — to berate city officials, accuse them of lying, pelt them with a stream of misinformation, and then loudly claim that their voice is not being heard by the people at which they are screaming.

If this is what democracy looks like, can we try another system?

The extent to which car ownership turns normal people (your neighbors!) into selfish jerks was fully on display at Tuesday’s meeting between the Department of Transportation and roughly 100 opponents of the current open street program on 34th Avenue between Junction Boulevard and 69th Street in Jackson Heights and Corona — a coronavirus initiative that has proven popular and has inarguably made the neighborhood safer and less polluted.

The meeting was filled with the normal passions you hear at such events when entitled car owners and possessors of lush backyards or country homes fear that giving the less fortunate some minor benefit will adversely affect their ability to park.

Of course there were bogeyman in the form of property value fear-mongering (some say the open street is driving down property values while others say that it will gentrify the area). Of course there was claims that “no one in the community” has been kept aware of what’s going on (though there have been literally a year of public meetings). Of course there were claims that vending, trash, wild all-night parties, noise, and crazed cyclists are ruining the neighborhood because of an open street that, wouldn’t you know, no one is using.

For more than an hour, DOT borough officials Jason Banrey and John O’Neill were screamed at. They were accused of lying (even about such undeniable things as the current city law on street vending). They were even yelled at over literally meaningless things.

“How did you get to this meeting today, Jason?” one woman had yelled at Banrey. “Did you bike or drive?”

“Today I drove,” he said.

“See?!” the woman screamed incredulously — it was obvious that neither answer would have satisfied her.

In fact, no answers seemed to satisfy the crowd, which started organizing roughly a month ago when several people opposed to the open street met on Facebook. The group now bills itself as the “compromise,” which they define as a shorter open street, with reduced hours, and possibly reduced days, or even eliminated entirely.

They are being buffeted by a panoply of elected officials who have made it clear that not only are open streets important in a neighborhood with so little park space, but that the 34th Avenue open street should be expanded into a linear park (as Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas and urban planner Donovan Finn and Council candidate Shekar Krishnan have argued in Streetsblog this week; Council Member Danny Dromm also supports a linear park; Assembly Member Catalina Cruz has tweeted support).

It is important for elected officials who have not yet staked out an opinion — that group includes State Senator Jessica Ramos, who boasted that she favored a 24-7 open street, but has now apparently backtracked — to know that the battle lines are drawn between a visionary proposal to create a park-like experience on the roadway vs. a nativist, aggressive mob that simply lies.

The lies

Everything was right there on display at Tuesday’s meeting (ironically held on the very open street that the compromise group says is not serving the community). The lies were omnipresent.

The most prevalent one is that the roadway is less safe during the open street hours. In fact, the roadway is safer when thru-traffic is barred than when cars have free rein.

Another key lie thrown at Banrey and O’Neill was that “no one in the neighborhood was consulted.” Tell that to the scores of people who attended multiple DOT visioning workshops this winter. Tell that to the community board, which has been in constant contact with DOT officials this year. Tell that to the 2,212 people who filled in an online survey about the open street (93 percent of whom were from the neighborhoods directly next to the open street).

Only 3 percent of those survey respondents, by the way, said, “I dislike the open street.” Meanwhile, 76 percent of those respondents said their enjoyment of their neighborhood increased since the creation of the open street. Seventy-seven percent (that’s 1,600 people) said they wanted 34th Avenue to become a permanent “pedestrian and/or cycling priority corridor.”

That survey was taken in late December and early January, but in the last month or so, opponents have gotten organized — and their level of vitriol has increased. Screenshots of since-deleted (and extant) posts to the opposition Facebook page are filled with violent threats (one woman said that someone needed to “knock some sense” into the supporters of more greenspace), racism and elitism, and dark conspiracy theories (such as one that creating a linear park is part of a communist takeover of the neighborhood).

There is also the persistent lie that the open street is causing congestion. Fact: Between 2010 and 2018, according to the census, 680 more households got a car in Jackson Heights. And the number of households that have three or more cars increased by 229. So there’s a lot more new car owners hunting around for the same number of spaces that existed before they made their purchases (reminder: there is no law requiring the city of New York to find parking for a person just because he or she decided against all reasonable advice to buy a car; in fact, until the 1950s, it was illegal to park one’s car overnight in many parts of the city).

(It is also a fact that at least one member of the “compromise” group lives in households with three or more cars, Streetsblog has learned.)

It is these cars, not the open street, that is causing more congestion, as Streetfilms recently pointed out. Junction Boulevard, which is the eastern terminus of the open street, was congested before and it remains congested now. The reason: All the cars.

There is also a persistent lie that 34th Avenue has become a haven for illegal vendors. In fact, city law allows licensed vendors to operate on virtually every sidewalk, which some vendors are indeed doing because the roadway has been so successful in attracting people who enjoy a nice stroll and then get hungry or want ice cream. Vendors tend to go where people are; if the people weren’t buying anything, the vendors would go somewhere else. Again, the street isn’t to “blame”; the people are.

The anti-vendor comments tend to have a nakedly racist tone. When Banrey pointed out that vendors are protected by the newly named Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, members of the crowd just laughed at him, the suggestion being that vendors are not workers deserving of protection.

But above all, what stands out is the basic belligerence that the opponents of open space, parks and quality of life hold for the less fortunate. Banrey was repeatedly cut off and mocked, and members of the public shamelessly disseminated misinformation, such as this man who claimed that fire trucks responding to a recent blaze on the roadway could not get to the fire (which the FDNY has repeatedly and officially debunked and which Banrey said, to howls, “If the FDNY told us this open street inhibited their firefighters, it would not be here anymore”):

Let the record show that after this man made his fiery speech, then continued his jog down the open street, Streetsblog later learned.

Another prevailing lie is that no one is using the open street. When Streetfilms posted its seminal debunk, the Facebook page of the street safety and recreation opponents lit up with conspiracy theories that documentarian Clarence Eckerson Jr. had staged the whole thing:

Yet the same opponents have complained that the Zumba classes, kids playing and other programs are disturbing them. How can you be disturbed if no one is using the open street? (Another man complained of drivers “honking all day,” but an easy solution for that would simply be to remove the drivers who are doing the impatient and annoying honking.)

In fairness, one can’t help feeling bad for the car owners in one respect: they were born into a car culture, were sold a bill of goods by that culture, and feel aggrieved to learn that their driving — which has always been an American birthright, subsidized by free parking and access to every road all the time — has led to such a dramatic decline in the quality of life of their non-driving neighbors that action is finally being taken to rebalance the scales a tiny bit. On one road … in a neighborhood with virtually no open space.

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. Map: Google/Streetsblog

Gloria Contreras, who leads the so-called “compromise” group and has positioned herself as some sort of voice of reason, says blatantly ridiculous things such as that Access-a-Ride users are being left far from their front doors, with the drivers saying, “You’re fat. You can use the exercise” rather than properly dropping them off.

She said the open street should be eliminated on rainy or snowy days — as if we eliminate Central Park or Flushing Meadows Corona Park when it rains. And she complained that “what normally is a five-minute drive is now 15 minutes!” — as if a) it’s sustainable for residents of a city to take the car for what is clearly a short walk and b) that anyone should care that a person driving herself at great risk to her neighbors is mildly inconvenienced for the greater good. (And as a point of fact, Banrey said that there has actually not been additional congestion as a result of the open street.)

Screenshot after morales tweet wth barAnother woman kept yelling, “Did you measure quality of life!” It was unclear what she was talking about. More than 1,000 people have signed the Friends of 34th Avenue Linear Park petition — a suggestion that quality of life has been measured at least by some.

Other outright lies included the claim that the city had created special parking permits and would give them to people who support the linear park plan; that the process should not be politicized (the man who said that is running for council on the issue); that some pro-park members of the community board have conflicts-of-interest (in fact, the Transportation Committee co-chairman Ed Kiernan has been advising opponents in their secret Facebook group); that there never was a problem on 34th Avenue until the open street was created (in fact, the whole process of making the street safer began after a person was fatally struck by a car driver in 2018).

The amount of pure ignorance is staggering, but it is matched by opponents’ complete disengagement from the ongoing community process on the future of the open street.

“Nobody asked my opinion!” was screamed at least several times. But, in fact, the DOT has asked public opinion repeatedly. Residents claimed they knew nothing about the City Council bill that created the open streets program in the first place, and a revised bill last month that made it permanent — a process that has been playing out across multiple media outlets for more than a year. When Banrey said the bill was sponsored by a Manhattan council member, all hell briefly broke out. When he added that the bill was co-sponsored by the neighborhoods own Council Member, Dromm, people vowed to vote him out of office (they can’t; he’s term-limited). When Dromm’s would-be successor Krishnan’s op-ed for Streetsblog was posted on the opposition Facebook page, he was accused of being a racist … for writing, “Converting 34th Avenue into an automobile-free public space and expanding this concept to other parts of the city, is one small but important step in beginning to address these historic and deep-seated racial and economic inequities.”

And Banrey and DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman have gone out of their way to listen to open street opponents, even as they are being berated.

The 34th Avenue "compromise" group even claimed to be a persecuted group ... like the Palestinians.
The 34th Avenue “compromise” group even claimed to be a persecuted group … like the Palestinians.

Indeed, Gutman got a little taste of the abuse suffered by his minions when he himself journeyed to 34th Avenue on Wednesday and heaped praise on the open street that he called “the crown jewel” in the city’s program. That earned him boos from several members of the so-called “compromise” group that also interrupted him several times.

“Thirty-fourth Avenue is such a special place,” he said. “What started as a response to the pandemic, when people were desperate for opportunities to get outside and socially distance, has turned into a fundamental change in how we use the streets of the city of New York. And 34th Avenue is the crown jewel.”

That prompted the first interruption by Contreras, but Gutman persisted.

“What’s happening here is very special,” he continued. “It’s in an area that has the least per capital open space in the city. And it was an immediate hit. It was an outlet for kids who were stuck indoors, there are exercise classes and it’s also just a place for neighbors to sit and hang out and talk. And all of it stemmed from the community. This is the secret ingredient. The idea is not to have one plan dictated from City Hall that we impose —”

That prompted the second interruption.

“— but to do what the community wants, what works for the neighbors.”

That prompted a third interruption.

“No single person can do this. It’s a community organization and 34th Avenue has been a terrific success and we are looking forward to expanding it. But in every instance, what we do will driven by the will of the community. But as you may have noticed, there is almost nothing in the community that everyone agrees on, but everyone will be listened to.” (That finally earned him applause.)

DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman on 34th Avenue on Wednesday, flanked by Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman on 34th Avenue on Wednesday, flanked by Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

He was followed by Queens Beep Richards, who was interrupted, too, but fought back because, as he said in his Streetsblog editorial, there are important equity and safety issues at stake.

“At the end of the day, nobody can debate,” Richards said, his voice rising, “nobody can debate that we want our children to be able to walk down the street in a safe manner without being hit by cars.”

The boos started.

“Nobody can debate that we want our senior citizens to be able to cross the street,” he said to more boos.

“Nobody can debate these things,” he persisted. “We want it permanent and we want it modeled everywhere. We are looking at this from an equity standpoint because there are a lot of communities without access to enough green space.”

The death threat

There’s an element of this “debate” that is reminiscent of the manner in which public officials ignored the growing rise of the QAnon conspiracy, which led to the Capitol riot on January 6. In the Jackson Heights version of this, an aggrieved, mostly White, group demands to be placated by terrified elected officials who don’t know how to handle a mob that is claiming it is seeking compromise when, in fact, it is demanding the continuation of its entitlement. (It’s a truism of true progressive movements that a privileged group — in this case, car owners — suddenly feels oppressed when it is asked to give up some of its privilege. It is also a truism that people yelling at DOT officials, neighbors and journalists are not truly seeking a compromise.

Banrey confessed that he has received at least one credible death threat as a result of his agency’s plan to continue the open street on 34th Avenue. Members of the pro-park group say they are berated and harassed by car owners as they collect petitions or move gates in the morning or at night (a pattern that has occurred on other open streets).

Misinformation feeds anger. And anger leads to violence.

“These people are stupid,” one open street opponent posted on the Facebook page. “There will be more violence this summer cause people are not going to tolerate this.”

Well, New York, we’ve been warned.

Gersh Kuntzman is the editor of Streetsblog. He periodically writes the Cycle of Rage column. Prior columns are archived here.

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