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The Spring Classic: Hold The Next Mayoral Debate On An Open Street!

10:55 AM EDT on May 19, 2021

The 34th Avenue open street at sunset. This is what democracy looks like. File photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Shakespeare in the Park. SummerStage. Celebrate Brooklyn. Why not the next mayoral debate?

With the virus in retreat across the city, New Yorkers are about to once again embrace the great outdoors with the blessed return of our premier outdoor cultural events — so with the next mayoral debate still scheduled to be held over Zoom (which the candidates are full of "ire" about), it's worth asking why debate organizers aren't considering an alfresco argument.

After all, if there is any year when a mayoral debate should come out of a TV studio and into an actual New York City neighborhood, it's this one: the outgoing mayor's pandemic legacy almost entirely consists of his repurposing of street parking and driving lanes for use by people.

"I think a mayoral debate on an open street would be amazing!" Jim Burke, a founding member of the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition.

Amazing from a public space perspective, but also from a debate perspective. Virtual debates and forums are under fire because they prevent the candidates from truly debating each other and because they also allow candidates to read from notes on their computers (watch their eyes!). Plus, it's absurd to have virtual debates when our own sports arenas are welcoming back thousands of screaming fans indoors (let's go Knicks, baby).

So the Campaign Finance Board's decision to follow what it said were health and safety restrictions set down by host station WABC has left everyone seething about the upcoming showdown on June 2.

Why seethe indoors, though, when the CFB can take a page out of the NHL's book and do a Winter Classic-esque outdoor debate at one of the city's thriving open streets in this beautiful weather we're having? Like the annual NHL game played outdoors, of course we don’t have to play hockey games in the middle of winter in the open air — but it’s nice to have an annual reminder that, dammit, we did things a certain way for decades and it was good.

Besides, what is more alive, more New York City now, more representative of the city's bright future but also its severe inequality than an open street? Having a debate on an open street would also highlight how roadways that are closed to cars have become transformed into the new public square — where things like debates should happen.

If the NHL can do this, NYC can hold a debate on an open street. Photo: NHL
If the NHL can do this, NYC can hold a debate on an open street. Photo: NHL
If the NHL can do this, NYC can hold a debate on an open street. Photo: NHL

And as a bonus, a debate on an open street would let candidates get an up close and personal look at the shortcomings of the de Blasio administration's approach to open streets — which are successful only if volunteers work tirelessly to put out and remove barricades every day, at great risk of assault from members of the Car Lobby.

"I think the mayoral candidates, who vastly support open streets, should witness firsthand the problems with a program that requires human shields to keep cars out in addition to the flimsy barricades," said Loisaida Open Streets Community Coalition Co-Founder Sophie Maerowitz.

If Streetsblog ran the debate, would it exist in the real world conditions during which volunteers had to open streets for drivers who scream at them for the crime of making them drive slowly down a street? Yes. But we are willing to bow to the realities of compromise, and imagine that the CFB (whose spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment) can create an environment that allowed for an orderly debate and demonstrates the vitality of an open street like Avenue B or 34th Avenue or Berry Street. But don't act like you don't want to see a debate with something like Avenue B's Tuesday boxing and HIIT workout class going on in the background.

The mayoral field agreed that an open street debate would be great.

"Kathryn firmly believes that this debate should take place in person because that’s what New Yorkers deserve and because we know we can do it safely," said Annika Reno, a spokesperson for former Sanitation Commissioner (and Colon Cycle participant) Kathryn Garcia. "The CDC now says that fully vaccinated people can resume indoor activities without wearing a mask or socially distancing. On top of that, the organizers can take extra precautions by requiring the candidates to maintain social distance and get tested 48 hours prior. All that being said, if the Campaign Finance Board and WABC want to consider an outdoor venue, Kathryn would be more than happy to take the stage at one of her favorite open streets, of which there are many! Greatest challenge there would be picking only one."

The Yang campaign agreed.

"We're very disappointed the sponsors decided they could not find a safe way to hold an in-person debate with fully vaccinated candidates and moderators," said campaign spokesperson Jake Sporn. "We appreciate their concerns, but it's a disservice to voters and our city, so we hope they'll reconsider and give voters the live, in-person debates they deserve. And who wouldn’t love a chance to make use of the city’s open streets program?"

Tyrone Stevens, a spokesperson for Scott Stringer's campaign added: "We would definitely join, time to get these debates off Zoom!"

Hell, even City Hall has a more active outdoor life than ever.

And asked by Streetsblog on Wednesday for his opinion on an open streets debate, Mayor de Blasio smiled and then said, "Kinda like it!"

"I have the fondest memories as a proud Italian-American of being in the piazza in many places in Italy where there's a public square and people gather," he added. "And here in New York City, we know the long history of street corner orators in Harlem and other places and it's very real. ... I would obviously like to see an in-person debate and if outdoors is the way to do it, I think that's a clever solution."

So sing it — "Debates outside!" — with feeling (when it comes around again on the guitar).

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