OPINION: A 34th Avenue Linear Park Would Be a Haven for Kids

Jackson Heights's children are starved for green space, argues local activist Luz Maria Mercado.

The joy of car-free streets can be seen every day on 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
The joy of car-free streets can be seen every day on 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

This is the sixth installment in our ongoing series of opinion pieces in favor of converting 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights and Corona 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. Earlier this month, we published support from Assembly Member Jessica González-RojasBorough President Donovan Richards, urban planner Donovan Finn and City Council candidate Shekar KrishnanCouncil Member Danny Dromm and neighborhood resident Risa Procton. This piece is by Luz Maria Mercado.

I grew up in Jackson Heights; I live right on 34th Avenue with my family. I grew up dreaming of more green space — that’s why I support the petition to create a linear park on 34th Avenue from the current open streets program, which has been dubbed the program’s gold standard.

Luz Maria Mercado
Luz Maria Mercado

As a kid, I would ride my bike on 34th Avenue. I remember being really scared that a car would hit me and sometimes I would ride on the sidewalk, but people would yell at me. I knew you’re not supposed to ride on the sidewalk, but there was nowhere to go that was safe, and fear would overtake me. I had family in Middle Village who lived two blocks from Juniper Park. I loved going to their house, and enjoyed the park with them. I always felt envious of what they had a safe place they could go to play, to picnic, right out their door.

We didn’t have a place that we could go to enjoy green space — we had to travel to their house, or to Flushing Meadows on the subway. As a teenager, I went to an all girls’ Catholic high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and felt this again. I made friends that lived near Central Park, and others lived near Astoria Park. I always thought it was very unfair how certain neighborhoods had that kind of space available to them, but a neighborhood like mine did not.

The green space that Jackson Heights does have is in the garden district. Many buildings span nearly an entire block with lush private gardens in the center. I was only vaguely aware of this as a kid, when I thought, “That’s for the wealthy people of Jackson Heights; that’s not for us.” I didn’t have a garden; my friends didn’t either. As an adult, raising my own children in the community where I grew up, I’ve felt the same pangs.

Before the pandemic, my kids would want to ride their bikes around the neighborhood, but it was too dangerous. I wouldn’t let them. I remember a few years ago an I.S. 145 student was hit by a car driver coming out of school. Our babysitter was crying when I came home. That could have been my kid, that could have been any of our children. There are six public schools on 34th Avenue, and two pre-schools. This should be a right. Kids should be safe coming and going from school.

This past year, even though it’s been a hard year, the open street on 34th Avenue has changed everything. It’s given my children a sense of independence — but with security. It’s a more safe place for them to ride and and look out for certain things, like cars on the cross streets, paying attention to the lights — but not worry that there’s a car bearing down on them, or a car speeding past that’s going to take them down. I don’t feel that anxiety that I felt as a teen riding on those avenues. As a parent, I’m relieved and proud they can have their independence.

Because the open street is just a temporary solution, we still have to watch out for speeding e-bikes and mopeds that are in conflict with pedestrians, but a linear park — one that that is well designed with community input — will be able to solve these problems, making it even safer for everyone.

Luz and fellow "Friends of 34th Ave Linear Park" meeting before they went out to petition together on Sunday. L to R: Myrna Tinoco, Weilai Rice, Rawnak (Ranna) Zaman, Luz Maria Mercado, Josefina Bahamondes Photo: File photo
Luz and fellow “Friends of 34th Ave Linear Park” meeting before they went out to petition together on Sunday. L to R: Myrna Tinoco, Weilai Rice, Rawnak (Ranna) Zaman, Luz Maria Mercado, Josefina Bahamondes.

For the past 13 years, I worked from home on Mondays, my window looks out onto 34th Avenue. Outside, I would hear cars racing by, revving engines, honking horns, loud music. And I would try to tune it out, but those are stressful sounds. Now I hear birds singing, people laughing, children playing — it’s such a beautiful symphony. It sounds like a neighborhood. I spent my childhood dreaming of green space in my own backyard, here in Jackson Heights — never thinking it was possible.

Now I know it is, but we have to fight for it. I support a linear park on 34th Avenue — for the child in me, for my children — for all my neighbors who need us to fight for them, for all of our community.

Luz Maria Mercado (@luzmariamercad6) is a Queens native and activist. She lives on 34th Avenue with her husband and two children. This essay originally appeared in the Queens Daily Eagle.

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