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34th Avenue Open Street

Opponents of 34th Ave. Open Street Resort to Bigotry

12:01 AM EDT on September 13, 2022

Jim Burke (third from left in reflective vest at Monday’s press conference) said he was hit with homophobic slurs on the open street that he has helped make the city’s best.

Opponents of the city's "gold standard" open street berated the program's openly gay volunteer coordinator with homophobic slurs after getting a boost from a sympathetic community board that spread misinformation to promote an opposition rally last month, the victim said this week.

Queens Community Board 3 forwarded to all its members an easily debunked email from the Jackson Heights Coop Alliance — which opposes the Department of Transportation's creation of "Paseo Park" on 34th Avenue between Junction Boulevard and 69th Street — and shortly thereafter, the open street's coordinator was verbally assaulted with homophobic taunts.

"Someone called me a c***-sucking f****t," said Jim Burke, the award-winning volunteer leader on the open street. And Burke's partner Oscar Escobar, who is a native speaker of Spanish, was asked by at least two opponents for his "papers," a xenophobic taunt that has also been used against street vendors on the stretch.

Burke connected the dots in a letter to Queens Borough President Donovan Richards.

"The leadership ... of QCB3 used the Board's official email account to disseminate an anti-open streets event," he wrote to Richards (letter below). The forwarded invitation included extensive misinformation about the open streets, including false claims about its impact on emergency vehicle access, building accessibility and parking. ... This misinformation disseminated by this group has caused unnecessary strife in the community and directed hate towards our volunteers [including] homophobic, xenophobic and racist slurs against our volunteers, participants, street vendors, sometimes in the presence of children."

On Monday, Burke joined Council Member Shekar Krishnan, his predecessor Danny Dromm, and other officials to condemn the abuse.

"Hate, homophobia, bigotry, threats have no place in our community," said Krishnan, adding that he was "enraged" when Burke told him what had happened. "No one should experience this kind of hate, but here in Jackson Heights it is especially offensive and does not represent who we are."

Richards later told Streetsblog he was "astounded" by the level of hate and bigotry Burke described.

"Open streets is representative of the diversity of our borough and represents inclusion, so I'm just astounded that people would use it to project hate and homophobia," he told Streetsblog. "Shame on those individuals. We can disagree, but we need to be adults and teach our children the right way because we want them to grow up in a better world than we grew up in."

Richards, who is a strong supporter of the Paseo Park plan, said he is always willing to discuss ways to make it better, but he is not willing to end it.

"If there's a concern like proper sanitation, we'll discuss it, but I'm proud of the open street because I see how it transforms the streets," he said.

Multiple city officials have called 34th Avenue the "gold standard" for how an open street should be run — and thanks to the success of the pandemic-era program, the Department of Transportation is converting the 1.3-mile stretch into Paseo Park, which features some plaza blocks and other ways to minimize car traffic.

The removal of some curbside space that drivers consider theirs, including from both side of 78th Street, has inflamed some residents. But the Jackson Heights Coop Alliance email that was amplified by the community board had demonstrable errors or misinformation. It called the car-free portions of the roadway "dangerous plazas" and said the DOT's design blocks "fire trucks and emergency response vehicles from entering 34th Avenue," which is not accurate according to both the DOT and the FDNY.

Richard Pacheco, the president of the Alliance, issued a statement on Twitter late on Monday that suggested that he did not believe Burke's account.

"As a gay man myself who has a long history and proven record of advocating for the civil rights of LGBTQ+ Community, I would never tolerate such bigotry and hate from our alliance or from anyone," he posted. "The malicious accusation by directed at us by Council Member Shekar Krishnan and the 34th Avenue volunteer Jim Burke without concrete evidence is disturbing if not pure slander."

He demanded "any evidence to support this claim."

Pacheco's statement of disbelief in Burke's allegation did not address the question of why the community board forwarded his email to all its members.

The community board, the DOT and the NYPD initially did not comment for this story. After initial publication, DOT spokesman Scott Gastel sent over the following statement:

"The 34th Street Open Street in this wonderfully diverse community should be free of hate and its purpose is to benefit the entire community by creating plaza space, providing enhanced bike lanes and prioritizing pedestrians and children. The volunteers behind it make 34th Avenue even more vibrant and we appreciate their efforts."

It's obviously not the first time that volunteers doing the work of maintaining the DOT's open streets program have been harassed or attacked.

Last year, we reported that open streets workers had been physically assaulted, DOT employees were harassed, and equipment was vandalized or stolen to undermine the successful Covid-era program.

Jim Burke Letter to Queens Borough President Donovan Richards by Gersh Kuntzman on Scribd

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