Community Organizing Responses to COVID-19
Queens Spotlight was launched in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time of incredible hardship and severe shifts in how society functions, we are continually inspired by the resourcefulness, responsiveness and resilience of Queens community members. In this series we highlight community organizing work and hope to provide insight into the vitality of this work within our borough during the pandemic.
June 1, 2020
Juan Restrepo, Queens Organizer, Transportation Alternatives
Juan, you’ve been working as the Queens organizer for Transportation Alternatives for 5 years and in that time we’ve had the pleasure to work with you on the Safer 111th Street bike lane project. In response to the current Covid-19 pandemic and the lack of space for New Yorkers to safely social distance, the Mayor has pledged to open 100 miles of streets through temporary street closures. Could you give us a bit more insight into this campaign? What will open streets look like? How will they serve communities? And how can people request an open street?
Our Open Streets campaign began as a direct response to the pandemic. NYC became the epicenter of COVID-19 in the country, and soon we learned that one of the best ways to help reduce the spread was to reclaim our streets to allow people to safely follow social distancing policy.
In cities from Oakland to London to Milan to Bogota, streets were being adapted to the aftermath of COVID-19 and leading these cities toward recovery, but NYC was not putting forward policy to open up our streets and help prevent the spread of the virus. From our experience working to build streets for people who walk and bike, we knew that if we did not start organizing for Open Streets, they would not happen. So we created a coalition of organizations and businesses from all 5 boroughs to support the campaign and push the city to develop an Open Streets program.
The Open Streets program takes on many forms and benefits different stakeholders in the Queens community. An Open Street could be a “pop-up bike lane” that creates a new safe space to meet demand for safe ways to bike in the city. An Open Street can restrict car-traffic on neighborhood streets to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists who lack space to safely physically distance during their commute through the neighborhood. Open Streets can help restaurants and retail storefronts to safely expand their footprint by providing dining areas on parking spaces. There are many ways we can reclaim our streets to benefit the broader public and stop the spread of COVID-19.
Open Streets are predominantly found in areas where they are requested by community groups or there is general community support for the policy. This has not created an equitable distribution of Open Streets for where they are actually needed and that needs to be fixed. Community Members can formally request their own Open Streets directly from the city using their online form. Organizations and businesses can also support our coalition of more than 140 community partners throughout the city by signing up on our OpenStreets microsite.
Considering that social distancing might very well become part of our reality for the next year or two, could you speak a little bit about your vision of how the Open Streets initiative can build towards the long-term improvement of safe streets, increased public space, and green infrastructure? Are there any campaigns you want to highlight in this regard? And how can interested community members get involved?
For an interesting case study in how Open Streets can help us all social distance better and achieve our longer term goals for livable communities, look no further than Jackson Heights.
Jackson Heights is one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19. Housing is dense, sidewalks are too narrow to allow for safe social distancing, and people support their local community on densely used bus lines and by foot at local commercial strips. Together, these elements spell disaster from a public health perspective.
A coalition of organizations in the area came together to demand the city open up 34th Avenue as an Open Street. With playgrounds closed, very few parks in the Jackson Heights area, and space issues on the sidewalks, the 34th Avenue Open Street became a rallying call to give the public enough space to commute through their neighborhood and not feed into the infectious nature of COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, it’s a huge success.
34th Avenue now serves as an amazing amenity for the community. The street has essentially become a mile and a half long vertical park with medians and trees. With dramatically fewer cars on the street, we see our most vulnerable neighbors, children, safely walking and biking on their streets. Sidewalk chalk drawings create hopscotch games and art canvases on the roadbed. Families safely share the sidewalk and the street, permitting everyone to safely commute through the area.
Even though it’s been an incredible success, the 34th Ave Open Street terminates eastward at Junction Boulevard. Only half the Jackson Heights / Corona community get to enjoy this amenity, and they want it extended all the way to Flushing Meadows Corona Park at 114th Street. If you live in Corona, reach out to your Council Member to let them know you support extending 34th Avenue all the way to Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
As an avid cyclist, and in celebrating Bicycle Safety Month, what would you say to folks that might feel encouraged in this time to start cycling? And what are your visions to improve the bike network in Queens?
There has never been a better time to consider picking up biking in Queens. Streets have less car traffic than before the pandemic and there are more people biking. You will find many more examples of streets where the number of people biking is higher than the number of people driving, and we expect that to only continue growing as NYC experiences the #bikeboom.
It will take years of experience riding in the city before you feel comfortable doing it. Reading Transportation Alternatives’ guide of 100 Things to Know About Biking in NYC will help turbocharge how quickly you get there with helpful tips from cyclists who have been riding these streets for years now.
One final point – the best way of feeling safe when you ride in the city is to ride your bike on protected, separated bike lanes. The best way of getting them in your community is to reach out to your local Council Member and Community Board and let them know you need more safe bike lanes. Find out who they are by using this great tool and call/email their offices.