The first announced street closures amid the coronavirus pandemic were just 1.5 miles and a complete joke. Then, in April, it got a little bit better, and more streets were closed after that, with a goal to close 100 miles. And while that still isn’t enough, I’ve watched as the ones that have closed have turned from failed city initiatives to inspirational, community-controlled successes.
The difference? Police presence. At first, in late March, cops were at virtually every block on the closed streets, apparently there to police ... something, though no one really knew what. The street felt less like a park than a panopticon.
But after negotiations between government officials and residents, police were taken out of the equation, and the closed streets were left up to community control. What that looks like on 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights—the closed street in my neighborhood and the longest in the city—are volunteers putting up barriers everyday at 8 a.m. and removing them at 8 p.m.
And that was all it took for a strangely dystopian scene to turn into an everyday block party. Anecdotally, I’ve heard much the same from friends elsewhere in the city. (You can see every closed street on Google Maps; they are the dotted blue lines. You can also see how many streets aren’t closed, and how much more we should be doing.)
I walk down 34th almost every night now, and people are doing all sorts of party-ish things. Some of the kids are eating ice cream. Some of the adults are, too. Others are nursing adult beverages. There are reminders of the pandemic everywhere of course—everyone is masked up—but the mood is celebratory.
I will pause here for a brief documentary about it, made by the folks over at Streetfilms:
This has all been remarkable too because a couple months ago, things weren’t looking so hot. A few blocks south was the epicenter of the epicenter of the breakout in America. The streets were mainly deserted. No one was doing much of anything except staying inside and fretting. But eventually, the number of new cases began to go down. People began to emerge from their apartments. Lines at the grocery stores formed.
Also in that time, as the documentary shows: community members organized. They wanted 34th Avenue to be closed, but without the police. Working with government officials, that’s exactly what they eventually got.
There are calls now to make it permanent, which would be nice, but to me the biggest thing it shows is that things can change. Because before all this the idea of closing 100 miles of streets to non-local traffic was seen as ridiculous by some, especially in city government. After all of this, it is starting to seem like the least we can do to make the city more livable.
After all this, too, the idea of closing a street and sending in the NYPD to needlessly patrol pedestrians also might rank among the dumbest decisions of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, amid hot competition. The cops, themselves, didn’t want to be there, either, as far as I can see. What formed after they left was a new public good.