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People Had More of a Comment Than a Question at This Open-Streets Forum

Photo: Jason Rabinowitz

At 6:34 in the evening on Tuesday, a crowd had formed outside P.S. 20 in Fort Greene. An exhausted-looking administrator explained that while the event inside was indeed open to the public, the school principal had capped attendance given the ongoing threat of COVID-19. “You’re suppressing my voice!” said a man in a striped scarf. “This is an open forum!” a woman in thick glasses added. The administrator relented, a deal was made, and she let them through the doors. “Just stay as far apart as you can,” she said to their backs.

They were there for the community meeting on the Willoughby Avenue open street, part of the citywide program launched by the de Blasio administration at the beginning of the pandemic to provide outdoor space to New Yorkers otherwise trapped in their apartments. Barricades go up, a street empties of cars and trucks, and something between a block party and a bike path emerges. People love to fight about open streets, and the stretch in question — an eight-block section of Willoughby Avenue passing through rows of residential brownstones and a public school — was particularly established and well used. It was also the subject of some bizarre political intrigue last month, making this meeting more frenzied than your average neighborhood forum.

The incident went like this: Around 3 p.m. on February 10, city workers abruptly showed up to move the barricades that had been blocking off the street for more than a year and a half. People in the neighborhood tweeted photos of the street opening up to traffic, and, later, of a makeshift barricade constructed to keep the street closed. No explanation was offered to locals, and rumors quickly circulated about “City Hall interference” and the “direct orders of Mayor Adams.” That night, just as abruptly as they had been taken down, the barricades were put back up by the Department of Transportation.

The mayor later claimed he had nothing to do with it; the DOT called it a “miscommunication.” The whole thing lasted a few hours. But the incident revived a grueling debate about open streets, which is also a conversation about whose idea of public space is given preference in a city that is rapidly changing and shouldered with astronomical rents. Supporters of the program, who include a particularly passionate group of anti-car activists and urbanists, argued that the “linear parks” made the city safer for pedestrians and cyclists as well as a more pleasant place to live. But some longtime residents saw in the pop-up restaurants and bikes another symptom of gentrification contributing to gridlock on surrounding streets and making it more difficult to receive deliveries, access emergency services, or find a place to park. Others took a more ambivalent position, viewing it as a nice idea that was executed incompetently and opaquely. A review of the program conducted by Streetsblog in the summer of 2020 found that streets tended to open in neighborhoods with significantly higher incomes, which often means they’re statistically whiter, than the rest of New York. Through the worst months of the pandemic, open streets became a symbol, in each camp, of the things that were ruining New York City.

At the start of the meeting, City Councilmember Crystal Hudson warmed up the crowd with a reminder to play nice. Just a few months into her tenure, Hudson lent her support to the open-streets project by asking the Adams administration to put the barricades back in February, though her primary goal at the moment seemed to be keeping the meeting from going off the rails. She spoke of the neighborhood’s “intricate, beautiful identities” coming together to be “lovingly challenged” and asked residents to be “accountable to your impact on the space.” Her warnings would go mostly unheeded; by the time she shut the meeting down an hour later, a woman in the back was shaking her head and stage-whispering about the councilmember “getting her ass handed to her.”

Next, there was a brief speech by Ydanis Rodriguez, the Department of Transportation commissioner, who assured everyone that the Adams administration supported the open-streets program and was there to “hear what the community wants.” A slim DOT representative named Kyle Gorman greeted the crowd with a three syllable “he-ll-o” before launching into a PowerPoint presentation detailing the program’s history and community-outreach efforts, clicking through rapid-fire slides at an impressive clip — a speed, it quickly became clear, he had chosen in order to limit the jeering he’d have to endure. (“I thought we agreed to be respectful, loving, and kind,” Hudson chided one anti-open-streets group in the front.)

The meeting was pitched as an opportunity for community members to discuss their concerns and ask officials questions, which one participant told me was initiated after the barricades came down and Hudson had received a flood of emails from residents on all sides of the debate. But nearly everyone seemed to have come angry: They heckled Hudson about whether residents would have a say in which streets were opened, and she mentioned that she had been working on a bill that would do this, adding that with “mayoral buy-in,” it would be possible to place sensors on the barricades that might allow residents of a block to drive down the street. (At this proposal, a woman next to me rolled her eyes.)

But the real event was the question-and-answer session that drew on more than 400 Google Form comments as well as slips of paper an usher dashed through the aisles to collect. Residents wanted to know how they could make the barriers more permanent, whether anyone cared about senior citizens, why everyone assumed just because a person was in favor of keeping the streets open they were new to the neighborhood or lived somewhere else. One particularly polite man raised his hand right at the beginning of the meeting and didn’t put it down until he left his seat, but no one called on him as the event more or less fell apart. Someone yelled that the people who supported the open-streets programs are “very well organized and very well funded”; on the other side of the room, a woman said that “nobody asked us” about whether they wanted the barricades there at all. Rodriguez raised his voice: “There is no reason to think anyone is going to win this debate.” A slight older woman with expensive-looking gray highlights held her hands over her ears as the volume of the meeting rose. Exactly one hour in, Hudson took the center of the small stage. “We’re gonna start to wrap,” she said. “This is getting out of hand.”

After the meeting, a few participants milled around, some of them carrying bike helmets and wearing messenger bags. One, a blonde woman in a blazer, exclaimed she was “for open streets, but we’re not well funded!” Peter Engel, an activist and cyclist, told me he valued the extra space and that it was “nonsense” that organizations like Transportation Alternatives advocating for the program were some “dark-money cabal.” The open-streets initiatives are contentious, he said, because there is change in the neighborhood: “Gentrification, an older generation, a cultural clash, a perception clash — all that change, people are understandably resistant to it.”

Ernest Augustus, a member of the local community board, held an animated conversation with a reporter, punching the air in front of his chest as he explained that the open-streets program had circumvented local bodies: “I oppose the way it was rolled out during the pandemic at the behest of Transportation Alternatives,” he said, which is, in his estimation, “a cult.” He has owned his house in the neighborhood for three decades and sat on the community board for, he estimates, 15 or 20 years: “This is New York City — there’s a dearth of sidewalks. You have to include drivers. I have a license given by New York State to drive on any public street.” He likens the negotiations happening between drivers and open-streets proponents to Russia’s war with Ukraine: “Zelenskyy says, ‘I don’t want to talk to Putin, but I have to talk to Putin,’” he said. “Commissioner Rodriguez is talking about support, but I don’t give a damn. The opposition is who you negotiate with.”

At the back of the room, a quiet 58-year-old man named Francisco Peguero watched everyone file out, ushered by school administrators who were clearly eager to leave. He was just here to figure out what the parking situation might be down the road. He keeps getting ticketed.

The Never-ending Fight About Open Streets