Dozens of protestors marched in Jackson Heights to urge the city to remove 34th Avenue from the Open Streets program.
Marching to Councilman Daniel Dromm’s office and then to the offices of the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition, protestors expressed concerns of public safety for themselves and their neighbors.
Gloria Contreras, a resident of 34th Avenue, said the plan to close the streets to vehicular traffic at the start of the pandemic was made with good intentions, but hasn’t resulted in safer streets.
“We think it’s a great idea, the problem is there is no regulation of bikes, scooters, mopeds,” said Contreras.
Contreras says the Access-A-Ride bus no longer travels down the avenue to pick up her parents from their front door, and that her daughter has almost been hit three times by cyclists and electric scooters.
“I’ve lived here for 21 years and I’ve never been so politically involved, but if it’s going to take me getting involved to save my daughter’s life and the wellbeing of my parents, I’m here,” she said.
Starting at 7 a.m., metal barricades go up to close the street to thru traffic, but some neighbors say the barricades are also impeding the routes of emergency service vehicles.
Anthony Tutko and Julian Cardona cited an eight-alarm fire in a nearby apartment building in April, when first responders had to physically move the barricades to respond to the fire.
“When you’re stopping emergency vehicles, whether day or night, from getting to help people it’s not a good thing,” said Tutko, who lives on 92nd Street between Northern Boulevard and 34th Avenue.
But for Jim Burke, a leader of the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition, the initiative has led to a friendlier neighborhood, with hundreds of people using it every day.
As protestors marched by, Burke and other members of the coalition were planting flowers and beautifying the street’s median strip as part of their weekly clean-ups. As a fire truck passed by, a volunteer moved the barricade out of the way for the truck to pass.
“There are hundreds of people walking down the street every day and they do what just happened, they move the barricade out of the way,” said Burke. “It’s probably better for response time.”
Burke said that before 34th Avenue was converted to an Open Street, people would often ring all the nearby doorbells to try and find the driver of an illegally parked car that was blocking the street.
Downplaying the protest, Burke said the neighborhood isn’t divided over the initiative, adding that there are people who don’t like to be “slightly inconvenienced for the safety and betterment of the entire community.”
“I’ve lived here for two decades, and I’ve met more people in the last 16 months than all of those years combined,” said Burke. “I can’t walk down the street without saying hello to someone, who now I really care about and consider a friend. That wasn’t possible before this.”
Not phased by the protestors, Tony Giffone said the neighborhood has become quieter and more civic-minded since the barriers went up.
“We say hello to each other more,” said Giffone. “I think it made a great neighborhood even better. We have a lot of streets with cars, we can have one without them.”
Julian Cardona, walking with his son who attends I.S. 230 on 34th Avenue, said that he was originally a fan of the initiative, but says it’s time to reevaluate the measure.
Cardona says his neighbor has daily dialysis treatment and is being forced to walk to their treatments on 70th Street just off 34th Avenue.
“When the initiative starts to hurt the community, it’s time to revamp and rethink,” said Cardona.
It was then when a jogger passing by told him, “If you want a parking spot, move to the suburbs, buddy,” before sprinting off.
“You can’t tell me I’m not for the community, I’ve been here 35 years,” said Cardona.