Jackson Heights Neighbors Band Together to Win Car-Free Street Expansion

Dromm_march.jpgJackson Heights residents and Council Member Daniel Dromm (bottom left) marched to Queens Community Board 3 to call for expanding the car-free 78th Street Play Street. Photo via Jackson Heights Green Alliance

Nearly 200 Jackson Heights residents marched on their community board last Thursday night to support the expansion of car-free public space in their neighborhood. That feat of organizing helped win the approval of Queens Community Board 3 for a summer-long 78th Street Play Street, reversing the stance of the board's transportation committee.

The play street debuted in the summer of 2008, but up until this year, it's only been in effect on Sundays. Now the street will be free from traffic for the entire months of July and August.

The play street occupies the block of 78th between Northern Boulevard and 34th Avenue, functioning as an extension of the heavily-used Travers Playground, which many parents in the neighborhood say is overcrowded during hot summer months. "We've got to find creative ways to increase the green space in the neighborhood," said Dudley Stewart of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance. "We're second to last in city districts as far as green space is concerned." Jackson Heights residents have used the play street for activities from chalk painting and ball games to learning to ride a bike.

Extending the play street to last through the summer was one of the planks in Daniel Dromm's campaign for City Council last fall. "Without him, it would have been almost impossible to have this happen," said Stewart. Since taking office, Dromm has leafletted neighbors and commissioned a traffic study on the play street. The summer-long extension also enjoyed support from City Council Member Julissa Ferreras, Assembly Member Michael DenDekker, Senator Jose Peralta, and U.S. Congressman and Queens Democratic Party Chair Joe Crowley.

Even so, the transportation committee of Community Board 3 voted against extending the duration of the play street, claiming that it would bring crime and noise to the neighborhood after dark, eliminate parking spaces, and block emergency vehicle access. 

After that setback, local activists decided that they'd have to make a big push to convince the full board to overturn the committee's recommendation. Stewart told supporters to meet at Travers Park last Thursday before walking over to the board meeting. "I was expecting 30 people, 50 at the most," he said. "When 150 or 200 people arrived, it was just a wonderful spectacle." The crowd marched to the board meeting, chanting and singing the whole way. 

It was an unprecedented display of neighborhood activism, said Stewart, who is a community board member himself. "It's never happened," he said. "It's unheard of in this district."

The marchers, many of whom were children, spoke to the board, and their testimony, along with some revisions to the plan to allow emergency vehicle access, helped win a 27-9 vote in favor of the extended play street. The plan now requires a formal go-ahead from NYCDOT, which, along with the health department, has spoken strongly in favor of the plan. FDNY and NYPD have also endorsed the extended play street. 

What's next for the livable streets activists of Jackson Heights after this impressive victory? According to Stewart, open space remains the area's greatest need. If the summer-long play street is a success, he said, "We're going to try and work very hard to make it a permanent expansion to the park." Stewart also proposed looking for similar locations elsewhere in the neighborhood where summertime play streets could be put in place.