In our third pandemic summer, New York City’s streets — like everything else — remain in a sort of limbo. Traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels, and fatalities are even higher. Restaurateurs wait to see if their improvised sheds will fall afoul of new regulations. And on 34th Avenue in Queens, the Department of Transportation is installing new seating, bike lanes, and surface treatments in the first stretches of Paseo Park, as the Open Street, established as temporary, supplemental open space in the earliest months of the pandemic, becomes a permanent fixture. The Open Street program, supporting the creation of temporary pedestrian streets facilitated by neighborhood volunteers, had a bumpy initial rollout, and is still characterized by inequitable distribution across the city (lots in Manhattan, few in the Bronx). The state of New York City streets is perennially pathetic compared to cities across the globe, all the more reason why this repurposed Queens roadway — the city’s longest Open Street, running through an exceptionally dense and diverse district — has been the object of much adulation. For planners and pedestrian advocates, the street is a powerful success story. For residents, it has been a pathway to maintaining a semblance of financial security or mental health in exceptionally difficult times; brought a newfound sense of collectivity; or proved a colossal hassle. Jackson Heights resident and oral historian Bridget Bartolini has kept an eye on the streets’ progress from its earliest days. Below, she shares work from her 34th Avenue Oral History project, introducing us to five people whose lives have been deeply affected by the newly pedestrianized thoroughfare.
Every morning at 7 am, volunteers move barricades onto the two lanes of 34th Avenue, a residential — and formerly traffic-clogged — street framed by brick apartment buildings in Jackson Heights, Queens. Joggers, dog walkers, cyclists, and strollers with baby carriages stream in their wake. Stretching 26 blocks, or 1.3 miles, 34th Avenue is the longest Open Street in New York City and operates seven days a week, 13 hours a day, attracting people for baile folklorico lessons, Bingo and soccer games, gardening, and the occasional pop-up circus. Running through a neighborhood that ranks second-to-last in per-capita green space in the city, it has become a lifeline for many residents. “It’s a huge benefit to my family, our friends, and the neighborhood because there are so few parks,” said local artist Jonny Goldstein. “We see people we know on the street, so it helps us feel more connected. It gives us space to just live.”
The New York City Department of Transportation’s Stephanie Shaw praised 34th Avenue as the “gold standard” of the Open Streets program, which Mayor de Blasio and the New York City Council started at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic with the goal of creating more space for socially distanced recreation. The citywide program has met with varying degrees of success. Open Streets that lacked dedicated volunteers moving barricades at regular times didn’t attract people, or saw drivers move aside barricades and continue to use the street. But since its designation as an Open Street in May 2020, 34th Avenue has been going strong. Ryan Devlin, a professor in Columbia University’s Urban Planning Program whose class studied Open Streets throughout the city this past spring, said his students identified 34th Avenue as a lodestar. “It’s what every Open Street should be,” said Ryan. “Seeing the amount of community coming together and using these streets in various ways made me feel like this is why we do urban planning. This is the warm, fuzzy feeling you do this work for.”
I live a block and a half from 34th Avenue. When my neighborhood became the “epicenter of the epicenter” of the pandemic, and Governor Cuomo issued an executive order putting New York City on pause, my world suddenly shrank to the confines of my apartment. When Covid-19 cases went down in May 2020, I began venturing out to the newly created Open Street. I was fascinated by the signs of life I saw there: chalk art, pilates classes, dance rehearsals, music performances, children playing. I started interviewing neighbors, and those conversations grew into 34th Avenue Oral History, an ongoing project profiling people whose lives have been impacted by the Open Street.
Besides the expected exercise and socializing, I’ve seen this street become a space for community connection, a resource for mental relief, and, for some, a means of financial livelihood. I met neighbors like Alvaro Tautiva, who owns a martial arts studio and managed to keep his small business alive by holding classes on 34th Avenue while non-essential businesses were shuttered. I befriended Mickey Lin, who became a mother months before the pandemic lockdown, and found in the Open Street an escape from the four walls of her home and the daily pressures of parenthood. I interviewed Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo, a local activist who takes Open Streets as a blueprint for reimagining the post-pandemic city streetscape. But here community members’ visions of the ideal use of public space clash, with naysayers maintaining that the closed road exacerbates traffic and quality of life issues, particularly for elderly and disabled residents who rely on cars.
Perceptions of the Open Street range from a soothing balm, to a reason to get up in the morning, to an infuriating injustice. Open Streets have been the nonstop subject of vitriolic debate on social media and arguments at community board meetings for two years running. The City Council’s original plan for Open Streets stated it would last for the duration of “NY Pause.” While detractors complained to the DOT and community board, supporters of the 34th Avenue Open Street began campaigning to make it permanent. At a rally for permanence in October 2020 that was attended by community members and politicians, then-Brooklyn Councilmember Brad Lander declared, “The epicenter of the fight for open streets is right here in Jackson Heights.” Even for its fiercest opponents, 34th Avenue seems to be a connector, a means for building community. Groups have sprung up with active online presences, such as 34th Avenue Open Streets Compromise and 34OS Resisters United, and there’s been at least one anti-Open Street rally on the Open Street.
Joseph Heathcott, a Jackson Heights resident, urbanist, and professor at the New School, views the conflict as only natural. “Queens has always been a laboratory for multiple groups to figure out how to get along in complicated urban circumstances,” he said. “While figuring things out, people argue.” Joseph leads a “Queens is the Future” walking tour that examines how America will come to look more like Queens as it becomes an increasingly plural society. The catchphrase points to the borough’s status as the most diverse county in the entire US. And Jackson Heights, home to people of more than 70 nationalities, speaking 167 languages, is celebrated as the most diverse part of Queens. Having grown out of this dense, multiethnic, socioeconomically diverse neighborhood encompassing divergent ideas, the 34th Avenue Open Street is at the vanguard of a decades-long movement for streets that prioritize people rather than cars. A new chapter in the evolution of city streets is unfolding here.
Perhaps the most vocal and visible of all 34th Avenue Open Street proponents, Jim Burke is on the street nearly every day, organizing games and races for children. His partner, Oscar Escobar, often brings sapo, a traditional South American game where players attempt to toss coins into the mouth of a frog, and Jim officiates tournaments. The metal coins tend to bounce off the sides of the game board, ricocheting on the asphalt, and Jim and the children shimmy under cars to retrieve the game pieces.
The volunteer chair for Queens Transportation Alternatives, Jim has a long history of advocating for safe streets and public transportation. He brought that experience to bear when he co-founded the 34th Ave Open Streets Coalition, along with his neighbor Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo, a long-time community organizer and activist around street and school safety. When Jim and Nuala learned that the New York Police Department was seeking a community partner to take over daily management of the Open Street, and the local Business Improvement District didn’t have the manpower to take it on, they called a dozen local groups they’d worked with and wrangled up volunteers, forming the Coalition. Jackson Heights was the first neighborhood to form a community group to care for an Open Street. Coalition volunteers put in place the barricades, clean the avenue and organize free programming for the community, from Zumba classes to art-making workshops to kids’ races to English as a Second Language classes. The Coalition — and the organizing know-how and connections that Jim and Nuala bring to it — is the key to the 34th Avenue Open Street’s success. Jim quickly became the Coalition’s spokesperson, the go-to consultant for city officials and media seeking soundbites.
Before 2020, Jim’s time in Jackson Heights mostly consisted of walking from his apartment to the bus or the train station; he rarely interacted with neighbors. Now, he can’t step outside without running into friends. “I’ve met more people in this last year than in the prior two decades that I’ve lived here,” he said in a November 2020 interview. “All of a sudden, this whole world opens up and you’re like, ‘Wait, I know you.’ You’ve hung out with them. You’ve done exercise class with them. You’ve practiced English with them. You’ve jump roped with their kids, played sapo with them. And it’s really a much nicer place to live now.” The newfound sense of community connection brings him joy.
He’s especially popular with kids. After an afternoon of games, as one little boy buckled his helmet for the bike ride home, he squealed, “Jimmy! We’re gonna come again next week!” “You have to do your homework so we can play again!” laughed Jim.
He imagines a future with a connected web of Open Streets. “We want an interconnected network, so that theoretically you could hop on your bike, your skateboard, push the wheelchair, go for a walk through all of New York City and stick to an Open Street network, never having to worry about violence from cars,” Jim said. “That would be the dream.”
Janet Bravo and her husband Miguel used to commute daily from Jackson Heights to 125th Street in Harlem, where they sold breakfast from a cart during the morning rush. When the pandemic reached New York, the few people still using the long-established transportation hub of 125th Street were hurrying by with masks on, not stopping for coffee. Within days, even the garage where they stored their food truck closed. Janet and her family spent the next four months in fear of coronavirus, only leaving their apartment for essentials like groceries. They had no income, and eventually found themselves unable to pay rent. “Every day was scary,” Janet said. “Oh my God, the stress. We had no money, and the rent doesn’t stop.”
But while 125th Street fell silent, 34th Avenue came to life. Janet’s apartment overlooks the Open Street, and she saw people jogging past her windows. When she got an eviction notice, she knew she had to bring in rent money. Realizing those joggers would get thirsty, she saw an opportunity. She had Miguel stock up on bottles of Gatorade and water from Costco, repurposed the shopping cart she used for laundry to hold a cooler, and set up a table on the median of 34th Avenue, directly across from her apartment.
At first, she sold bottled drinks for a dollar. Then she started cooking. Using recipes she learned from her mother in Mexico, she prepared flautas with shredded chicken and homemade salsa verde, fried wheel-shaped wheat crisps for chicharrones, and mixed rice, milk, cinnamon and sugar for arroz con leche. In the first several months, she sold an average of 25 flautas a day, making anywhere from $30 on a bad day to $60 on a good one. She earned far less than she had in Manhattan, where she had a steady stream of customers. Nevertheless, she prefers the life of an entrepreneur. “Here’s better, because it’s mine. It’s not for somebody else. It’s something for us, our family,” she said. “People like my arroz con leche, and that makes me happy.”
Miguel had returned to work in Harlem, but in 2021 decided to set up their food cart on the corner of 34th and 90th Street instead. Janet and Miguel sell standard breakfast fare six days a week, opening at 6:30 am. They’ve become a reliable presence with regular customers, and now bring in more money than they did before the pandemic. They like working close to home, and love that they get to spend more time with their children, who come by the cart on their way home from school. The couple hope to have a brick-and-mortar store someday.
When Manuela Agudelo’s grandfather, Sabino, passed away in November 2020, she and her family were bereft. As they grieved together in their small apartment, her mother Gilma shared one of her favorite memories: her protective father never allowed his own children to roller skate, and when his grandchildren went skating, Sabino taped pillows around them to keep them safe. Now Gilma wanted to try the previously forbidden activity. Manuela ordered yellow roller skates with sparkly pink wheels, and they headed to the Open Street. Mother and daughter found healing through skating.
Roller skating on 34th Avenue became a mental health ritual that has helped Manuela cope with loss. “It’s really been an exciting addition to my life, and a really healthy thing for my mind and my body,” said Manuela, a dancer, choreographer, model and founder of the arts collective Kaleidospace. Looking up and seeing the sky and the trees while soaring down the street brings her a sense of peace. She notices how the sun hits buildings. She smiles at neighbors. She stops and pets dogs. She imagines her grandpa with her.
Growing up in Jackson Heights, Manuela lacked access to outdoor space. As a child, she played in Travers Park, the one neighborhood park, but it was always crowded. Although Jackson Heights is known as a garden district, the gardens are mostly in interior courtyards of stately co-op buildings, enclosed by locked gates. “I’ve never experienced being inside of them,” Manuela said. “I feel like the Open Street removed that gatekeeping, removed that barrier. It allows me to enjoy space that more affluent members of Jackson Heights already have access to.”
Before, she used to worry about safety while passing through 34th Avenue. “I’d always be very on edge and afraid there was going to be some man bothering me,” she said. Now she purposely alters her route to take 34th. “It’s felt like an incredible relief to walk through the Open Street instead of just the regular street, because now there’s always a family that I can count on that’s looking out for me, or I can count on someone jogging or someone being around that makes me feel safer.”
Manuela does worry about what impacts the Open Street may have going forward. “One of my fears is that it will become such a hot, fancy thing that it ends up gentrifying the space,” she said. She appreciates that it’s accessible to all economic backgrounds, especially lower income families who have limited living space. But she worries that it may attract more people to the neighborhood, drive up rent, and eventually displace those families that it currently serves.
For now, these concerns don’t outweigh her enthusiasm for the metamorphosis of 34th Avenue. “Before it was a piece of concrete,” Manuela said. “Now it’s a really special place. The Open Street transformed this concrete into a community center.”
Esthi Zipori used to drive armored trucks on the Philadelphia route between Egypt and Israel during compulsory service in the Israeli military; she loved driving fast cars. But her perspective changed as she learned about climate change and the realities of car use. Today, she’s a doctoral candidate and adjunct instructor at New Jersey Institute of Technology, where she researches urban streets and sustainable mobility. “I’ve studied the car system now for six years, and it is terrifying. The roadway is a scary, scary place,” she said. “When you look at the numbers of fatalities and injuries, it’s just a menace.” Captivated by the idea of post-automobility, a future where people don’t rely on automobiles, Esthi decided to sell her car in 2015. She has self-identified as a “car-free human” ever since. Naturally, she was delighted to see 34th Avenue become an Open Street.
Esthi sees 34th Avenue not only through the lens of an academic, but as a street vendor. Her husband Mark Blinder was between jobs when the pandemic hit, and during the ensuing hiring freeze his H-1B visa, which allowed him to practice his profession as a social worker, expired. He began cooking more and toyed with the idea of selling food. They live around the corner from 34th Avenue, and when it became an Open Street, they decided to give it a shot. Seeing how even in Jackson Heights, a known destination for authentic international cuisine, there weren’t many Israeli offerings, they realized they could fill a void for Israeli, Soviet and Middle Eastern food. Sandwich Therapy was born.
While many vendors in the area sell at high volume and low prices, Sandwich Therapy offers pricier, but more substantial meals, like hearty sabich sandwiches with fried eggplant; chakhokhbili, a Georgian chicken stew; and borscht soup. “We love the food we make,” Esthi said. “We eat all the leftovers.”
On weekends, Mark cooks and Esthi sells at their station on 34th Avenue in front of Travers Park. In quiet moments, she reads, grades her students’ assignments, and observes her surroundings. “Being on the Open Street and seeing the fun and good things it gives people, it’s done wonders for my mental wellbeing,” she said.
Esthi feels pessimistic about the climate crisis and the future of the planet, but Open Streets present a ray of hope. By making urban streets easier to walk and bike, we can shift away from personal car usage and transition towards a more sustainable society. “34th Avenue is proof of how much urban space influences our individual and personal lives, and how we can bring joy and happiness with only minor changes,” Esthi said. “Can you imagine how amazing it would be if we didn’t just settle for the minor changes?”
Ricardo Pacheco has a morning ritual: he drives his granddaughter to school in Bayside, comes back to Jackson Heights, gets breakfast from Janet’s food truck (“the BLTs are out of this world”), and hangs out on the corner of 34th Avenue and 90th Street, observing the Open Street.
“Cops tend to see things other people don’t,” said Ricardo, a retired police officer who, after serving 26 years in the NYPD, has developed a habit of observing, identifying and fixing problems. “The other day I saw a scooter speed down here and almost hit a woman.” He notices the dangerous situations created when people violate traffic laws on the Open Street, but mostly he’s hanging out and talking to neighbors.
Since retiring in 2016, he’s devoted time to his three grandchildren and to community service, which keeps him busier than ever. Currently he’s president of his co-op board, which represents 360 units; president of the advisory board for the nonprofit Selfhelp’s local Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC), which provides services to seniors that help them age in their own homes; and president of the Jackson Heights Coops Alliance, where he represents community members who are less than thrilled with the Open Street — people he says are not being heard.
“I didn’t ask to live in a gated community,” Ricardo said. “The closing of 26 city blocks will undoubtedly bring about a gated community for the privileged few.”
Ricardo says the DOT failed to reach out to the co-ops on the eastern end of 34th Avenue when making decisions about the Open Street. “Apparently from 86th Street and up, we don’t matter,” he said, citing the disparity between the wealthier western side of Jackson Heights and more working-class eastern side. Ricardo’s friend Karen Taylor, Director of the NORC that serves over 1,500 seniors in these co-ops, said that although the DOT conducted outreach, their communications were ineffective — taking place online exclusively, they left out older adults without email addresses, who didn’t know to check the DOT’s website. The NORC’s senior community was very civically engaged and regularly attended in-person meetings pre-pandemic, Karen said, but in the spring of 2020, when the Open Street was initiated, there was no communication via the channels where they usually received information.
Ricardo feels the DOT should have reached out to co-ops and building management companies, put up flyers, and administered a paper survey in addition to the online survey. He’s frustrated with the DOT and local politicians. “We tried to talk to them about Open Streets and see if we could have a seat at the table and be included, as opposed to being ignored, and we hit walls,” he said. “You changed my quality of life, you changed the way things were when I moved here, and yet you never asked me.”
He stresses that the concept of Open Streets is good, but that the way it’s being managed isn’t working. He thinks it would be better on a commercial rather than a residential street, operating for less hours. He does see good things on 34th Avenue, like the occasional mariachi and dance performances. “It’s just that there’s a time and a place for everything. And 26 blocks, seven days a week, 13 hours a day with barriers and barricades is not the answer.”
In October 2021, Ricardo, along with other co-op presidents, was moved to create a formal group to advocate for the buildings’ concerns. They formed the Jackson Heights Coops Alliance, incorporating as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. “We will address our concerns when it comes to Open Streets and why it is that we don’t like it as is,” Ricardo said.
One June morning in 2022, he greeted Janet, got coffee, then leaned against a railing on the corner, settling in to observe. Just then, a FedEx truck parked next to a barricade, obstructing the crosswalk and creating a blind spot. The delivery man began piling boxes onto the crosswalk, loaded them on a dolly and carted them down 34th Avenue. “This is what we’re talking about,” Ricardo said, gesturing to the truck and to an older man slowly maneuvering around it to cross the street. “That senior is going behind the truck with his walker, and if a scooter comes, he can’t see it,” he sighed. “They didn’t plan this through.”