Open These Streets

By Candace Pedraza
Voice (in order of appearance)
Laura Shepard, Queens organizer for Transportation Alternatives
Candace Pedraza, narrator and producer
Jim Burke, director of 34th Avenue Open Streets coalition
Julie Huntington, member of Families for Safe Streets in Queens

[Laura: 0:00]
[upbeat, adventurous music fades in]

The fact that you can sit on this median, like we are right now, was just such an important feature that really contributed to the success and made it really accessible. For people of all ages and abilities for seniors to have a place to sit, for parents watching their kids. For eating and drinking.

You’re in the middle of the street and you’re almost like, well, I didn’t realize this was so big.

[Candace: 0:25]: Exactly. That’s how I feel.

[Laura: 0:29]: I don’t even think about how much asphalt, how much real estate we’re –

[Candace: 0:34]: I’m sitting down, in the middle of the road on 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, with Laura Shepard. She’s telling me about what this open street means to residents, and how they can make you feel as a pedestrian safe from cars.

Open Streets started up as a solution to the isolation New Yorkers felt due to the pandemic’s shutdowns. It does what the name implies – opens streets up to pedestrians, bikers, kids. Anyone who wants to experience being in the middle of the road, free of cars.

[Laura: 1:02] There’s so much more…dedicated bus lanes –

[Candace/Narrator: 1:06]: Right. Yeah.

[Laura: 1:07] And so, I mean, the idea is to, you know, to reclaim more space. No one is necessarily advocating for a hundred percent car ban streets tomorrow –

[Candace/Narrator: 1:20]: *laughs* Right.

[Laura: 1:22] But that’s the direction that we need to move in given that we have a safety crisis, with traffic violence increasing as SUV’s get bigger and more deadly, the climate crisis, this is just not sustainable. And also just public health and quality of life improve as people are able to spend more time walking and biking and enjoying their neighborhoods, visiting local businesses, yeah.

And every other street it’s free-flowing car traffic. And this is a densely populated neighborhood and, I mean, even the number of households that own cars is a minority in the neighborhood, they just happen to take up a disproportionate amount of space.

[Jim Burke: 2:20] So one of the wonderful things about the open street is you can do all the things that are sometimes restricted and a lot of those things you can find, right, so you can play ball, you can jump rope, you can, you can re you can race, you can run –

[Candace: 2:32]: And that’s Jim Burke – someone that folks who spoke to me described as the mayor of 34th Avenue’s Open Streets program.

Jim and Laura volunteer to spread the word about the benefits of Open Streets – Jim on the practical end of things, and Laura helping out with demonstrations and proposals of legislation as a member of Transportation Alternatives, an activist group aiming to make streets safer for pedestrians.

[Jim Burke: 2:57]: And more dangerous to pedestrians is when that kind of flipped. But when I was growing up in the Bronx, we played in the street, you know? All year round. But particularly…

[upbeat music fades out]
[Julie Huntington: 3:11] Yeah. I mean, I love the open streets project. I think that these provide really great spaces for community to gather. And in a lot of places that are underserved by, you know, available green space or parks –

[Candace: 3:26]: Julie Huntington, who lives in Astoria, is singing 34th Avenue Open Streets’ praises to me, speaking about the importance of it not only to the community, but to her personally.

[Julie: 3:37] It just feels like such a magical place. Every time I go, you know, I leave with a smile on my face. I danced in a fire hydrant on the open street this summer with my students. So that was, that was pretty fun. But there were other other locations. So I’ve been to the, there’s a 31st avenue Open Street.

So it was pretty…it’s funny. I actually just wrote, I’m working on writing this up as a memoir project. It’s, it’s taking a long time, cause it’s, it’s hard to write. But I wrote, I wrote a chapter about the day, the day that I got that phone call. But I know the day before, there was, there’d actually been a large demonstration, because there had been a large number of cyclists who had been killed in New York City that year.

[Candace: 4:33]: Julie’s telling me about a demonstration from 2019. Just in the first three months of 2022, 59 people died in New York City due to being hit by cars.

[Julie: 4:44]: So there was an event that took place at Washington Square Park. And it was a large protest. It was actually called a die in protest where everyone lays down and, you know, is protesting because the conditions on the streets had become so deadly for cyclists, and it really felt like there wasn’t a lot happening to protect cyclists.

So I had been to that event, and I, you know, and I didn’t even talk to my Dad about the event, like my Dad and I talked on the phone a lot. He was always very supportive of me
and my advocacy. I mean, he always supported me in whatever I did. I mean, he was really, he was really great in that way. But I do remember having a conversation and I remember that he was, he was worried about me and he always said, you know, be careful, you know, when you’re going to the demonstration, be careful when you’re riding your bike.

[somber music fades in]

You know, and I was the one that was reassuring him, you know, that I was going to be okay. It doesn’t feel real. I know that morning was the morning they had the ticker tape parade for the women in New York City after their World Cup victory, I watched the parade on TV. And there was a moment of pride and joy just seeing these super star athletes being celebrated.

I went into the office to do some work, and then I rushed back, I had a farm share volunteer shift so I was working the fruit stand that day. And you know, it was while I was there that I got the call from my mom. It was just…it was a Wednesday…

[somber music]

[Candace: 6:55]: Julie’s dad, Kim, died after being struck by a car in Ohio. It was only a day or so after she was at a protest to bring awareness to that same danger.

It’s why she’s a part of Families for Safe Streets. Jim Burke told me that you have to have lost someone to a car accident to be initiated into the group, but you can also be a caregiver or victim to an accident yourself.

The organization works alongside Transportation Alternatives to bring awareness to the current dangers surrounding cars in the city, and how pedestrians are victim to dangerous drivers across the boroughs.

[somber music fades out]

[Julie: 7:36] Yeah, well, I mean, I had known that they existed because, you know, because they’re affiliated with Families for Safe Streets. And, um, I had actually, you know, been to some of the events, like the World Day of Remembrance in solidarity before. So, you know, I knew that they would be someone that I could reach out to, um, when I was ready.

I think I ended up connecting with them when I made it back to New York City. So, when everything happened, I just threw everything into a bag, because I knew that my Mom, my Mom has MS, and my Dad was her primary caregiver. So I really needed to, I knew I needed to go and spend time with my Mom and, you know, make a plan with her.

[Julie: 8:30] So because it happened over the summer, I was working from home, so I put everything in a bag. You know, my, I have a very supportive partner. You know, he was on board with the decision. But you know, when I went to go help prepare for the funeral, you know, I knew I was going to be staying there for as long as I needed to be there.

And it turned out, I mean, I think that’s something that people don’t think about. There’s already, when you lose someone, you know, there are so many things that need to be done, after death. And I, you know, when that death is something that’s a sudden violent death, there are a lot more steps involved.

[Candace: 9:24]: Advocates in New York City who’ve been personally affected by car accidents like Julie are continuing to try and make Open Streets permanent throughout the city. 34th Avenue is actually slated to become permanent, with a preliminary budget from the Mayor’s office showing money to be dedicated to the Jackson Heights program.

[Laura: 9:41] Um, and for the amount of programming, what they do for the kids in this neighborhood, it can show there’s, you know, jump roping and hula hooping, all kinds of crafts. Different cultural celebrations. There’s also for adults there’s salsa dancing, Zoomba, um, their language circles to help people practice their skills for, uh, commuters and working cyclists.

This is a safe route to work for all the kids. Obviously it’s safer to get to school. Yeah. It’s a model that can be gradually improved upon and replicated in neighborhoods everywhere.

[Candace: 10:26]: For Julie, the best way for her to keep the memory of her father alive, aside from her activism, is keeping up with her running. She’s an avid one, and she plans on dedicating her next race to Kim.

[Julie: 10:38] I know that my dad, again, he always supported the work that I did. You know, when he would come to visit in New York City, we had a lot of really wonderful walks together.

I know part of my half marathon course, I’m going to be dedicating different parts of the race to, to different people. Of course the whole race is in memory of my dad for me, but, there’s one part of the race course, which has that stretch, where they have the Brooklyn Bridge promenade now. And I remember before that was completed, you know, my dad and I did that, that epic walk from Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge.

And then got some pizza in Brooklyn and then went back over the Manhattan Bridge together. And so I know, even though he didn’t have the chance to enjoy, you know, what, what is really developing as the open streets spaces, you know, I know, I know that he would have really enjoyed having the chance to, to visit them.

I can, I can hear him saying, in his, he would say ‘this is really neat,’ you know, I could see him, I could see him saying that, like I could see him visiting the place. And, he was really, my dad was such a people person. I think, you know, he really could strike up a conversation. With anyone.

[Fade out somber music]