Difference Makers: Open Streets program helps Queens neighbors find new sense of community amid pandemic

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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — New York City has closed some of its streets to cars during the pandemic, and some people in one neighborhood have really taken advantage of it.

If you head over to Jackson Heights, you’ll find that you’re unable to drive down 34th Avenue, and on a typical day, it’s packed with pedestrians.

“We’ve opened the street! And when I say open, I mean we’ve closed it to cars, and let the people take over,” says Nuala O’Doherty Naranjo.

She’s often called the “Mayor of 34th Avenue,” because of how she has been able to coordinate activities for the block during the city’s Open Streets program.

While the city has plans to close 100 miles of streets for pedestrian use amid the ongoing pandemic, few blocks operate like the 1.3 miles down Naranjo’s block.

“It’s a 100% volunteer program, in which the neighbors have come together to create an open space,” she explains.

When the street is closed to cars from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., there are English as a Second Language classes, Salsa lessons, kick-boxing classes, or just a place to hang out.

Residents in the area say it’s nice to have the open space close to home, in an area hard hit by the pandemic. According to statistics, 1 in 22 people had the virus in the neighborhood and 260 residents have died.

Because of the continued pandemic, it’s been difficult for many to travel far from home, which makes the open street a real treat.

“Now, everyone can just walk out the door, and have a park at their fingertips,” says Jim Burke, one of the volunteers. “We really fought hard as a community to get this street opened. And then we got a tiny, little piece and it was not enough. We wanted a really long street to make it meaningful, because an open street of a block or two is not helpful when you are trying to maintain social distancing, when you need space to walk.”

Eric Cabret, a lifelong Queens resident, says he hasn’t ever seen anything like it.

“It brought a lot of neighbors together. People you’d see for years and never say two words to and then you got to know these people on a first name basis.”

Of course, not everyone is thrilled.

Many motorists say the Open Streets program has made it too difficult to navigate the already cramped city.

“As a driver, I think it causes traffic. A lot,” says Natalia Goodvalley. “Around rush hour, like around five o’ clock, it’s horrible. And then again around like in the morning, around 8 a.m., it gets pretty bad as well.”

The block being closed to cars pushes vehicles to other streets in the already crowded neighborhood.

But even Goodvalley says she sees the positives of the Open Streets program.

Now, organizers like Naranjo and Burke are pushing to keep it open permanently and increase the number of blocks that are closed to cars.