A NYC Dept. of Transportation illustration to promote NYC Open Streets.

Residents call for more outdoor public spaces

For many Hunts Point locals, the Boogie Down Grind Café is one of the community’s most important gathering points. But during the pandemic, the cozy venue lacked space for a socially distant community-wide gathering.

“This is ultimately the only space in our neighborhood we can gather together because otherwise, we have to abide by certain regulations at a time where we weren’t allowed to congregate and barbecue together,” said OJ Reid, a community organizer and event coordinator.

So when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the NYC Open Streets program in March 2020 to allow residents to use the city streets as recreational spaces, it was welcome news for many residents who were feeling claustrophic under pandemic guidelines.

But recently released data shows that although outdoor dining became important to Hunts Point as parades and tournaments ended, the community was largely left out of the planning for Open Streets.  The barricades and signs used to block roadways during certain times during the week never materialized.

Open Streets in the Bronx cover less than a mile and number only 15 street segments,  compared to the 121 in Manhattan, according to a report by transit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. Hunts Point has no Open Streets.

To reach an Open Street to play ball with their kids or set out lawn chairs to chat, Hunts Point residents have to travel to Foxhurst, Morrisania or Mott Haven.  Among four Open Streets in Mott Haven, the closest is 2.1 miles from the center of Hunts Point.

“I can go here and there, but there’s a lot of people who cannot or will not leave the area and they shouldn’t have to,” said Reid, a Hunts Point resident of 15 years.

Initially, the city Department of Transportation, which runs the Open Streets program, chose the streets that would be part of the program. Later, applications were accepted. Currently, the application process is closed and only public, charter or private schools are able to apply.

Paulino Perez Del Rosario and Digna Perez, who live in Hunts Point with their two children, said there should be more spaces for children to play in their neighborhood. “That way the children have their minds on positive things in their youth; so they’re not on the streets and not causing problems,” Perez said.   

Other community members agreed that having outside areas was important for children to have a place aside from their homes to interact with each other while being socially distanced.

“They’re the ones growing up. We’re already grown,” said Jasmine Ponder, a Hunts Point resident of 5 years.

Eight parks under the jurisdiction of the city are in Hunts Point, according to the city Department of Park and Recreation website. Ninety-seven percent of residents live within walking distance of a park or open space in Community Board 2, which includes Hunts Point and Longwood, according to New York City’s Department of City Planning.

Reid visited the Open Streets on Alexander Avenue in Mott Haven/Port Morris and saw people dancing and playing music. In other NYC communities, Open Streets were used as opportunities for businesses to take their services to the streets for residents. The data found by Transportation Alternatives highlighted that that some communities had more funding for programs through fundraising efforts. Park Slope fundraised almost $32,000 for staffing, barricades, signage, and insurance.

While some residents want at least a few Open Streets in Hunts Point, Mychal Johnson, the co-founder of South Bronx Unite, said that the initiative is not enough, and that green spaces were more beneficial, especially in the South Bronx where they are relatively sparse.

“I think we need more access to recreational opportunities in open green space,” Johnson said. “We just did a heat island index research project back in a heat wave in the summer here in Mott Haven and Port Morris, and know that heat, after it reflects off the asphalt, it multiplies. It’s exponentially hotter.”

De Blasio signed a bill in May that made the Open Streets program permanent in the city. The mayor also announced that $4 million will be put into community support for the program for next year.

The Department of Transportation, the Bronx borough president and Community Board 2 could not be reached to comment on whether there might still be an opportunity to add Hunts Point to the Open Streets program.

As the weather gets colder and outdoor dining is less favored, Reid predicted that her neighbors in Hunts Point will simply head back inside the Boogie Down Grind Café to enjoy an open mic night, a live comedy show or any other event.

https://www.motthavenherald.com/2017/02/20/0426/ https://motthavenherald.com/2017/10/23/20210408/