Which Came First: Broken Barriers or Community Loss of Interest in Sharing the Public Square?

One of the things that helped those of us who live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side feel less isolated during our COVID-19 scourge was the nightly 7pm salute to our health care and other essential workers. We opened our windows, banged on pots and pans, rang cowbells and were serenaded by neighborhood out-of-work opera or broadway musical performers.

When the lockdown was officially lifted, the Open Streets initiative replaced that nightly bonding experience. Through traffic was banned on West End Avenue from 86th to 96th Street, creating space for kids to ride bikes and scooters, adults to power walk with or without dogs, neighbors to sit in socially distanced lawn chairs enjoying cocktails. I say was, because this week the New York City Department of Transportation stopped the program without warning, sparking a war of words in the local online newspaper, The West Side Rag.

Some wrote “good riddance” as they bemoaned the inconvenience or challenged the usefulness of creating a pedestrian friendly zone on a sometimes busy north/south artery. Others pointed out that usage had fallen once the city entered Phase Four. Yet others used the controversy to air their grievances about lack of enforcement of the five mile per hour speed limit, or blamed Mayor DeBlasio for, I don’t know, everything.

Debate raged over whether the traffic that barreled down the street, especially at rush hour, was responsible for the diminished pedestrian use, or whether since there were so few users, it was ridiculous to extend the program any longer. A classic chicken and egg dilemma!

I will miss seeing so many families of so many ethnicities and life stages enjoying the street as colder temperatures and earlier darkness force us all back into our apartment buildings. I wonder whether the pregnant woman and her husband whom I saw walking their dog every early evening had a boy or a girl. Did the little red haired girl learn to ride her bicycle without Dad holding on to the rear fender whilst juggling his Starbucks? And how is that elderly couple doing — the one dutifully shuffling down the street every morning with their matching walkers?

Even my dog Dev is a tad morose about the change. He is now resigned to leaving his mark on fire hydrants only. His greatest daily joy was walking the ten blocks south and back weaving from east to west in order to pee on every police barrier. Most of them, designed to enforce the 8am to 8pm local traffic only rule, have been run into, knocked down, splintered:

November 15, 2020

I’m of the school that believes that lack of traffic enforcement once we entered Phase Four made reduced safety the reason so few people were willing to risk life and limb, especially in the hours between five and seven — also known as rush hour — when young families took most advantage of the street. Add in daylight savings time and I suppose it makes sense to terminate the program. But it would have been nice to have some notice!

For a brief moment in time the Open Street program was a magical space free of the fear of being run down by people with no sense of the way that their entitlement impacted others. I’m afraid it might be a long time before West End Avenue, a microcosm of the larger public square, again feels similarly hospitable.

All of this feels too much like the micro version of our national squabbles. What are we prioritizing: socially distanced community use of public space or increased mobility? Is it possible to mandate a five mile speed limit for ten blocks of “local only” traffic without government enforcement, let alone a nationwide mask mandate?

If Upper West Siders, (who voted overwhelmingly for Biden-Harris) can’t agree on the desirability of the Open Streets program or the reasons for its end, how can a civil (not to mention nuanced) conversation happen across the country about foregoing holiday celebrations that risk becoming super spreaders? Whose freedom to do whatever they want trumps others’ rights to freedom from potential harm?

Just as so many drivers sped down my avenue, threatening innocent pedestrians, clipping police barriers and putting their own interests ahead of those of a ten-block community on a historically protected boulevard, the drivers of our national schisms are crashing into the barriers protecting the public’s right to truth and personal safety on Facebook, Twitter and other social media superhighways.

Communities work best with clear boundaries, speed limits and accessibility for all: young and old; right, left, center, unengaged; black, brown, white, whatever; straight, gay, bi, trans; this or that religion or lack of one. If it’s hard to make permanent a safe community space in a ten block stretch of Manhattan, how difficult is it across a continent?

The social contract requires care and feeding every day in every way. It’s the little things that matter, like wearing a mask, saying please and thank you, acknowledging the humanity of strangers. It’s harder to exercise this muscle in a time not just of political polarization but of COVID. We need not just Open Streets, but open hearts and open minds. I’m working on it.

12 thoughts on “Which Came First: Broken Barriers or Community Loss of Interest in Sharing the Public Square?”

  1. Open hearts and minds- yes, unfortunately a tall order right now. I just read a poignant piece about a nurse in, I think, South Dakota who leaves the hospital thinking of the people who die of Covid19 refusing to believe that is why they are dying. They insist it must be pneumonia or the flu or even lung cancer as the ventilator fails to save them. If sticking to your literal guns on your death bed is more important than the reality, we clearly have a long way to go. Deep breaths, and step by step, making open space as we go.Thanks for working on it.

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    1. I read that too. Goodness the toll of disinformation and polarization is high. Obama’s recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic talks about the negative impact of silos of information. Worth the read.

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  2. Sadly, human nature in the 21st century sends people grasping for whatever they can get. As a small town guy, I’m all for slowing down and and making our open spaces *open*. DC used to (and still may) close down a major artery in and out of the city every weekend–rock creek parkway–for people to recreate. I always saw it as proof of humanity. It’s funny that we now look back on aspects of the lockdown with fondness.

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    1. Well, perhaps we will get to revisit lockdown! I’m not looking forward to that, but at the same time life is very constricted regardless due to social distancing, but without the ritual release of our nightly tribute. I have mixed feelings on so many levels, because it is also lovely to see people going about their business here, with the occasional random conversation occurring.

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  3. I have no answer to this conundrum. I moved out of the city (San Diego) in 2003 and I haven’t had any urge to return to any urban center. I think it’s very hard; people are (it seems) naturally competitive, often feel like someone else is taking something from them. Still, my hometown of Denver managed back in the 70s to close off the busiest downtown street to automobiles. It was a great move that got mixed reviews at the time. I think your appeal to the “social contract” is on point but it seems that has kind of fallen by the wayside in places where people are jockeying for space. Here, where there are so few people, it’s alive and well. Our community depends on, well, community. The back of beyond in Colorado isn’t an easy place to spend a winter.

    One thing all the craziness of the past several years has taught me just how many cultures there are in this nation and they really don’t understand each other. Their assumptions of “normal” are just so incredibly different. 😦

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    1. I’ve often commented to friends who can’t imagine living in NYC that here folks know how to cooperate, because we have to. Moving aside on the sidewalk, moving to the center of the subway car rather than just standing by the door obliviously, picking up after our dogs, etc. etc. You can always tell out oft owners by their failure to recognize that they are fish in a school, and need to swim with everyone else not at their own whim. So it is so complicated!! I think the worst is the suburbs. People living in places like yours or mine need cooperation, but gated communities of vehicle dependent folks don’t, and it shows. Just my take, having lived in all three environments at one point or another.

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      1. You have hit the nail on the head. I lived in downtown Denver for years and that’s what I found there. I loved it. San Diego, too, was very livable just for these reasons. Guangzhou, yes, people knew how to be with crowds of people. It was great. I think your point about vehicle dependent folks is exactly it. Those people are islands unto themselves.

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  4. I love any time a street is closed and people rush out to fill it. I guess most of us share a dislike of streets–until we want to drive on one! Therein lies the contradiction of human beings I guess.

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