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:
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.