There Will Be More Dancing In The Streets

I saw an article on CityLab about some pretty successful Open Streets efforts that rose up during Covid.  If you aren’t familiar with the concept, Open Streets is a national effort to temporarily close streets down to traffic to allow for community use of the space.

Where I live, a local organization works to shut streets down a couple times a year in different neighborhoods around the city. Part of the local effort has been to perform different projects which help make the streets safer by making drivers slow down and become more aware of pedestrians.

I was surprised to read in the CityLab piece that one group successfully managed to shut down a 30 block span of a street in NYC for 12 hours every. single. day.  While technically that is a temporary shut down of the street, it is increasingly becoming a permanent feature.

Programming was paramount. Practically each day, there is something going on in the street. Salsa and the Colombian coin toss game of sapo on Tuesdays. Family bike rides on Friday. The avenue even has its own newsletter. “If you don’t activate the street, people won’t feel comfortable using it,” said Burke.

Alejandra Lopez, a local resident, had stopped by last week for a bike helmet, but they were all out. Instead, she found out about the English classes that are also held on the avenue, which brought her back today. The Open Street reminded Lopez of her hometown, Bogotá, and its famous weekly Ciclovía. “This is like the evolution of that,” she said, carrying a new helmet in one hand.

The daily effort is driven by 100 volunteers and is mostly funded by donations. Some of the people who teach the language and dance classes are paid a stipend, but most all the work is done by volunteers. The vision, however, is to turn it into a work training program.

The program could provide summer jobs for teens, or re-entry training for formerly incarcerated people, with transferable carpentry and landscaping skills. (Burke called for crossing guards to be hired from nearby communities.) To Maerowitz, the Open Street could be more than just a space to spread out: It could be a site where one’s community is strengthened.

“We can give neighbors ownership of the street through work,” she said.

The article talks about some of the issues and tensions that have emerged in different Open Streets projects around the country. There is always push back and anger from some drivers at having streets shutdown, but organizers have discovered some socio-economic forces at work as well. There has been criticism that Open Streets projects are often sited in wealthier neighborhoods, but some have observed that there is often resistance in poorer neighborhoods based in skepticism about broken promises of the past as well as lack of consultation and communication with residents.

Last year, the launch of Oakland’s Slow Streets program faced a barrage of criticism over lack of community input, with Black and low-income residents expressing far less enthusiasm for the traffic restrictions.

[…]

…in poorer areas, they hit resistance, highlighting disparities ingrained in traffic violence. If a neighbor in a marginalized community grumbles at a program meant to enhance safety, and the response is to scrap instead of fix, something else may be at play there.

“When you apply the layer of historical trauma that communities of color have experienced, it’s a reaction formation,” Logan said. “I’ve been so hurt from you that it’s easier to push you away than to collaborate and figure out a solution. The last time we talked about promises, you broke that.”

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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